June 21, 2021
By Sharon Lavigne
I am overwhelmed with gratitude to have been selected to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize.
I am surprised that I have been selected. I started this work without knowing anything about being an environmental activist. Growing up in my small hometown of St. James, Louisiana, I could not have imagined that one day, I would be receiving such a prestigious award.
First and foremost, I would like to take a moment to thank God for his unmerited, undeserved grace, mercy, and provision during this critical journey of my life.
When I was a little girl, I used to play outside with my siblings and neighbors and breathe clean air and drink clean water and my family lived off the land. We were not sick. We did not have to go to the doctor. As industry started to come into my community, I witnessed neighbors getting sick and dying. Our air is now polluted with carcinogens that cause cancer.
If someone would have told me that I would retire from teaching high school special education for 39 years and become the founder and director of a nonprofit organization, RISE St. James, helping to stop petrochemical industries from systemically sacrificing poor Black people in my hometown, I would have never believed it.
“I am the example that it does not matter who you are or where you live—you can take a stand for what you believe in, especially when it is the right thing to do.”
What started off as a fight to stop Formosa Plastics from building a chemical plant just miles away from my home swiftly transformed into a global empowerment movement to dismantle an outdated, broken system which prioritized profit over human lives.
In 2015, I joined the Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People, H.E.L.P. Association, where I learned the harmful effects of the chemicals being emitted into the air and into our drinking water and into our soil. When I would come home from the H.E.L.P. meetings, I would be so angry because they told me there was nothing I could do about it. For two and half years, I was told there was nothing we could do about it. I was told chemical plants would be voted into my home because “people needed jobs.” I became angry inside and I started to go to God for advice. God put a fight in me that is beyond explanation.
I am the example that it does not matter who you are or where you live—you can take a stand for what you believe in, especially when it is the right thing to do. I am the example that it is never too late to discover your purpose in life. I gave up my life to protect my community from fossil fuel buildout. I am honored to have my work recognized.
I ask those reading this to sign our petition calling for the revocation of Formosa’s federal permits to construct a new chemical plant in our backyard: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/president-biden-stop-formosa-plastics
About the author:
A special education teacher turned environmental justice advocate, Sharon Lavigne is the founder of RISE St. James, a faith-based grassroots environmental nonprofit in St. James Parish, Louisiana. In 2019, Sharon stopped the construction of a toxic plastic plant in her community that would have generated one million pounds of liquid hazardous waste annually in a region already contending with known carcinogens and toxic air pollution. Sharon won the Goldman Prize for North America in 2021.