The Price Institute recently hosted an online panel discussion with three female activists from around the country on using the Covid-19 pandemic to reimagine grassroots organizing and chart a new environmental and socioeconomic course domestically and globally. The event, moderated on Facebook Live by Price Institute Director Jack Tchen, was held to commemorate Earth Day 2020.
Tchen, the Inaugural Clement A. Price Chair in Public History and the Humanities at Rutgers University-Newark ( RU-N), spoke with environmental economist, organizer and activist Winona LaDuke, Program Director of Honor the Earth, based at the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota; activist, writer and community advocate Carol Bebelle, co-founder of New Orleans’ Ashé Cultural Center; and Maria Lopez-Nunez, Director of Environmental Justice and Community Development at Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark. Viewers commented in real time during the event and submitted questions to the panelists during the event.
The discussion spanned the personal, political and communal, using as its starting point writer Arudhati Roy’s conception of the “pandemic as a portal” through which society can walk to rid ourselves of old socioeconomic structures, forge new alliances, and build a better, more sustainable and egalitarian world.
Roy articulated this vision in an article published in early April by the Financial Times, where she said: "Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."
Tchen and the panelists echoed the theme throughout.
"Working a Facebook Live via Zoom had me working like a DJ keeping the conversation with our three great conversationalists going while fielding questions from across the country,” said Tchen. “We're very pleased with the Price Institutes' first online venture and look forward to more. We want to walk thru Arundhati Roy's ‘Pandemic as a Portal’ lightly with ‘right relationships’ being forged."
The one-and-a-half-hour discussion was wide-ranging, covering topics such as environmental racism and Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on black, brown and Native American communities; the importance of biodiversity and sustainability; and working together across racial, ethnic and cultural divides to build a unified movement to achieve greater environmental, social and economic justice.
LaDuke started out by acknowledging what scientists and satellite imagery have been telling us: that the pandemic has led to sharp reductions in the burning of fossil fuels.
This is about everything from a livable wage to our educational system, how our health system works, and ways to address mental health issues after this.
“This moment we’re in now, Mother Earth can breathe. You can see the sun in China, and you can see the stars at night,” said LaDuke. “We have 20 percent less air pollution across the board, and fossil fuel use is way down…. Mother Earth really appreciates taking a breath, and if you take care of your mother, you’re more likely to be healthy yourself.”
Nunez brought that theme closer to home, noting that her neighborhood, Newark’s Ironbound district, is home to a garbage incinerator, a sewage-waste treatment plant, and a waterfront made highly toxic from dumping of dioxin and other contaminates into the Lower Passaic River by plants manufacturing Agent Orange during the 1950s and ’60s, which has resulted in a group of federally declared Superfund cleanup sites in the area.
Later in the conversation, while answering a question from a viewer, Tchen added that just to the north, the New Jersey Meadowlands and Hackensack River have suffered the same fate, because both are tidal rivers that have spread these toxins over a 17-mile stretch.
“Recently the Trump administration has pulled back on mercury-emissions regulations, and the Hackensack River, adjacent to the Passaic River, is also one of the major sites terribly polluted with mercury poisoning,” said Tchen.
On several occasions during the 90-minute event, the discussion shifted to workers on the frontlines of the pandemic and the need to rethink our ideas about labor. Bebelle said that in order to do that, we need to first look inward.
“Change starts with ourselves…. We have to start there and be open to understanding all the stuff going on around us,” including the value of the work being done by health professionals and all lives being of equal value. “It begins with us working on ourselves to build a stronger ‘we’ consciousness,” Bebelle said.
Nunez remarked that news of Covid-19 horrified her and others in the Ironbound heard because of the aerosol nature of the virus “and because so many of our folks are essential workers and are undocumented and were dropped without any consideration: They don’t qualify for any type of stimulus or programs,” she said. “I’m still getting calls to help people stay in their homes because real-estate speculators prefer an empty building that they can flip for profit to having people sheltered in place.”
She added that many workers who originally thought they were just paying the bills with low-level jobs delivering food, stocking shelves or cleaning hospitals were now thrust onto the frontlines with the current crisis. “All of sudden we now have to value, and should have been valuing all along, these people who have been doing this work but have been largely undervalued and invisible,” said Nunez.
All the panelists agreed that the pandemic created an unprecedented opportunity to organize, reimagine the current socioeconomic order, and push for a more progressive American and global agenda. Bebelle returned to this point several times during the discussion, comparing the present crisis to Hurricane Katrina, which decimated her city, and noting that this is a great time for organizing while the public’s attention is squarely focused on the seismic fallout from Covid-19.
“This is about everything from a livable wage to our educational system, how our health system works, and ways to address mental health issues after this,” said Bebelle. “We’re discovering the fractures inside our societal landscape, and we’ve got to be thinking about now how we get back to where we were but manage to have it be something better and more inclusive.”
She added that activists must work together across divides to make a difference.
"You have different segments—racial, LGBTQ, environmental, and others…. It’s really important that all of us working for progress understand this is about reciprocity, and it’s about being thorough in how we view and see justice…. We have to find ways to show up for each other,” Babelle said.
Agreeing with Bebelle’s point, LaDuke said, “I don’t want to spend my time talking about how we’re all different and whose oppression is the most important. I want to focus on how we solve this. Because in this crisis, people are re-finding their humanity.”
On May 15, The Price Institute will hold a follow-up online event titled, “Staying Alive, But Also Staying Alive: Reflections on How the Pandemic is a Portal,” featuring sociologist Ruha Benjamin, clinician-scientist Monica McLemon, and Nicole Fleetwood, writer, curator and art critic.