Program Officer Ryan looks back on his first encounter with 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize winner and undergraduate student Destiny Watford earlier this year.
I traveled to Baltimore, Maryland to meet Destiny who was born and raised in Curtis Bay, a highly industrialized community in south Baltimore.
I caught up with Destiny on a brisk winter day outside of Benjamin Franklin High School. This is where her activism had really begun, she told me as we headed out on a walk around Curtis Bay. During her high school senior year, she had attended a play about a small community that was being slowly poisoned by polluting industry in the area. “The play impacted me and my way of thinking,” she told me. Soon after, Destiny co-founded Free Your Voice, a student organization dedicated to standing up for their community’s human rights. Even now as a college student, she has been coming back to Benjamin Franklin High each week to organize students and community members.
Just two blocks from Destiny’s high school we turned right on East Patapsco Avenue. The contrast between the two blocks was stark. Almost immediately, three large tanker trucks zipped by, and the neighborhood suddenly started to feel more industrial than residential. We crossed the street, dodging trucks, and headed east toward the site of Energy Answer’s proposed incinerator. The landscape was dotted with giant warehouses and smokestacks.
“Looking around Curtis Bay, what you’re going to find is that on one side you have a community just like any other. You’re going to see community gardens, and schools, and children playing in the park. But on the other side there’s this long fence that divides what we call ‘Curtis Bay’s backyard,’ which is this huge, huge, seemingly endless sea of industry.”
Destiny was not kidding. Walking down East Patapsco, she pointed out the facilities as they came into view: the nation’s largest medical waste facility along with coal export terminals, oil tank farms, animal rendering facilities, chemical factories and Baltimore City’s main landfill – among others. As we neared the incinerator site, Destiny told me that one of Free Your Voice’s first projects had been to learn about their neighborhood’s history. The area we were walking through is known as Wagner’s Point, and at one time had been home to several hundred residents. Just a few minutes from Curtis Bay, this diverse neighborhood had been rated as one of the 10 most toxic places to live in America in the late 90s. Elevated cancer levels and high incidences of chemical pollutants in the air ultimately left Baltimore officials with little choice. The city condemned the houses in the area and mandated that Wagner’s Point residents evacuate. “A whole community was forced to leave because of the toxic environment,” Destiny told me.
“Looking around Curtis Bay, what you’re going to find is that on one side you have a community just like any other. But on the other side there’s ‘Curtis Bay’s backyard,’ which is this seemingly endless sea of industry.”
Wagner’s Point became a vacant, industrial ghost town – and Curtis Bay was right next door. Destiny’s neighborhood has consistently had the highest levels of toxic air pollution in Maryland, and in 2007 and 2008, Curtis Bay was officially the area with the highest level of toxic air pollutants in the US. She explained that the levels were not measured after 2008 as one of the monitors in neighboring Baybrook was taken down and never replaced. These monitors happened to be exactly where Energy Answers and the state of Maryland hoped to construct the nation’s largest trash-burning incinerator. After snapping some pictures of the incinerator site, Destiny and I began walking back to the school — a meeting with Free Your Voice was about to start.
Despite the bleak surroundings of industry, I’d found the walk uplifting. Destiny possesses such a sincere, raw desire to be a change maker and a force for good in her community. We talk about school and her hopes. She plans to study communications – not to use in a big firm but to take those skills to work towards a sustainable future for Curtis Bay.
Not long after returning home from my trip to Baltimore, the Maryland Department of the Environment canceled the incinerator’s permit. Destiny and Free Your Voice have been pushing to reclaim the site for positive community development — and their efforts finally paid off.
She still works in the community, working with Curtis Bay residents toward fair development, and a vision for 2020. This vision includes a community solar farm, building a zero waste movement, and bringing in green industry that will create good jobs for the community. All this work, she emphasized, is to protect the health of her community, and our planet.
To support Destiny, join the call and demand that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) end public subsidies for trash-burning incinerators.
Ryan Mack is the Program Officer for North, Central and South America. He is a passionate advocate for the environment and human rights. With over 12 years of experience he has worked with grassroots organizers, local non-profits, international NGOs and local government agencies. Ryan has managed projects in the US and Latin America related to climate change, energy efficiency, zero waste and organic agriculture. His background also includes research on the extractive industries, hydropower, land grabs and illegal logging, and the impacts these have on local communities. Ryan speaks Spanish, basic French and is currently studying Portuguese.