Neil M. Maher, Professor of History, Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University-Newark
Before the Coronavirus shuttered our campus, in early March more than sixty students, faculty, staff, and local residents gathered to hear an all-woman panel of activists and scientists discuss their fight for clean water in Newark. “Women have historically played a leadership role in so many movements in our country,” explained local high school teacher and clean water advocate Yvette Jordan, who helped spearhead the event. “We realized it was necessary to highlight the important work that some of these environmental social activists were doing in Newark.”
As many of us who teach, study, and live in Newark know, such activism became necessary several years ago after tests found high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water, which can be especially harmful to children. Although a new plan by Essex County will dedicate $120 million towards the replacement of old lead pipes across Newark, the panelists called for continued vigilance and action by local residents.
“Keeping people involved is a difficult task,” explained panelist and Newark social worker Shakima Thomas, who in the same breadth expressed concerns regarding her own young son’s health. “I have to constantly remind him not to drink the tap water.” Fellow panelist Sabre Bee, who co-founded the Newark Water Coalition, added, “what are we going to do with these kids who have lead poisoning? They’re going to need health education and health support.”
During the event, all three women activists repeatedly reminded the audience of the need for scientific data in this fight. To prove their point, they have teamed up with Dr. Kristi Pullen Fedinick, who serves as the Director of Science and Data for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the nation’s leading environmental organizations.
Dr. Fedinick, who spoke to the audience remotely, first described a report she authored for the NRDC that found strong correlations between rates of drinking water violations and minority communities across the United States (see: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/watered-down-justice-report.pdf). “NRDC is proud to stand alongside community members fighting to secure safe drinking water for everyone in Newark,” she explained. “Race, equality, and clean water are inextricably connected.”
The public conversation, which took place in NJIT’s Campus Center, was planned for Women’s History Month and was supported by a broad coalition of community, academic, and environmental justice organizations including the Newark Water Coalition, the Newark Education Workers Caucus, the Federated History Department of NJIT and Rutgers-Newark, NJIT’s Murray Center for Women in Technology, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Price Institute.
For coverage of the event on National Public Radio see: https://www.wbgo.org/post/newark-replaces-lead-service-lines-advocates-say-residents-are-still-risk#stream/0