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Environmental Speakers Inform and Inspire at BC

During the Q&A session that ended Berea's college-wide symposium recently, a student asked speakers Margie Richard, Jennifer Osha and Craig Williams if there was really any way to save or undo the harm that has been done to the environment. Their answer was a resounding "yes!"

"Don't dwell on the past and say that nothing can be done," added Richard. "Take what happened in the past and move forward."

The guest speakers at the symposium "Environmental Justice: Transforming Values Into Action," Osha, Richard and Williams are grassroots activists with significant experience in fighting against chemical pollution and other threats to the environment. Richard and Williams are recent recipients of the international Goldman Environmental Prize for their outstanding work in grassroots environmental organizations, and Osha has spent the last six years campaigning against mountaintop removal mining. Each speaker shared his or her experiences and advice with the audience, hoping to inspire, educate and inform.

Osha is an activist, teacher, singer and mother who currently heads the non-profit organization Aurora Lights. She also produced "Moving Mountains," a compilation CD of performances and interviews with citizens affected by mountaintop removal. Her presentation at the symposium focused on the social and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining, explaining the process ("You start from the top and you go down.") and effects of the mining.

"Mountaintop removal, for me, is a destruction and obliteration of everything I love," said Osha, after discussing the harm that mining does to trees and wildlife. She also detailed the leftovers from mountaintop removal, such as valley fills and slurry impoundments, which can pose a constant threat to nearby communities. "Fear is perhaps the most destructive social impact of mountaintop removal mining."

Osha also entertained the audience with two songs, "Keepers of the Mountains" and "The Fiddler's Ballad," accompanied by friend and Berea faculty member José Pimienta-Bey on guitar.

Margie Richard, a retired school teacher from Louisiana, was the first African American to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004. She received the award for her 13-year fight against a Shell refinery and chemical plant near her community. To prove that the plant was causing cancer, birth defects, asthma and other health issues in her community, she conducted a campaign of educations, air-quality testing and negotiation. Finally, in a landmark move, Shell agreed to pay to relocate the residents of the community.

"Talking among ourselves is not going to get us anywhere," said Richard. She spoke about racism, faith and the ways in which one can work to win a battle like hers.

"There is only one race, and that is the human race," said Richard, "So you need to give yourself a hand just for being alive and being here."

She also encouraged the members of the audience to follow in her footsteps, saying, "If you don't do it, tell me who will."

Craig Williams is a decorated Vietnam veteran and Berea local who successfully convinced the Pentagon to stop plans to incinerate stockpiles of chemical weapons stored in multiple locations around the United States. He started a nationwide grassroots coalition called the Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG), based in Berea's College Square, and through their efforts a safer neutralization method for the chemical weapons was developed. He received a Goldman Environmental Prize in 2006 for his efforts.

Williams drew the audience into a game called "Guess the Technology," as he asked them to match the eight stockpiles of chemical weapons in U.S. with the disposal technique being used at the location. He revealed that communities with higher poverty levels and a greater percentage of minority population were more likely to get the old incineration treatment than the safer neutralization technique, and that there was still more work to be done before the chemical weapons stockpiles were neutralized.

"A clean environment is necessary to fulfill the definition of 'human rights,'" said Williams.

The speakers then gathered to answer questions from the audience. Many of the questions involved how students could get involved and help their own communities. The speakers suggested that they get in touch with grass-roots organizations, volunteer, make class projects apply to a real issue, take internships, write letters and more. The audience was left with the feeling that they, too, could help make a difference and take action for the environment.

The symposium was co-sponsored by African and African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Sustainability and Environmental Studies and the Convocations program. More information about the speakers and the Goldman Environmental Prize is available at the links below.

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