Destiny Watford

2016 Goldman Prize Recipient
North America

  • United States
  • Sustainable Development

In a community whose environmental rights had long been sidelined to make room for heavy industry, Destiny Watford inspired residents of a Baltimore neighborhood to defeat plans to build the nation’s largest incinerator less than a mile away from her high school.

The folly of burning trash for clean energy

Curtis Bay is a highly industrialized community in south Baltimore with a history of displacing people to make room for oil refineries, chemical plants, sewage treatment plants, and other facilities that emit pollution. Those left to live within breathing distance of industry have long suffered from respiratory problems such as asthma and lung cancer. In fact, a 2013 study on emissions-related mortality rates found Baltimore to be the deadliest city, with 130 out of every 100,000 residents likely to die each year from long-term exposure to air pollution.

Despite this, in 2010, the state approved plans for the nation’s largest trash incinerator to be built in Curtis Bay with promises to bring “clean” energy to the state. In reality, the developer’s proposal would have the plant burning 4,000 tons of trash—brought in from outside the city—every day. Environmental studies project that burning this much trash would release more mercury than the dirtiest coal-powered plants—less than a mile away from two public schools.

From shy teenager to determined activist

Destiny Watford grew up in a tight-knit neighborhood in Curtis Bay, visiting her grandmother, going to school, and hanging out with her friends at the local public library. During her high school senior year, Watford attended a play called “Enemy of the People.” Set in a small community that was being poisoned by a polluted hot spring—a major tourist attraction for the town—the play raised questions about government’s role and moral responsibilities when people’s health and lives are at risk. The play struck a chord with the shy young teenager, and after discussing it with a school advisor, she co-founded Free Your Voice, a student organization dedicated to community rights and social justice.

With plans for the trash incinerator moving ahead, Watford and Free Your Voice (FYV) decided to take on the campaign to protect their community from the plant’s pollution and create a pathway to a truly clean energy future for the state.

In pursuit of truly clean energy

Watford and fellow students hit the streets, canvassing neighborhoods, organizing protests, and circulating petitions. In their efforts, they encountered a community that had become used to being considered a dumping ground for the rest of the state. Residents shared stories about Curtis Bay’s long history of heavy industry, pollution, and displacement. Informed by these conversations, Watford and FYV took a deeper look at the community’s downtrodden past, and came out determined to bring positive alternatives—thriving communities and green jobs—within reach.

A huge breakthrough moment came when Watford and Free Your Voice students discovered that Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS), along with other city government agencies and local nonprofits, had signed an agreement to purchase energy from the incinerator. In May 2014, Watford and her fellow students attended a school board meeting to urge them to divest from the project. Destiny gave a compelling presentation, students showcased art and music performances, and parents joined in with testimonies of support. They brought board members to tour Curtis Bay and the proposed incinerator site.

In February 2015, in response to concerns from students and their families, the BCPS board voted to terminate its contract with Energy Answers, the incinerator’s developer. By the fall of that year, all 22 customers canceled their contracts, leaving the incinerator with no market for its product. The victory marked a moment of rebirth for Curtis Bay residents who finally felt that their voices were heard and that their health and lives mattered.

Watford and FYV turned their attention to put intense public pressure on government agencies to pull the project’s permits. In March 2016, the Maryland Department of the Environment declared the incinerator’s permit invalid. The community is now pushing to reclaim the site for truly clean energy alternatives such as a community solar farm and a recycling center. Watford, currently a college student at Towson, continues to organize with Free Your Voice students and other activists to bring that vision to life.

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