Environmental Activists Trek from New Orleans to Houston

Photo Courtesy of Taylor Hodge

On Monday, May 10th, youth activists from the New Orleans and Houston Sunrise Movement, a national, youth-led climate justice movement dedicated to fighting the climate crisis and creating millions of good jobs, set off on their “Generation On Fire: Project 400,” a 400-mile trek from New Orleans to Houston. The trek represents the displacement from Hurricane Katrina, when many families fled to Houston and some never returned to New Orleans. A leader of the project, Chanté Davis, whose family permanently moved to Houston after Katrina said, “This march symbolized my story as a climate refugee who fled New Orleans and moved to Houston after Hurricane Katrina destroyed my city.This is me claiming agency over my future.” 

The trek however, isn’t only symbolic. The activists are also demanding climate justice, good jobs for all, and a Green New Deal for the Gulf South. Many of the chants at the Monday action– that were accompanied by dancing in the streets and a brass band– demanded federal funding for a Civilian Climate Corps, which would create jobs to fight the climate crisis. These would cover a wide range of mitigative and adaptive needs, from restoring coastal wetlands to building community resilience.  

Along the way to Houston, the project has partnered with community groups in St. John the Baptist and St. James Parishes to put on actions targeting locally-specific issues. Both parishes are in Cancer Alley, the 40-mile strip along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that is littered with toxic industrial facilities, which the UN recently called “environmental racism.” On Saturday, May 15th, they partnered with residents in St. John to fight a proposed grain elevator that would add toxic emissions to a parish that already has the highest potential risk of cancer in the state from its numerous, existing industrial facilities. Trace Allen, a New Orleans Sunrise activist who grew up in St. John, and who also still has family there said, “Oftentimes, public officials and corporations try to get away with heinous acts by virtue of saying that they’re creating jobs. How much do you have to pay someone to justify poisoning them with toxic PM 2.5 pollution? How many jobs do you have to create to justify poisoning an entire community? The answer is– it’s never enough. Organizers and community members demand that public officials and corporations stop poisoning Black people for profit. Wallace and surrounding communities deserve clean air, clean water, clean soil, and well-paying, green jobs!” This sentiment was echoed on Monday, May 17th, when the project partnered with RISE St. James to protest the proposed Formosa Plastics megaplant that would double the cancer risk in the predominantly Black 5th district, which is already above the state cancer incidence average and well above the national average.

The conflict between jobs, community health, and the climate crisis has been a long held debate in Louisiana and the rest of the country. However, where conservative regulators see closed facilities and layoffs, youth activists and the many suffering communities in Cancer Alley see opportunities for new, clean industries, and jobs to fix the infrastructural decay that Louisiana has shouldered for decades. They also see the ways that communities have suffered from high cancer rates, from natural disasters (which are exacerbated by facility emissions), and from exorbitant tax exemptions, all of which regulators have largely turned a blind eye to. On top of that perspective, they have a lot to lose. For youth activists, it’s their future at stake, and for Cancer Alley residents, it’s their lives, the lives of their loved ones, and their homes.

With the country and the world on the verge of transitioning away from fossil fuels and associated products like plastics, this push away from toxic facilities isn’t only for survival, but also so that Louisiana is not left behind. Louisiana could be the clean energy center of the country, if only it would get out of the deep pockets of oil and gas.

With so much at stake, the trekkers have a lot to think about over their 400-miles to Houston. However, that hasn’t stopped them from doing what youth do best– having fun. Even during the torrential downpours of the past few weeks, they’ve been keeping their spirits lifted, sharing videos on their Instagram @sunrisegenonfire of dancing in the rain, jumping in puddles, and hashtagging it all– #getwetforthegreennewdeal.

As the project gains national attention, the pressure is on for President Biden to act on their demands. With his plan of a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure package for transitioning to clean energy on the horizon, hopefully the trekkers will soon be able to spend a little less time fighting for their futures, and a little more time having fun in the rain.

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