Teaching Environmental Inequality: Boat Tour of the Anacostia River

This is the third post in a series about the Environmental Inequality class I finished teaching earlier this month. The first post shared the syllabus and class project, and the second described how I’ve used the documentary Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek. This post describes the first of two field trips we took – a boat tour of the Anacostia River.

Who: Our tour-guide was Jim Foster, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. We were also joined by the person who organized the trip for us, Tony Thomas, the Education Coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum and board member of the Anacostia Watershed Society. A few other faculty joined in for the fun, as did one of our class research project partners from Empower DC, one of the residents whom the students would later interview for the class project, and the executive director of Energy Justice Network.

What/Where: The tour began and ended in the Bladensburg waterfront park in Maryland. We got on one of the Anacostia Watershed Society’s boats and drove slowly up the river into Washington D.C. and back. The first half of the tour was largely spent listening to Jim Foster describe what we were seeing as we went. On the return trip conversation broke into smaller groups and the students enjoyed just being out on the water. After the tour, Tony Thomas took a smaller group of us to see two trash-traps that divert trash from the river.

When: We took the trip about a third of the way into the semester. I wanted to do the trip relatively early in the semester as a way to help the students learn about some DC issues before diving into our off-campus research project. We also needed to get the trip in before the weather got too cold.

Why: I organized the field trip as a way to help the students connect some of what they were learning inside the classroom to Washington D.C. I also hoped the trip might be informative for our class research project (the Anacostia River forms one of the borders of Buzzard Point, the neighborhood at the heart of our project).

How:  I assigned the following two readings to prepare the students for the trip. The first gives a socio-ecological history of the river that begins before European colonization and continues through the end of the 1990s. The second is an 11 minute video about efforts to clean up the river, which was historically one of the most polluted in the country.

Outcomes: Several themes somewhat in tension with each other emerged amongst the students as we reflected on the tour in class the following week. Because of the stigmatization of the Anacostia River as both dirty and dangerous, many  of the students who grew up in Washington DC and the surrounding areas described being pleasantly surprised at how scenic the river was, and how many people were out enjoying it. At the same time, some were a bit shocked by the spare tires they saw here and there in the river as real-life, visible examples of pollution (for my part, I didn’t think there was much trash on the river at all, spare tires or otherwise). Our tour-guide’s discussion of how raw sewage flows directly into the river when heavy rains overflow the local sewage infrastructure also made quite an impression. So did the discussion of how poverty leads people to eat the polluted fish they catch from the river, despite the signage warning them against doing so and sometimes visible lesions on the fish.

An encounter with a baby deer that had gotten stuck in the water and couldn’t climb over the low wall at the river’s edge also was memorable for many of the students. Jim Foster used this as a teachable moment to make a point about the need to take down some of the old walls along portions of the river’s edge. (For those of you concerned for the deer’s fate, you’ll be glad to know, as my students were, that a passing group of boaters later ushered the deer to a safe exit further down the bank.) The students were also very interested to learn about the history of the Seafarer’s Yacht Club, one of the country’s oldest black yacht clubs. Several expressed interest in participating in the Yacht Club’s annual river cleanup for Earth Day.

There were a few conversations that interested me greatly but my students mostly missed because, 1) many had broken up into smaller conversations by then, or 2) they were unfamiliar with the technical language being used, or 3) were not yet well equipped to quickly recognize common areas of environmental conflict. One was a debate between one of our hosts and an environmental justice activist on board concerning the pro’s and con’s of waste-to-energy facilities/incinerators. We read about this topic later in the semester through this short piece on the multiple meanings of renewable energy that I co-authored with Lindsey Dillon. There was also some tension in a conversation about the relationship between river-clean up efforts, riverside redevelopment, and and the threat of displacing current residents due gentrification. My students read about this subject later in the semester through the lens of “green gentrification.”

Overall, the experience was a great way for all of us to learn more about how the issues we read about in class play out in the city beyond our classroom walls. On the last day of class, when I asked my students to reflect on what they learned that was most interesting, surprising or memorable, things they saw on the boat tour were a central theme. Take a look yourself below.

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All aboard!

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Students Cameron Clarke and Amanda Bonnam settle in for the tour.

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Standing: Tour-guide Jim Foster, Executive Director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. At right: students Tyla Swinton and Brittany Danzy.

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Wildlife sitings were a big hit, here’s our first egret of the day.

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Kari Fulton, environmental justice organizer with Empower DC.

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The Anacostia River flows under several DC thoroughfares.

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We saw a bald eagle!

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This baby deer trapped in the river by a low wall along the river bank prompted great consternation among the students (the deer was later rescued).

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One student even took notes!

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Student Joseph Dillard taking it all in.

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Plenty of pretty scenery…

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… with a few abandoned tires here and there.

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Riverside signage warns people against eating the fish they catch here, which pick up unsafe levels of pollution from the water.

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Benning Road Trash Transfer Station.*

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New construction designed to resolve the problem of raw sewage flowing into the river during heavy rains.

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These will line the wall of a giant tunnel being built to contain runoff during heavy rains, which now mixes with sewage and overflows into the river.

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Metro!

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We passed lots of other groups out on the water, including this crew team and their coaches.

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After the river tour, Tony Thomas took a smaller group by car to see two trash-traps.

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Whatever is on the road eventually ends up in the river.

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Trash-trap #1.

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Tony Thomas, Education Coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

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Howard faculty-member Vernon Morris at the top of trash-trap #2.

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When this tributary into the Anacostia River is flowing, the water flows through these bars and the trash stays behind.

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Lots of the captured trash could have been recycled but ended up on the streets instead, and from there makes its way into the the river.

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Leaving trash trap #2, near the now-closed Kenilworth landfill. The landfill was built next to the historically black neighborhood of Deanwood.

* Mike Ewall, Executive Director of Energy Justice Network, e-mailed me the following when I sent a note asking him to jog my memory about this photo: “This is the Benning Road trash transfer station — one of two large trash transfer stations that the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) operates. The other is at Fort Totten.  It also used to be the home of DC’s trash incinerator, from 1972-1994, and is the place that the leaders at DPW were nearly certain to have tried to locate the new incinerator they were exploring a few years ago before we derailed that conversation in 2013. We = Energy Justice Network, Sierra Club, ILSR, and DC Environmental Network. The community around it is 98% black and 52% of the people are below the poverty line. That site also hosted the oil-fired Pepco power plant that shut down in June 2012, and was torn down in more recent years.  That plant left behind a toxic waste site that remains to be cleaned up and won’t be fully cleaned up. Ash from the old incinerator there is in the Kenilworth Landfill just north of there, next to public housing. The landfill is now a Superfund site that the National Park Service plans to “clean up” by merely dumping two feet of soil on it. It’s currently used as a ball-field / park by local residents.”

“Toxic tour” of Baltimore

Last fall Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton of Energy Justice Network led my students and me on a “toxic tour” of Baltimore. Toxic tours are one way that environmental justice activists do political education. They involve bringing politicians, environmental agency staff and others into the communities where activists live and/or work to build awareness of the problems there and find ways to support local activists in trying to solve them. In our case, Mike and Dante led the students in my fall Environmental Inequality classes to see some of the contested sites where they work. This gave the students a better way to visualize the things we had been reading about, and to learn about their local applications.

We started at the Wheelabrator Baltimore trash incinerator. We were immediately reminded of the environmental justice slogan that defines the environment as “the places we work, live and play” by the sight of families picnicking at the park directly adjacent to the incinerator. We moved on to the site of a proposed new incinerator (for trash, tires, shredded cars and wood waste), a coal and steam-fired electrical generating station, a closed hazardous waste landfill, the port (piled high with coal), the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator and a municipal waste landfill, among other industrial sites.

Since our visit, the proposed new incinerator that we learned about has been defeated, at least for now. Baltimore resident Destiny Watford, co-founder of the student group Free Your Voice, became the 2016 recipient for North American of the international Goldman Prize for her leadership role in the campaign.

My students got a lot out of the trip. They had read about the problems of industrial pollution and the people who live right next to polluting industries, but walking those landscapes seemed to make the issues much more real for them. For my part, I was saddened to see again in Baltimore many of the same problems I am familiar with from my research in California. It’s one thing to know about national trends, and another to see for oneself that they are, indeed, national.

The photos below show some of the places we went. They depict Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton from Energy Justice Network, as well as my students from Howard University – Olivia Byrd, Jesse Card, and Gerlene Toussaint. Sign up for the Energy Justice newsletter or “like” the Free Your Voice Facebook page to find out how you can plug in.


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The view from faculty seating – HU Commencement with President Obama

Last Saturday Howard University hosted its 148th graduation ceremony. I donned my (borrowed) academic robes to celebrate our graduates and hear President Obama, our commencement speaker. I’ve shared my snapshots below to convey what it was like to attend and participate. They show: workers setting up for graduation during the last week of the semester, getting through security and onto campus on the day of the ceremony, faculty waiting for the event to begin and then processing into the the yard together, President Obama being “hooded” while he receives his honorary Ph.D., and the commencement ceremony. The last photo is of Sociology graduate Diamond Crumby showing off her awesome cap. Congratulations Diamond and the Howard class of 2016!

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For the full text of President Obama’s commencement address, click here. For video, click here. And for summary and analysis, try the following:

Classes are over now, but next year I plan to show the President’s commencement speech toward the end of my Introduction to Sociology class. I’ll ask the students to analyze it according to sociological concepts we’ve been learning (structure, agency, social stratification, intersectionality, theories of change, American individualism, etc.). Then I’ll have them chew on a few of the wide array of responses to his speech listed above. I like doing these sorts of activities to underscore how the concepts we are learning in the classroom get used in the political world, even if they are not always referenced by the same names. If any of you do something similar with the speech, let me know how it goes. I won’t be teaching Intro to Sociology again until next spring, so there’s plenty of time to build on your experience.

Trash as a renewable resource?

Over the last few years I’ve been involved with a multi-campus group thinking about the many different ways that the concept of sustainability is used. Under the able leadership of Miriam Greenberg, this group recently launched an collection of digital essays called Critical Sustainabilities: Competing Discourses of Urban Development in California. It features short case-studies to show how the idea of sustainability is used for competing political purposes. It also features essays about key-words that underpin sustainability debates. The project’s focus on Northern California complicates the ways in which the area is often seen as a model of sustainability efforts.

My contribution, with co-author Lindsey Dillon, analyzes efforts to create a policy mechanism by which energy created from trash could qualify for sale as renewable energy in California. This poses the strange prospect of categorizing trash as a “renewable resource.” We locate this debate in the small farmworker town of Gonzales. A proposal to locate what was alternatively called a “waste-to-energy plant” or an “incinerator-in-disguise” was recently defeated there. Though the case center on Gonzales, the broader conflict is happening nationwide. You can read our piece here.

Those of you with overlapping research interests may be interested in submitting a paper to the group’s proposed panel at the 2016 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.

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Workers cover the existing landfill at the site of the proposed “waste-to-energy” facility in Gonzales.

New digital project in honor of Teresa De Anda

Today I released a new digital project to honor the memory of California pesticides activist Teresa De Anda, and to help educate the public about the problem of pesticide drift. In Her Own Words is an expansion of the blog post I wrote the day before Teresa’s memorial service last fall. It includes photography, new and previously published oral history, suggestions for readings to use with the website in college classrooms, links to resources to help address the problem of pesticide drift in community settings, and a short essay I wrote about Teresa.

Thank you, Valerie Gorospe, for allowing me to continue to work with your mother’s stories, and to share them with others so they might learn from everything she accomplished. Thank you also for your support Linda MacKay, Lauren Richter, Tracey Brieger, Sarah Aird, Tracey Osborne, Rachel Deblinger, Zoe Stricker and Evelyn Torres Arellano.

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With Teresa, in front of a photo I took of her, at an exhibit of my photography in Fresno. February 10, 2011.

Visual Activism Symposium organized by SF Museum of Modern Art and IAVC

This morning I finished putting together slides of some of my photography, uploaded a short bio to a shared dropbox folder and timed myself while going through my talking points. I’m ready for my eight minutes of fame!

I’m pleased to be participating in the Visual Activism symposium organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the International Association for Visual Culture this Friday and Saturday. Because the museum is closed for renovations for several years, the MOMA is organizing off-site events under the label of “SF MOMA On the Go.” This event will be held at the Brava Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. I’ve been told it is an “antique” theater originally designed for Vaudeville performances, so I’m looking forward to checking it out.

I’ll be on the first panel, “Environment, Justice, Inequity.” Come say hello if you see me there! I’ll show a few photos and talk about how I engage the following themes in the Voices from the Valley project about environmental justice activism in California’s San Joaquin Valley:

  • Making the invisible visible
  • Rethinking the rural pastoral
  • Everyday life, everyday politics
  • Tragedy and hope
  • Beauty
  • Recognition