April 21, 2020
Despite last week’s surprise snow, the greening of Chicago has begun. My friends are posting pictures of robins’ nests perched on their windowsills, full of beautiful blue eggs. I see my neighbors in Bronzeville busy with their backyard gardens, readying the earth for planting and imagining the life-affirming bounty that will come from the work that they put in now. Promise. These ordinary activities, of making and nourishing life in this imperfect world, take on new significance when human beings are forced to stay inside. We get to witness the earth as it heals; I hope we also wonder how to be less of a liability once this pandemic ends. We get to think differently about productivity–to reject its normative and exploitative assumptions and to imagine new relationships to each other. Allowing ourselves to feel the waves of grief, loss, rage, and sadness and to get to a place of hope–that’s when our healing begins.
There’s a lot of happening that provokes rage. For example, we now know that women of color make up the largest category of essential workers in the U.S., putting them and their families at increased risk of contracting the virus. On top of all the issues that women faculty, especially women of color, deal with, there is undue scrutiny about of their physical appearance as they teach in college classrooms and contribute to the leadership and stature of their respective departments and universities. These gendered, elitist, and racist micro-aggressions have been given new life in the context of online instruction during the pandemic. While the strong and instructive rebuttals focus on women faculty members, I do wonder about the ideas about racial identity, femininity, and self-presentation that are being conveyed to undergraduate and graduate students. I hope that we can have meaningful conversations about this topic in the near future.
April 22 is Earth Day and a moment to recognize the movements led by indigenous and marginalized communities who demand to have a say in what “development” looks like for them. I want to lift up the work of Chicago’s Kim Wasserman, Executive Director of Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). Her leadership and tireless advocacy for the health and wellbeing of the Latinx community of Little Village continues to inspire all of us. For several years, Kim and LVEJO have been working alongside the Little Village community to demand that HilCo Global rethink its plan to demolish the Crawford Coal Plant’s smokestack and replace it with a warehouse. Community members have repeatedly asked the company to commit to providing living wages, meaningful job opportunities, and protections for undocumented persons. What they have received, thus far, was a poorly organized demolition effort on April 11 that blanketed the community in a thick cloud of dust for several hours, visibly compromising the air quality and further endangering the health of residents. It may seem entirely coincidental that the demolition took place during the COVID-19 pandemic that attacks the respiratory system and has proven to be fatal for people of color whose lives are already threatened by structural racism. As activists like Kim already know and as the student interns of UIC’s Heritage Garden learn from community organizations, the specter of environmental racism takes many forms: it is the plume of dust from negligence; but it is also the slow leak in the form of stress from economic insecurity, compromised immune systems, and limited access to healthy foods, livable wages, good working conditions, unpolluted water, affordable and good quality healthcare. The struggle for the right to breathe involves naming both the plumes and the leaks, and making room for communities to put forward their own visions for their future.
Organizing against environmental injustice takes many forms. As an educator, filmmaker, and activist, Dr. Esther Figueroa is best known for documenting the destruction and exploitation of Jamaica’s physical environment over the last 50 years. Her recent work involves chronicling the efforts of grassroots organizations in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country to resist government and multinational corporations that seek to destroy agricultural lands in order to extract bauxite. Similar to the Little Village context in Chicago, the rural communities in central Jamaica have been speaking up about the ways that bauxite mining threatens the health as well as the social and economic wellbeing of those who live adjacent to the mining areas. They have not been listened to. As an activist storyteller then, Esther’s film and public writings makes visible the perspectives we rarely hear and see: strategies of resistance enacted by rural Jamaicans; the lack of investment in the communities from which bauxite companies draw their lowest paid workers; the systematic destruction of the land that drives farming communities into further poverty; the absence of accountability on the part of the national government which facilitates the deals with bauxite companies. A friend of WLRC, Esther visited UIC in March 2019. You can learn more about her work in this special issue of the journal Feminist Media Histories.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month presents opportunities for discussion and action towards creating a world that is free from sexual violence. Mariame Kaba’s latest zine is one place to begin thinking about how the current movement against gender-based violence got to where it is. The zine reprints “An Open Letter to the Anti-Rape Movement,” a powerful statement made by Santa Cruz Women Against Rape in 1977. This letter was also featured in WLRC’s 2018 exhibition “Take Back The Fight: Resisting Sexual Violence From the Ground Up” and is sure to reignite conversations about the costs of focusing on policing and prisons as a solution to gender-based violence. On April 22, we encourage your participation in Resilience’s “Breaking the Silence” virtual café event which honors survivors of sexual violence. For the Breathing Room session on April 24, we will discuss the Netflix series Unbelievable and Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name. Both the series and book were released in 2019 and are based on the actual experiences of survivors. Bring a friend!
I’ve also been thinking about last week’s Breathing Room conversation led by UIC graduate student Jazmin Vega; participants were asked to consider what kind of post-pandemic world we want to live in. We won’t come up with the same answer, nor always speak each other’s language. But, in the same way that we might approach the song “No Es No” (Anne Etchegoyen and Itziar Ituno, Basque artists), we can listen, hum each other’s tune, and amplify where possible. I think that’s a start.
P.S. The song is in Spanish, French, and Basque.