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Who will tell the people?

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

This story is the seventh in a series that examines issues related to environmental justice and to the fight of the Rogers and Eubanks roads community to be relieved of what they allege to be an undue burden. To read the stories in this series and for other resources, go to www.carrborocitizen.com/main/rogers-road

Lest you’d come to doubt, don’t. Democracy does still work in America. It’s alive and well, in fact, and toiling away right here in Orange County. But pack a lunch; a change of socks. Plan to stay late. You’ll then see it well at work.

Of course we all knew this. We were aware that democracy still works when people are willing to work at it. But it’s nice to be reminded – as we have been by our county commissioners, by the Rogers-Eubanks Coalition to End Environmental Racism (CEER), by CEER’s supporters and by the people they’ve come to represent who’ve refused to be quiet when confronted with what they perceive to be unjust treatment – by those who’ve stayed late to see that it works. When people are heard, and done deals are no longer quite so done, thank the folks who stayed late, and consider democracy being done.

Consider it – but not for long. Because nothing’s yet settled.

After 35 years of carrying what it’s felt to be a solid-waste overburden for the good of our community at large, the Rogers-Eubanks community has successfully lobbied the Orange County Board of Commissioners to reconsider their decision to site a waste transfer station on Eubanks Road at the location of the current landfill. A search is now underway to determine the best site for a transfer station. Eubanks Road is not off the table as a potential location.

Beyond that particular order of business, though, is the question of whether the county should have a transfer station at all: Should we be shipping our garbage out of county for someone else to deal with?

And: If we were to site another landfill (or landfills), where should they be placed? Are the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, where the majority of our waste is generated, prepared for a landfill in their own backyards?

And: What are our long-term plans for reducing our waste and for alternatives to both landfill and transfer?

But at least we’re talking, and that’s democracy at work.

So what does a community at large – that portion not immediately affected by hazards and/or inconveniences – gain from dialog of this nature?

Plenty, says Gary Grant, a director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network — but most importantly, a more fully realized understanding of “community.”

Grant says that while people generally think in terms of their trash being dumped at the end of a road, and not within a community, it’s certainly now more difficult to think that way in Orange County.

‘A smile on its face.’

How progressive are we as a community?

“This community is always patting itself on the back for being progressive,” The Citizen quoted Carrboro Alderman Joal Hall Broun as saying in an earlier installment of this series. But, she suggested “maybe we’re not as progressive as we really think we are. Does what we say really comport with what we do?”

We pride ourselves, rightly, on our efforts in improving racial relations. But charges of environmental racism were leveled by Eubanks Road landfill and transfer station opponents.

Omega Wilson of Mebane’s West End Revitalization Association talked to The Citizen about his organization’s thus-far successful efforts to keep a highway bypass from dissecting an African-American neighborhood (and thereby destroying an historic church and cemetery) and of the racial tensions that were brought to the fore in that Alamance County community — a community some 25 minutes from downtown Chapel Hill.

“A lot of folks said, ‘Well, we thought that stuff was dead and gone,’” Wilson says. “And of course, it’s not dead and gone. It’s very alive and well. It just has a smile on its face sometimes.”

Regarding Jim Crow, Chapel Hill-based community-development advocate John Cooper says, “the legacy lives, and so you have to take all that into consideration.”

What role has race played in the treatment of the Rogers-Eubanks community over the past three decades plus?

As Broun said, “I think it was a combination of race and economics. It’s hard to separate; I think they are tightly wound together.”

Neloa Jones of CEER agreed:

“I think that class certainly is an issue, but I think there’s an intersection of race and class. … [H]ad we been an affluent African-American neighborhood, I don’t think that they would be dumping it here — I don’t think any of this would have been here to begin with.”

It’s interesting, also, to look at the intersection of environmental justice concerns with the concerns of advocates for what we more generally think of when we think of environmental issues — essentially, protecting the Earth.

“There’s always been a tension between some groups who see things very narrowly as environmental issues and others that are trying to recognize the economic deprivation of an area,” says Bob Hall, director of the Durham-based Democracy North Carolina and editor of the book Environmental Politics: Lessons from the Grassroots.

On the other hand, former OWASA board chair and community activist Mark Marcoplos believes that over the years many local elected officials have taken a “tunnel-vision stance,” too narrowly focused on the environmental justice issue (e.g., 35 years of the landfill on Eubanks Road and then the prospect of a transfer station there) while losing sight of a long-term solution — more effective waste reduction, for example.

Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, says that in raising environmental justice concerns, the most effective way of resonating the message throughout the broader community is to clearly enunciate the public health concerns — which the Rogers-Eubanks community has done quite well, describing, for example, traffic-safety concerns associated with the transfer station — and to connect the dots between environmental and public health.

In terms of who comes on board from the broader community — well, that too has been a topic of sometimes heated discussion. There are those who believe the support provided to CEER and the Rogers-Eubanks community by more recently arrived residents in and around the community — mostly white and middle or upper-middle class — has been a cynical attempt to lash back at local government by those who were annexed against their will into the town of Carrboro.

Neloa Jones is not sure it’s necessary to get to the very root of supporters’ motivations: “I feel like if they’re willing to give us that kind of support, we should take it. …

“I have no way of knowing whether their concern is genuine. [But] I think that when you go to a board of commissioners meeting and you drive to Hillsborough, or wherever you drive, and you make these presentations and you speak these words and you send these emails and you write these letters — I don’t care if it’s genuine or not if it’s going to help the cause.

“Maybe I’m too naïve politically to know any better, but I don’t really care [as long as] it’s something that helps us.”

Obliged to reconsider.

There’s no question that the Rogers-Eubanks community has helped the broader community by raising the questions it has about how we deal with our solid waste.

County Commissioner Valerie Foushee acknowledges that the community members have certainly helped her:

“Board members are representatives of the people. And when the people say you need to take a look at this — or you need to look at this in this way, in addition to how you’ve viewed it previously — for me, I feel like I’m obliged to do that.

“Now, if I do that and my thinking changes, then I need to say my thinking changed. …

“If you find that the decision you made was not the best decision and you have the opportunity to change it, why wouldn’t you?”

It’s also important to keep in mind that a number of decisions were made over the years, some of which were made in the eleventh hour, when options were limited, that today’s county commission has had no option but to deal with — for example, the decision not to site another landfill elsewhere in the county when the present one is full, or the failure to better articulate and implement a more aggressive waste-stream reduction.

Joal Hall Broun says, “It’s just not the county commissioners that should bear the brunt of the decisions. Because there were a lot of players that came to play in these decisions.”

Getting to the next step means, for Foushee, “that the board has to take some responsibility in ensuring that what begins now is the right process and that we take the resources that are available to us to get this right. I hope that people understand that no neighborhood is going to accept a waste transfer station. And this is still going to be a tough process.”

Commissioner Barry Jacobs has encouraged the town governments of Chapel Hill and Carrboro to take part in the decision-making process that lies ahead.

Informing discretion.

Who will tell the people what’s in their own best interests? The people, we’ve been reminded, will tell the people.

“If you think that regular citizens aren’t intelligent enough, wise enough to make decisions that affect their well-being, the remedy is not to take the power of decision-making away from them but to inform their discretion,” says John Cooper.

Cooper agrees with those who insist there can be no more effective tool in the advancement of informed public policy than to make information available to those whose lives are in question, and to allow them to interpret it as it applies to the situation at hand, and to articulate the issues in a public forum.

“What I can do that would be most invaluable,” says Cooper, imagining himself in the position of a public official or a policy advocate, “is to give the people all the information, tell them everything that I know, let them have every piece of information that’s been collected, whatever they ask for. If they have questions that I don’t have the data for, let’s work together to figure out the answers.

“And what I’ve found is that you don’t need a Ph.D. to make a wise decision. You can take information and digest it and distill it. You may need some help in interpreting certain data. But once it’s explained, people can interpret it, and they can use it and make wise decisions.”

Of the work of the Rogers-Eubanks community, Gary Grant says, “It goes to show you that once a community has access to information, they themselves can be about protecting themselves.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Branch of the NAACP recently has provided valuable guidance to the Rogers-Eubanks community. And the Democratic Party of Orange County has been a vocal and influential advocate.

Most critically, though, says Bob Hall, is that “it’s got to be rooted in the community. They can draw on technical support or outside groups. But the heart and soul and the leadership has got to come from the community. That’s huge. You can’t sustain it otherwise.”

Rev. Robert Campbell has long been such a person within the Rogers-Eubanks community. Neloa Jones has emerged as an effective spokesperson. Numerous others have assumed particular roles.

The message is nailed down within the community and then disseminated, and the task is then, as Rev. Campbell says, to convince the broader public that the community in question is not only those who are affected by, for example, their proximity to a landfill, but also “those who are impacting the community.” Which is to say, all of us.

“It’s part of the democratic process to say,” Broun says, “‘We want the same quality of life that our neighbors have a mile down the road. We have borne the brunt of being adjacent to waste facilities that have benefited the entire community, and now it is our turn.’ That’s the democratic process — to be able to persuade your neighbors that you shouldn’t have to bear the burden of this anymore.”

A ‘paradigm shift.’

Cooper says he’s optimistic about a “paradigm shift in the way the environmental justice movement is operating,” saying that communities are becoming more proactive — “they are in fact at the table when decisions are being made; they are in fact determining which questions are the right questions to ask.”

But, in the words of Ringo Starr, “It don’t come easy.” You have to stay late — figuratively and literally.

Many who have attended commission and council meetings to speak out on the landfill and transfer station have objected that, for whatever reason, their item has very often come somewhat late on the agenda.

Valerie Foushee has said she would like the commission to be mindful of such timing issues. “Some people are trying to work, to make a living, and they don’t have enough energy once you work a 10-hour day to come out and talk,” she says.

Moreover, she says that elected officials “need to be mindful of not just the people who come out and talk with you about an issue, but be mindful of the people who cannot come out and talk about an issue. We all, as elected officials and policymakers, need to remember that.

“I think that sometimes you think that because people didn’t come out … that they’re not entitled to change the outcome.”

It’s all part of the learning process. The discussion continues. Stick around.

In next week’s issue of The Citizen: Considering our options.

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