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“Vote Like Your Life Depends on It”

By Quani Burnett

Blood-orange skies. Lead-tainted water. Polluted air. Toxic landfills. It’s impossible to turn on the news or walk outside without seeing the effects of human-made climate change intersect with one of the most pivotal movements of 2020, the November presidential election. While some are privileged to see these changes from afar, residents of low-income neighborhoods suffer the effects of environmental injustice on a daily basis. 

The term “environmental racism” was coined by civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin F Chavis Jr. in 1983, and it explains the disproportionate amount of hazardous environmental exposure in urban communities.

Racial disparities in health can be linked to disproportionate exposures to environmental stressors, increasing a community’s risk of lead poisoning, asthma, and heart disease. These disparities are further compounded by lack of access to healthcare and decreased ability to obtain healthy food. 

As a native of Flint, Michigan, with a majority Black population and where 40% of residents live in poverty, I experienced the effects of environmental racism first hand. In 2014, corroded city pipes caused lead to leach into the water supply resulting in toxic tap water, rendering undrinkable. Officials voted to save money by switching water sources, and failed to test the new water source to see if it would cause corrosion. It did, but it took months of residents complaining about their water quality before the city looked into it. 

Lead is particularly dangerous to children and pregnant women in whom it can cause "learning disabilities, behavioral problems and mental retardation," according to the World Health Organization. Though the water source was switched back, the damage was already done to the pipes, which still aren’t fixed. The Flint Water Crisis is ongoing; it’s been six years.

Some offer voting as a solution for changing policies that systematically place landfills and smog-congested roads near these low-income neighborhoods, but they might not realize the effects of voter suppression, discriminatory zoning practices, and redlining,  all of which envelop Black and Brown communities in zones that experience higher temperatures and increased exposure to toxic particles. Understanding these systems is imperative to taking them apart and rebuilding them equitably.

Marginalized communities may lack political representation and financial means to oppose the business plans of waste dumps and toxic polluting chemical plants. And moving to a less impacted neighborhood isn’t the solution; socio-economic status hinders minorities from relocating from such areas. Systemic barriers exist that quiet the voices in these areas, including voter ID laws, restricting early voting, and reduced polling hours and locations. Practices such as gerrymandering, which involves the manipulation of district boundaries to provide a political advantage, and discriminatory zoning practices keep affordable, multi-family housing out of affluent neighborhoods. These past policies have lingering effects. 

Though there is no quick fix for undoing the irreparable damage to underrepresented communities, environmental scientist Nina Odunlami, who works in research science for stream water quality, policy for safe drinking water, and in site remediation at contaminated sites, offers this advice in the face of environmental racism: increase awareness, share resources, and educate the public. These are key for initiating change. Turn to trusted social media accounts which offer a wealth of information including voting registration deadlines, how to obtain absentee ballots, and how to contact local representatives. Local voting is crucial.  

At times, it feels our voice and our vote are all we have. How will we use our voices for those who cannot speak? How will we use our vote to care for those who cannot vote because of unjust systems? Awareness, education, and action can pressure policymakers to enact change. As former President Barack Obama said, “Protecting our planet is on the ballot. Vote like your life depends on it—because it does.” 

Written by Quani Burnett for Youth To The People