A couple of years ago I led an environmental justice tour for a group of Jewish teenagers. The teens had come to New York City for a two-week program on social justice at the Jewish Theological Seminary. As we made our way up Broadway into Harlem I explained how environmental burdens are often avoided by privileged white and wealthy communities and imposed instead on black and low-income communities like Harlem. For example, six of Manhattan’s seven bus depots are located in Harlem.
But thanks to community advocacy, things are changing. The bus depot we visited was a green building built with input from community residents. And the buses parked in the depot are hybrid electric buses that emit much less pollution than conventional diesel powered buses. Next we made our way to the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant. This facility, originally planned to be placed in a predominantly white area, was constructed in predominantly black Harlem instead. Although activism was not able to stop the construction, after years of struggle the injustice was acknowledged and the community was compensated with funding to redress environmental and health problems.
Finally, as we stood on top of the plant, enjoying the view of the Hudson River, I told the teens that the Hudson used to be very polluted. But folksinger Pete Seeger rallied people with inspiring songs and joined with other activists to build a sailing ship, the Clearwater, to take people out on the River and teach them to appreciate it. After Earth Day in 1970, when millions of Americans demonstrated and demanded change, laws were passed to require that rivers be cleaned up. Now the Hudson River teems with life and is even safe enough for an occasional swim.
As we ate lunch, I asked the teens what they had learned from the tour. Their response surprised me. They said they had learned that things can get better!
During this month of Elul, as we reflect on the many mistakes of the past year, let’s not forget that when people get involved things can, and do, get better.
Mirele B. Goldsmith