I began organizing in my freshman year of college. I was fresh out of high school, and out of quarantine from a global pandemic, and I enrolled in a course called Environmental Justice: Theory & Action at Swarthmore College. Swarthmore, an affluent, predominantly white, liberal town, is an 11-minute drive away from the city of Chester. Chester is a predominantly Black and brown low-income community and is home to the largest trash incinerator in the United States. Chester is a textbook case of environmental racism–the tactic of placing harmful environmental pollutants into predominantly Black and brown and/or low-income communities. The movement to fight against this is called the environmental justice movement. Beginning in the late 70s, a Black town in Warren County, North Carolina fought against a landfill in their town where toxic waste was dumped and then streamed into their water source. Environmental justice communities like Warren County and Chester are considered sacrifice zones because it is where low-income Black people live. Bottom line.
Through taking Environmental Justice: Theory & Action, taught by Professor Giovanna Di Chiro, I found myself working on a fundraiser for Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, better known as CRCQL, an environmental justice group formed by Chester residents who had been fighting against polluting industries, like the Covanta Incinerator, for over 30 years. The class paired students directly into projects that were requested by CRCQL. Other projects included print materials (which required people to make flyers and printable info sheets for CRCQL), social media (which had students work with CRCQL’s leader of social media to create content for CRCQL’s socials), and a youth event group (who planned an activities fair geared toward Chester youth and centered around environmental justice). This course is an example of Engaged Scholarship courses at Swarthmore, which allow students to address pressing issues in communities via their coursework. The class was only for a semester, but after planning the fundraiser with my classmates and students who are a part of a group called C4, I decided to stick around for a bit.
C4 stands for Campus Coalition Concerning Chester. It is a student-led environmental justice organization predominantly based on Swarthmore’s campus, but has chapters at the Tri-Co–Harvard College, Bryn Mawr College, the University of Pennsylvania (where the fundraiser was hosted), and now Harvard! C4 was originally created in the early 90s; there was a conference held on Swarthmore’s campus, organized by CRCQL, and several colleges across Pennsylvania were in attendance. Since then C4 students have worked diligently to provide CRCQL with the resources we can offer as college students, and in return, they teach us so much about grassroots organizing that we cannot learn from sitting in class reading academic articles.
Ms. Zulene Mayfield is the chairperson of CRCQL and she is an icon. She is THE fighter for environmental justice and I am so honored and so humbled to learn from the best. I stayed with C4 because Ms. Zulene had ignited something in me. She’s fought against several pollutants and won. As someone who wanted to fight against climate change, and then against environmental racism, after learning what it was, I wanted to be on her team. I attend everything C4 related. Weekly meetings, protests, community events in Chester. If I wrote about everything I’ve done with C4, I’d end up with a book. So I’ll keep it short. C4 is THE BEST college campus environmental justice group, and I’d go as far as to say environmentalist group, because of how integral community and authenticity is to our organizing. Most C4 members have taken classes with Professor Giovanna Di Chiro. Professor Giovanna Di Chiro is America’s best Environmental Justice Professor. All of her classes teach students how to ethically engage with communities from which they are outsiders, while simultaneously engaging students with off-campus/outside of class on the ground work with Philly- and Chester-based organizations. We read texts from Black and Indigenous authors and learn that we are all interconnected. As a result of Professor Di Chiro’ classes, C4 students effectively work with CRCQL to support whatever they need, utilizing our position as privileged Swarthmore students. The relationship we have with CRCQL is technically reciprocal, but CRCQL has given me so much more than I could ever repay.
CRCQL has given me a community outside of campus. It has been amazing to spend time in Chester going to community events and being around a Black community away from mine at home. I’ve learned and grown so much because I’m helping plan community events, canvassing in the neighborhood, attending weekly CRCQL meetings, leading C4 weekly meetings, going to DEP community meetings, sitting in on the Delaware Solid Waste Authority meetings, going to Delaware County Council meetings, and, I was even landscaping senior homes this summer! My favorite time of year is April when CRCQL does their annual Environmental Justice March on Earth day as an act of reclamation. Earth Day has been greenwashed by big corporations and our EJ Day March gives power to environmental justice communities fighting for change.
I’m in all these different buckets, but they all fall under being actively engaged citizen in my community and those that surround it.
CRCQL has given me that, CRCQL and Ms. Zulene taught me that I have a right to demand that my government protect me and that I have a right to call them out if it does not. I am not unreasonable in that demand and no one person is more entitled to government protection than another. It has been an honor being a member of and now leading C4; had I not attended Swarthmore, I would have never met Ms. Zulene and CRCQL or been able to participate in the environmental justice movement in such an engaged way.
Once you get accepted to Swarthmore, the first thing you must do is sign up to join C4.