In the Pursuit of Environmental Justice: Then, Now, and Beyond

Today, let us pause and honor the indomitable spirit of Emelda Jones West, a revered figure hailing from Convent, Louisiana. Emelda was, above all, a devoted mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, and community leader. Married to Melvin West in 1945, she was blessed with seven children: Yolanda, Harrison, Kevin Paul, Glenn, Charmaine, Sebastian, and Terrance. For close to two decades, she served as the buyer and head cook at Manresa Retreat House.

Though baptized into the Catholic faith, Emelda later found solace in the teachings of faith and biblical principles espoused by Dr. Fred Price of Los Angeles, California. She subsequently aligned herself with Pastor Steven Perrilloux of the River Lands Christian Center and later became a member of the Word of Life Christian Center under the guidance of Dr. Leroy Thompson, Sr. Her final spiritual home was at Pilgrim Full Gospel Church in Convent, La., under the leadership of Reverend Marshall Cooper Sr.

The turning point came in the summer of 1996 when Emelda received a warning from a neighbor about a proposed toxic plant coming to the area. This news struck a chord, particularly because her eldest daughter, Yolanda, had battled breast cancer for the final six years of her life. Fueled by strength and courage, Emelda took a stand against Shintech, a Japanese subsidiary of Shin Etsu, which planned to build a $700 million polyvinyl chloride – PVC – plant in Convent.

Situated in St. James Parish, within the infamous “Cancer Alley” along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Convent was already burdened by over 140 petrochemical and industrial plants, linked to heightened rates of cancer and other health issues. Despite some in the community hoping for job opportunities from Shintech, Emelda and the majority of Convent’s citizens opposed the PVC plant. They united under the banner of St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, a group consisting of around 100 members.

Emelda’s efforts were buoyed by the unwavering support of organizations like the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, founded by Dr. Beverly Wright; and the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic, with attorney Lisa Jordan among their ranks. Her activism garnered attention, leading to appearances in various media segments, including a 2001 TV movie titled “Taking Back Our Town,” where Ruby Dee portrayed Emelda.

Renowned environmentalist Dr. Robert Bullard likened Emelda to a “take no prisoner” Marine Corps-type leader. With Greenpeace’s assistance, she traveled to Tokyo, confronting Shintech’s officials face-to-face, and adamantly declared their unwelcome presence in Convent. Through her relentless determination, Shintech never materialized as an unwanted neighbor in St. James Parish, securing Emelda West’s legacy as a true champion of environmental justice.

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