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Atlanta: Reflections on Beholding, Protecting, and Dismantling

© Na’Taki Osborne Jelks – The 135-acre Cascade Springs Nature Preserve is the result of efforts of Black (and primarily women) residents of Southwest Atlanta forming a committee to protect the land once inhabited by the Muscogee Creek Native Americans and later used as a nature resort.

For the 2024 Night of Ideas, Na’Taki Osborne Jelks vividly portrays Atlanta’s contrasting nature. Despite its rich history of Civil Rights activism, Atlanta still grapples with severe racial and environmental inequalities. An environmental scientist, Jelks emphasizes the importance of community activism and organizations in dismantling systemic oppression and creating a more healthy and equitable environment for everyone.

Atlanta is a landscape of juxtapositions. It is considered by many accounts the cradle of the United States Civil Rights Movement and the “Black Mecca,” yet close examination reveals that this “crown jewel of the South,” is a textbook case—displaying undeniable racial disparities in health, wealth, education, home ownership, infrastructure investments, environmental quality, and the like.  While deemed by political leaders of old as a “city too busy to hate,” the “Beloved Community” envisioned by Martin Luther King JR.—Atlanta’s most well-known native son—is still more a dream than it is reality.

Atlanta has also proudly held the moniker the “City in a Forest,” yet for many years, its name has also been synonymous with urban sprawl. Efforts to further green the city have introduced gentrification, displacement from, and dispossession of the land for the populations who have, perhaps, needed it most. And yet other scenarios threaten intact forest lands, part of the natural lungs and cooling infrastructure of our region, and disenfranchise those living in closest proximity to the proposed destruction.      

On October 20, 1946. Scholar and prominent sociologist, historian, and Pan Africanist Civil Rights activist, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois delivered a speech, Behold the Land, during the closing session of the Southern Youth Legislature in Columbia, South Carolina. Although hosted by the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an interracial group was assembled as Du Bois urged the youth to champion the cause of fighting for racial equality.

Speaking in a more direct manner to the Black youth in attendance, Du Bois appealed to them to stand their ground and to fight for a future in the South, saying, “Young people, instead of running away from the battle here in Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, instead of seeking freedom and opportunity in Chicago and New York—-which do spell opportunity—nevertheless grit your teeth and make up your minds to fight it out right here if it takes everyday of your lives and the lives of your children’s children.” 

There is so much to fight for

In the United States and particularly in the Southeast, low wealth and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change hazards and risks in addition to a plethora of overlapping environmental injustices associated with cumulative exposures to environmental hazards; pre-existing conditions in the form of aged and polluting wastewater systems and inadequate stormwater infrastructure; social vulnerability produced by centuries of institutionalized racism deliberately codified through urban planning and practice; and intentional exclusion from meaningful access to decision-making tables where solutions are being developed to address long-standing environmental challenges, advance climate resilience, and improve health and quality of life. 

White manipulation of both the natural and built environments, dating back to the Jim Crow era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, solidified segregation based on the flow of wastes and water. Atlanta, Georgia and, in particular, low wealth and communities of color therein, are both a demonstration of these phenomena, and are also important sites of present-day resistance, community organizing and action to advance environmental, policy and systems change.

Today—heavy-laden with compounding environmental stressors and pollution, hyper-local impacts of climate change such as urban flooding, and often least represented at environmental decision-making tables, Atlanta residents—young and old as well as community-based organizations have decided not to retreat and to stop at nothing less than an equitable and sustainable future for Atlanta and all her inhabitants. Whether fighting discriminatory wastewater treatment practices in West Atlanta or defending the Weelaunee Forest southeast of the City and demanding that the voices of the people be heard and acted upon, Atlanta residents have a strong legacy of environmental justice activism.

There is a legacy to behold and protect

Organizations like the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA) were established on the heels of successful community struggles to advance environmental justice in policy-making in the City. WAWA’s work builds on a legacy established as far back as 1900 when Black residents fought against waste being dumped into Proctor Creek and started the trend of Black environmental activists advocating for the equitable provision of public dollars to protect all Atlantans.

With over a 25-year history, WAWA gets results for and with West Atlanta Communities through grassroots organizing; creating and delivering placed-based, culturally relevant and responsive environmental education to Pre-K to Grey audiences; engaging in community science and other participatory research approaches; and facilitating community-led environmental protection strategies and hands-on land and watershed stewardship.

WAWA engages West Atlanta residents in environmentally overburdened neighborhoods to bring their local community knowledge and lived experiences to bear along with monitoring local environmental conditions to generate actionable data for community change; thereby developing effective interventions that revitalize toxic, degraded spaces into healthy places. It also collaborates with community members to advocate for and invest in the cultivation of public-private-community partnerships to influence how public and private dollars are spent on efforts that impact environmental quality, health, and quality of life in Atlanta’s Proctor, Sandy, and Utoy Creek Watersheds.

We must dismantle the indelible mark of systemic oppression

Struggles in Atlanta communities like those on the Westside are vestiges of Atlanta’s history of racialized politics and policies that have shaped current-day inequities with respect to wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, economic development, enforcement of environmental policies, utility burden (water and energy), food insecurity, and a host of other factors that primarily render communities of color in Atlanta more vulnerable than Whites in the face of new urban development schemes and climate change.

Believing that a healthy environment is a key ingredient for a healthy community, our work today must set conditions that enable Atlanta residents, particularly those who have been historically marginalized, to empower themselves and elevate their voices to seek self-determined outcomes for environmental, policy, and systems change. Supporting residents who protect our land and waters and recognize and appreciate our important connections to these vital resources is critical.

Furthermore, cultivating informed and engaged residents who fully participate in decision-making on issues that impact environmental quality, our health and community well-being and enforcing strong and equitable environmental and climate protections will help all of Atlanta to secure an equitable and sustainable future.

Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks is an environmental health scientist and Assistant Professor of Environmental and Health Sciences at Spelman College with expertise in environmental justice, community-engaged research, and urban sustainability. Jelks co-founded the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), a community-based environmental justice organization that works to grow a cleaner, greener, healthier, more sustainable West Atlanta through authentic community engagement, organizing, education, community science, and participatory research. Since 2018, Dr. Jelks has served on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee that works to integrate environmental justice into the Environmental Protection Agency’s programs, policies, and activities as well as to improve the environment or public health in communities disproportionately burdened by environmental harms and risks.

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