The Importance of Telling the Whole Story

The Importance of Telling the Whole Story

The Importance of Telling the Whole Story

When I call my parents in Virginia or my college friends in Chicago, they always want to hear about my work with GASP.

“How’s your internship going?”

“Tell me about what you do!”

I get really excited about the opportunity to talk to them about environmental social issues that they might not have to think about on a regular basis. As I have been shaped by my environmental studies, I believe that people can be changed by the story of Birmingham and the 35th Avenue Superfund Site.

I’ve also been realizing that, after I tell people about the air and soil contamination issues facing 35th Avenue as a result of racism and resource exploitation, people first respond appropriately: “Wow, that’s terrible!” Oftentimes, the conversation ends there. I’m left with a bitter taste in my mouth, almost as if there is something unsaid, like, “Wow, that’s terrible, we’re so glad that that is not us.

This is almost always how 35th Avenue’s story gets told: in documentaries, in how we explain to volunteers why we’re giving away food at our pop-up markets, in the tours that neighborhood leaders give to point out the coke plants and insufficient infrastructure, in the air monitoring studies that we conduct. Many of our friends who live there would like to move away, and only haven’t because they don’t have the resources. But not everyone tells the story that way, some people want to stay. When I first started working with GASP, I couldn’t understand that. There’s elevated contamination in the area! How could they disregard “the science?” Though I told myself that residents of the area must know much better than me what they needed, deep down, I questioned if they were just not willing to hear the story.

In late September, Nina and I went canvassing in Fairmont to hand out flyers in preparation for our North Birmingham Right to Breathe caravan. It felt good to be outside and walking around especially since I had been feeling down that week: two months spent adjusting to pandemic life in a new city had finally taken its toll. It was also an absolutely beautiful day, with bright sunshine and wind that made the big trees roar. I was struck upon turning a corner to see a house up to its windows in fresh blue hydrangeas, the same kind that my grandma loves. The afternoon was full of sweet moments like that: noticing fresh paint on someone’s porch, learning the names of trees from Nina, meeting a kind lady who brought us water bottles from her fridge, and reveling in the quietness of the neighborhood. If 35th Ave is anything, it is first and foremost people’s home, a place where families hang out on porches on nice fall days, grandmothers plant flowers, and people tell their own stories.

I remembered this day when I read Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “Nikki Rosa,” in which she writes about how hard it is to tell the complicated story of growing up Black in America. Yes, there is hardship, but more important to her is that people talk about the “happy birthdays and very good // Christmases.” I really recommend reading the full thing, but hear her conclusion,

…I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy

We can all identify ourselves in Giovanni’s poem because we all want our full stories told. We have all been labeled without being listened to. I am living this now in my personal life as I get to know people in Birmingham. I hope that I will not just be known for being homesick and burnt-out, but for the things I am when I am at my best — a baker, a choral singer, and a good friend. We all want to be seen and cherished. Yet, Giovanni doesn’t deny that being fully known includes telling what we struggle with; she agrees that her childhood was “hard.” I need friends who will see my struggle to find belonging here and grieve with me then challenge me to keep going. We need people who know our full stories and stick with us through it all.

But furthermore, I think we should identify ourselves in Giovanni’s poem as the person who has reduced someone else’s story to their struggle. I am guilty of telling the story of 35th Ave without including the hydrangeas or colorful porches. We need to talk about how Fred Shuttlesworth was from Collegeville and how some of the best environmental organizers of our time are rising out of Harriman Park. We may need to go on more walks on beautiful fall days in Fairmont. We can’t get close to helping people until we see them for everything – the good and the bad. While we won’t diminish the seriousness of the contamination they have to bear, we also cannot afford to miss all that we must cherish in 35th Ave.

Erin Rhodes

Erin Rhodes

EJ Intern

Erin is studying environmental science with a certificate in Human Needs and Global Resources at Wheaton College, a liberal arts school in the Chicago area. She moved to Birmingham this summer and is assisting with environmental justice outreach in North Birmingham. Erin has been instrumental in coordinating the North Bham Pop-Up Market in Harriman Park and Acipco-Finley.

Our Brains, Air Pollution and Hurricanes

Our Brains, Air Pollution and Hurricanes

Our Brains, Air Pollution and Hurricanes

After a morning of protesting Governor Ivey’s inaction on the contaminated 35th Ave Site in North Birmingham, we sped down I-65 towards home. As we drove, we talked about how well the protest had gone and wondered if our representatives would get it, how could they not in the first place? At the same time, Hurricane Laura, estimated to be the most severe Gulf storm since Katrina, was bearing down on Louisiana. “Climate change is terrible,” we said, knowing that as ocean water gets warmer, it will incubate stronger and stronger storms. If only people would start taking climate change more seriously; why does it have to take a catastrophe for us to realize that our lifestyles are not justifiable anymore? It wasn’t until then that I felt my foot on the gas pedal, and as the weight of the statement settled in, my hands gripped the steering wheel of the SUV a little tighter. “Yeah, climate change is terrible.”

Lake Charles, Louisiana. USA – September 6, 2020: Hurricane Laura. Destruction from strong winds. Upside down RV and a pile of rubbish by the road

It’s easy for us to call hurricanes emergencies. We are good at sending the National Guard, raising money in our churches, keeping up with the news, and when we see images of shredded houses and devastated families, our hearts actually break. We can grasp that this event had real costs for real people. But do we actually think about climate change as an emergency in the same way? Was my heart breaking for all the drives I took between my home in Virginia to my college in Chicago? All my Amazon Prime packages? All the bananas I ate from Colombia? All the time I spend on my laptop even now? Maybe a little, but no, it’s hard for me to always think about my daily life in terms of the big scheme of things, even though I am studying Environmental Science at college!

Considering our history, I think that that makes a lot of sense. Our ancestors spent most of their time worrying about where their next meal was coming from. Planning for a meal in the next 100 years, simply wasn’t on the table. But frankly, in our time, our survival may well depend on that ability. Living as if climate change were a real emergency, and demanding policy changes that will protect ourselves not just tomorrow but in 100 years, is the psychological challenge of our era.

In the same way, I think we also have to call the contamination of the 35th Ave Superfund Site a real emergency. It’s hard to imagine the slow damage inside lungs by invisible pollutant particles, let alone wrap my mind around the magnitude of over 100 years of industry in North Birmingham when I am only 22. What makes it harder is that because I don’t live there, I don’t see these costs the way I see images of a hurricane-torn Louisiana. I promise you Governor Ivey hasn’t seen it, and you may not have either. But the residents of Harriman Park, Collegeville and Fairmont are paying the real costs of poor pollution enforcement and political corruption right now.

We need to rise to the challenge of our time, knowing the limits of our minds, to do everything we can to help ourselves grasp the real costs of inaction. We need to start calling climate change, and the 35th Ave contamination, emergencies so we can start acting like they are. Our survival, together, depends on it.

Erin Rhodes

Erin Rhodes

Intern, HNGR

Erin has moved to Birmingham for the semester to volunteer with Gasp as an Environmental Justice Intern through Wheaton College’s Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program. You can read more about Erin here.

Email Erin