Environmental Organizations fight back against environmental racism

The Sunrise Movement, Carbondale Spring, and The Sustainability Commission are finding ways to combat environmental racism in communities like northeast Carbondale.

The predominantly Black population of the neighborhood still feels the effects of creosote contamination due to environmental pollution from the nearby now-defunct Koppers wood treatment facility. 

Nick Smaligo, co-founder of Carbondale Spring, said the goal of his organization is to increase funding that will benefit different environmental projects by drawing awareness to the extensive funding that goes to the police department. 

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“The goal of the Carbondale Spring is to reduce the funding currently being directed toward an oversized police department, and redirect those funds into the kinds of community projects that we think will build a more ecological, socially and overall better city,” Smaligo said.

According to Smaligo, Carbondale Spring wants to get the city to reallocate most of the money that goes to the police department to programs that will help the community such as building chicken coops and setting up more community gardens.

Smaligo said Carbondale Spring’s main concern right now is to draw attention to the lack of action taken regarding the creosote contamination and mistreatment of the community that lives near the Koppers site. He said he was involved with helping to stop Brightfield, a solar energy company, from putting up solar panels near the site.

“Just putting up solar panels without acknowledging the deeper structural problems, in particular the issue of racism in terms of how environmental pollution has been distributed, was one of the major fronts in that struggle,” Smaligo said.

According to Smaligo, if the solar company was allowed to build those panels near the site they would have been profiting off of the neglect the community faced while living next to the contaminated site.

The Sunrise Movement is also helping the community by organizing clean up days to help keep minority communities clean and getting environmental bills passed to provide more opportunities for these communities.

Sarhana Mohanmad Ali, event coordinator of the Sunrise Movement, said most of the work they do is also working to make Carbondale more environmentally safe.

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“Our goal is to make Carbondale and the neighborhoods down here, especially neighborhoods that aren’t really prioritized as much, usually low income BIPOC neighborhoods… safer, cleaner, build bonds with the people that live in Carbondale and stand up for the people’s rights to have better living situations,” Mohanmad Ali said. 

According to Mohanmad Ali, the Sunrise Movement’s main goal is to help minority communities through organizing cleanup days and forming protests, to draw attention to the lackluster condition the city has left the communities in.

Moss Shepherd, the logistics coordinator of the Sunrise Movement, said most of the places they clean up are on the east side of Carbondale.

“Our hub tries to do a lot of events where we kind of either protest against companies like Ameren and who are taking advantage of usually low income BIPOC folks by raising bills in neighborhoods when most people living there can’t afford to pay these raised electrical bills,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd said the city mainly focuses on the sides of town that have more money and in turn are neglecting parts of Carbondale such as northeast. They have made it their mission to help out in any way possible.

Mohanmad Ali said the Sunrise Movement has not only organized clean up days to help lower income communities, they were also instrumental in helping pass the 2021 Illinois Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA).

“We played a big part in the passing of the CEJA. It’s a bill that combats environmental racism by bringing money, clean jobs and job security to mostly low income and especially in places like ours like in Carbondale,” Mohanmad Ali said.

Mohanmad Ali said the CEJA has allowed an increase of funds to help create more environmentally friendly jobs in Illinois for people who need them.

Shepherd said although the Sunrise Movement was able to help convince lawmakers to pass the CEJA, lawmakers should actually follow through with their promises without other people forcing their hand.

“I feel when politicians do listen, they don’t give credit for their solutions,” Shepherd said. “They take those ideas, and then use them for their platform without giving due credit, then also don’t help those communities by actually following through on those promises,” Shepherd said. 

Saxon Metzger, a member of the Sustainability Commission, said the purpose of the commission is to express the citizens’ concerns about the environmental climate to the city. He said the more input the commision gets from the community the better they will be able to voice the concerns.

“Our goal is to create really broad goals as well as specific actions on those goals,” Metzger said. ”I think that having more input about things like the Koppers wood treatment facility, solar power or things that the city is working on is really important because it helps clarify for the commission what people want us to focus on and want us to do,” 

According to Metzger, the sustainability action plan will not only move Carbondale toward being more sustainable, but it will also allow for the input given by the citizens to help form new policies.

Metzger said although the Sustainability Commission has ideas for the sustainability action plan, more input from the Carbondale community will help them extend on the plan.

“What we found is that a lot of the demographics represented in that survey were not intuitive of how diverse our population in Carbondale is. A lot of our survey responses skewed older, more White and more upper middle class, which is only one section that we need in the community. To provide that input, we need every single community to provide their perspectives and talk about their needs. That’s how we can really combat environmental racism, “ Metzger said.

According to Metzger most of the input they get is from the well-off White community, but more input from more diverse communities will help the Sustainability Commission find ways to fight environmental racism.

Carbondale Spring, the Sunrise Movement, the Sustainability Commission and organizations like them are all working in their own way to combat environmental racism and bring about change in the Carbondale area.

“I guess the way to do that is to talk to people you know live in this community or have lived in this community for a long time,” Smaligo said. “Learn the stories that have created Carbondale as it is now, because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to actually change it.”

Staff reporter Janiyah Gaston can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram at @janiyah_reports. To stay up to date with all your Southern Illinois news follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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