Duke Human Rights Center highlights intersection between voting rights, environmental justice in panel

In 1982, Warren County residents sparked a national environmental justice movement by protesting a toxic waste landfill in their community, just 60 miles away from Duke University. Forty years later, the Duke Human Rights Center sponsored a panel on voting rights, environmental justice and the power of protest in promoting equity and health on Sept. 8.  

Titled “Casting Your Ballot for Environmental Justice,” the event featured Jennifer Lawson, civil rights leader and advocate for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Kym Meyer, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Allison Riggs, co-executive director and chief counsel for voting rights for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Kay Jowers, area director for the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability, moderated the discussion. 

Throughout the discussion, panelists spoke about the intersectionality of both voting rights and environmental justice. 

“The same communities that are experiencing environmental injustice are the same communities that are underserved and over-policed, are the same communities that are excluded from the political process, are the same communities excluded from having a voice generally,” Riggs said. 

Meyer attributed growing intersectionality to an increasingly polarized political climate, but also spoke about the positives of recognizing connections between issues. 

“What is great is this coalescing of not just environment and voting rights, but a number of progressive issues, is ... realizing we're all in this space aiming for the same thing, which is this multiracial society where everyone has a voice, and we take care of each other at our most basic level,” she said.

Lawson emphasized the importance of both voting and assembly rights for the voices of marginalized communities.

“Marching with our feet, making our voices heard, will always have a very important role. But I think it's not enough,” Lawson said. “These things always have to be balanced and have to include key and clear strategies.” 

Lawson later said that voting is imperative to democracy, and expressed concern about cynicism and apathy towards voting in the younger generation. According to her, abstaining from democracy is allowing a smaller minority to make policy decisions. 

Lawson, Meyer and Riggs agreed that voting and protesting are not the only way individuals should participate politically. According to them, communities need people to pay attention to local elections, attend city council meetings, host community get-togethers and form bonds with people around them, just as much as they need protestors. 

Cameron Oglesby, Trinity ’21 and second year masters student in the Sanford School of Public Policy, hoped that this discussion and future environmental justice events at Duke will empower students of all political backgrounds and prime them to participate in the midterm elections with more environmental justice literacy.  

“The hope is that people come to some greater understanding of the inherent connection of our power as voters and the environmental justice policies or lack thereof that we see,” said Oglesby, who is also the graduate coordinator for Environmental Justice Campus Committee and project coordinator for Duke’s Environmental Justice Oral History Project. 

More events commemorating the 1982 Warren County protests are scheduled for the upcoming weeks. Reverend William Kearney, coordinator and facilitator of the Warren County Environmental Action Team and the Warren County African American History Collective, hoped that remembering the Warren County protesters would empower people to stand up for marginalized communities and environmental justice. 

“Even though we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of what happened in Warren County, it’s relevant to every city and town across the country,” Kearney said. “Some of the students [at Duke] don’t live in communities directly affected by these types of [environmental] injustices, but it will give them a consciousness of it, and hopefully they can use their possessions of privilege to ally with communities who don’t have the voice or the resources to fight.”


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