Environmental racism against Black Americans has been at the forefront of many of the disparities and health issues the community has faced throughout history. It is also a conversation that Alicia White, founder of Project Petals, says needs to be strengthened this Juneteenth.
Project Petals is an environmental, climate and community development organization founded in 2014 to combat issues of climate justice affecting Black and BIPOC communities. The group works with community leaders and agencies to find ways to fight environmental injustice and implement new ways to sustain the health of the people in these communities.
“The environmental injustices that have happened in the United States of America, historically, have been egregious,” White, whose grandmother was a sharecropper from Alabama, said.
As a native of Jamaica, Queens, White highlighted some of the environmental issues that Back and brown communities in New York face including a lack of access to green spaces, air pollution, and lack of fresh produce.
“In our outer boroughs, there are a lot of green spaces that exist. Instead of kids and children having access to that land to play or seniors having access to take a walk, we were diverted to just using concrete streets and concrete sidewalks for those daily activities,” White said.
“Many of the Black communities throughout New York City are positioned in places that are highly trafficked, sometimes trucks are diverted through Black communities and communities of color. Our green spaces are used as dumping grounds instead of places where people can have a green space to go. And, so my organization really works with environmental leaders and community leaders throughout NYC to create those green spaces, and then also write letters to politicians, connecting with city agencies to make those green spaces available and accessible to us,” White continued.
The impact of these challenges and not having clean spaces to meet and congregate affects not just the physical health but the mental health of these communities, according to White.
Project Petals helps to create green spaces in the different communities with resources like gardening and composting spaces. They also provide climate and environmental education in areas like growing their own food and preparing for the effects of climate change.
The group has worked throughout the boroughs in areas like the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, where White’s first major project involved the restoration of Railroad Park, which would eventually grow to be renamed Gwen Ifill Park in the Jamaica neighborhood.
“We’ve connected with community leaders and environmental leaders. We’ve connected them with everything from tools and resources like solar power. This has improved the environment for the communities overall. It has given people access to public green spaces that they have not had before. It has given them access to fresher produce, healthy food, and places that are food deserts. We teach people how to compost and overall live healthier lives and how much a healthy environment can help improve the communities in which we live,” White explained.
This year Project Petals is expanding outside of New York to work with environmental leaders in states like New Jersey, Atlanta, and Florida so that they’re able to follow the same model of the organization.
Last week, as the Canadian Wildfire smoke engulfed New York, White says she immediately thought of how it would impact Black and brown communities.
“We have Black and brown communities that are living in air qualities that are already horrible. So now we add climate change on top of that, it exacerbates whatever the air quality originally was… While we look at the index for what the air quality is for New York City, let’s times that by two or three for Black and brown communities,” White said.
The Amsterdam News previously reported on the concern about heat temperatures, and the impact of the heat island effect on New Yorkers in communities of color. Solutions that White says are needed include making utilities such as electricity public in order to prevent air conditioners from being cut off for non-payment and to keep people from having access to cooler air.
In addition to public utilities, White says that creating more green spaces, parks and planting more trees and greenery will keep Black and brown communities cooler in the summer months.
Project Petals also has a Youth Builders Program designed to connect young people with careers like environmental scientists, architects, engineers, urban planners and designers, etc.––jobs that White notes Black people have historically been kept out of and that she says are the “building blocks to our climate and environment.”
For Juneteenth, White is hoping for the community to rally around fighting for climate justice and environmental justice.
“If we do not have a habitable planet, we will not be here. Black communities have been bearing the brunt of environmental injustice for as long as I can remember. Having this conversation on Juenteenth is crucial for policy, and really getting our demands and our concerns out there when it comes to our environments, our health and where we fall because as the climate conversation moves on, our communities are getting left behind.”