UWFF Series recap. Why can’t we breathe? Fighting environmental racism in the Bronx.
On May 3rd, Futures Initiative had the pleasure to host an event organized by Ángeles Donoso Macaya and Ashley Dawson. The two professors worked together during the semester to develop one of FI’s team-taught courses around the subject of decolonial ecologies. The event took place in the Skylight Room of the Graduate Center from which we could see the Empire State Building above our heads, and the Commons, where grad students have been organizing to reclaim common spaces of solidarity in the building, behind the speaker’s pulpit. The evening event was titled “Why Can’t We Breathe? Fighting Environmental Racism in the Bronx” and we had the pleasure of hosting two guest speakers from that very borough, Odalys Burgoa and Alicia Grullón.
After short introductions by Cathy Davidson and Adashima Oyo, respectively Founding Director and Executive Director of Futures Initiative, Dr. Donoso Macaya introduced our guests.
Odalys Burgoa is an artist, garden steward and community member in various areas of the Bronx and Uptown. They steward Anthony Ave Garden and are a Board member of Bronx Land Trust, a nonprofit that hosts non-state-owned, private green spaces for public use. As they started discussing, they shared a collection of newspaper headlines around air contamination in the Bronx, specifically the South Bronx, which is sometimes referred to as “asthma alley.” Odalys explained how they already knew about the massive truck traffic of the area, since her father worked at Hunts Point Market. The South Bronx, home to a large migrant and Latinx community, is also one of the most economically deprived areas in New York, with higher poverty rates and unemployment. It is also an area of high air contamination and with major health and respiratory issues. The problem deepened after Amazon and Fresh Direct settled in the Bruckner area, increasing truck traffic and air contamination. This example showcases how certain economic fixes, presented as all-encompassing solutions to create economic development, only increase existing inequalities. After learning about the alarming rates of asthma in the neighborhood, specifically during Covid-19 when the Bronx and its people were hit even harder than other areas of the city, Odalys started establishing the connection and organizing with the community.
Through their work at the Bronx Green Middle School Campus, they discuss the issue with their students, many of whom suffer from asthma themselves. Odalys explained how the work with plants and community gardens is an excellent way to fight back. As green public spaces, the gardens cement relationships among the people of the community by creating solidarity, but are also fantastic places to raise awareness about respiratory issues and to learn about the plants that help (they spoke about the great benefits of fresh mint for example). As they take care of the land, with some of the gardens such as Soundview Park being built on landfills, people learn about the issue and organize to fight back. “The abuse of land and the dehumanization of our communities go hand-in-hand.” As Odalys received the knowledge from helping their parents foraging when they were younger, they know the importance of transmitting this knowledge. They explained that as the students make mint tea out of the plants they grow in the gardens, they start conversations around plants and breathing issues such as asthma with their families, helping to raise awareness among the community.
One powerful part of their intervention was the emphasis on the most important action we can take: “talk to your neighbors and participate in community events and institutions.” It can be sometimes difficult, specifically since the NYPD and city authorities tend to create obstacles against community movements. Odalys established the parallel with Plaza Tonatiuh in Sunset Park, where neighbors organized an open air social marketplace to survive during Covid-19. The marketplace is currently being forcibly dismantled by the city, who argue that the vendors create litter in the area. Odalys explained that the same pushback has been happening in the Bronx, adding that gentrification is another struggle for many communities.
Alicia Grullón is also an artist and activist from the Bronx. She uses performance and self-portrait as a critique on the politics of presence. She has participated in exhibitions at spaces including The 8th Floor, Bronx Museum of the Arts, BRIC House for Arts and Media, El Museo del Barrio, and Columbia University. She is also the recipient of several grants and participated in a number of artistic residencies, including the Bronx Museum of Arts AIM program. She started her intervention by noting the age difference between her and Odalys, and highlighting how little has changed through time. The two organizers met and started collaborating during the pandemic. Alicia explained that she shifted organizing priorities during the pandemic to form the North Bronx Collective, which at that time organized to deliver around 1,000 meals a month. One of the collective’s projects was also to clean up a local green space that would become a location for comfort and grieving. As they cleaned the green space, which was filled with litter, car parts, and other appliances, they discovered the presence of endangered woodpeckers. They decided to create a teaching garden, incorporating five beds to plant seeds and support pollinators. However, in January 2021, they received a notice from the Parks Department, and were locked out of the garden by March 2021. They have not been authorized to get back in since. Once again, both speakers insisted on the difficulty of organizing and the role of gardens in supporting the community to secure green spaces for education and health.
Alicia explained how one of the central aspects of fighting environmental injustice and racism relies on the community control of the land. She read to the audience “The Pedagogy of Green Space,” a powerful statement which is the preamble of the paper “The Land Back,” written by a collective of organizers and associations fighting for social justice in the Bronx. “Talking about climate issues is talking about social issues.” Alicia also discussed the role of art and her understanding of socially engaged art as fundamental to this struggle.
After a lively conversation with the audience, we thanked the panelists for their insightful talk, and concluded our last University Worth Fighting For of the semester. One of the important take-aways also relies on the importance of institutions such as CUNY. While Alicia is a professor at CUNY, Odalys reminded us that they could not finish college and yet, they were actively working to raise awareness and create knowledge regarding environmental racism in their community. Both speakers insisted on the importance of having those discussions across the borders of the neighborhoods and communities affected, and that higher ed institutions could yield power and help make their struggles more visible by supporting them through participative research projects and educational actions.