Stopping One Incinerator Wasn’t Enough for Baltimore Students

Student-led environmental justice effort leaves lasting legacy at this Baltimore high school.

Baltimore's skyline

(Photo by Dokaspar)

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In 2010, the city of Baltimore approved a plan to build the Fairfield Renewable Energy Project, a trash incinerator that would have been the largest of its kind in the nation. Its developer, Energy Answers International, planned to spend nearly $1 billion to build a plant to burn municipal waste, tire chips, auto parts and demolition debris for fuel. By law, the incinerator could emit up to 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead into the air per year.

The project was never completed. And today, the student-led effort that stopped what could have been has evolved into a new opportunity for more students to learn how they can use science to advocate for and improve their community.

The Baltimore neighborhoods of Curtis Bay and Brooklyn are separated from downtown by the Patapsco River. The area has suffered from disinvestment and displacement to make way for industry; as a result the neighborhoods have ranked among the most polluted zip codes in Maryland and the country.

Benjamin Franklin High School sits within a mile of the proposed incinerator site in Curtis Bay. It was there a group of students began speaking out and raising concerns around the proposal for the incinerator. To galvanize her fellow students, during her senior year at Ben Franklin High, Destiny Watford co-founded Free Your Voice, a student-run social justice organization.

By May of 2014, Free Your Voice had urged Baltimore City Public Schools and other local government agencies and nonprofits to divest from the project. The following February, the city backed out of its contract with Energy Answers International. A few months later, as Free Your Voice continued to speak out against the incinerator’s potential effects, all stakeholders had divested and construction came to a halt.

“We fought this thing together that no one believed could be stopped,” says Watford, who graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in 2013 and continued her advocacy from Towson University, where she graduated this May.

“Often times, people gather to fight one thing, and when it feels like it’s the end, people peter off,” says Watford. With that in mind, she helped forge a different path for Benjamin Franklin High School. Working with local organization United Workers, as well as educators at the high school and Towson University, Free Your Voice has evolved to include a formal curriculum in which high school students are given tools to advocate for changes within their community.

“We’re told education is so important, but we’re not taught about the issues that surround us,” Watford says. “We’re in history class learning about dead, white poets who lived in England … not the fact that we live in a neighborhood with 517 vacant buildings.”

That was one of the findings students recently presented to their community, at an event attended by about 50 people that included local residents and city officials.

Coursework to guide the students emerged last year as the brainchild of local advocates and educators. Watford worked closely with United Workers organizer Greg Sawtell, as well as Dr. Nicole Fabricant, an associate anthropology professor at Towson. Fabricant enlisted college students to provide support for the program. Albina Joy, a science teacher at Benjamin Franklin, integrated the class into her curriculum.

Free Your Voice’s roots in environmental justice made this a good addition to a traditional science curriculum, according to Joy. “We wanted to bring the soft side of science, and an inquiry and investigation into environmental issues and environmental justice, into the classroom,” she says.

Joy and Fabricant tweaked the course to address demands of scheduling and the traditional science curriculum, and “to figure out how to work as a collective,” as Fabricant puts it. Both educators are quick to point out the course is, first and foremost, student led.

“We just needed to give them some direction,” says Joy. “We’re asking students, what makes a community healthy, and do we think our school community would be considered healthy?”

Students ultimately narrowed down a few local issues to focus on: housing, trash, public safety, food access and pollution.

“Students are encouraged to talk about their experiences everyday, like living next to vacant homes, and the class validates those concerns,” says Sawtell. “As that culture begins to build in the classroom, we can then say: what do we want to do about this? It’s organizing work in the classroom.”

Students pursued research and field visits to address the history of each issue. From there, they collaborated on reports addressing ways to advocate for change.

In one video, “Trash and Pollution in Baltimore,” students analyze where the area’s trash comes from and where it goes once thrown away. (Their answer: a trash incinerator in Southwest Baltimore, the city’s largest single source of air pollution.) The findings encouraged students to start a recycling program in the cafeteria.

Can We Do Development Without Displacement,” another video, looks at a block of 10 homes devastated by a fire last year and still sitting vacant. From there, students became involved with a local Community Land Trust, called the Greater Baybrook Community Land Trust, working to replace the stretch with affordable housing.

The study “Who Owns Vacants?” maps all 517 vacant buildings in the area and tracks each to its owner, many of whom are out-of-state. By tackling vacancies, Sawtell says, “it quickly cut through the idea that ‘this is the way it has to be’ … [the students] were willing to suspend all the reasons they think change is impossible and actually talk about a bold vision for the neighborhood.”

There have been hurdles along the way. “This model of education is very different than the rote learning and standardized tests these kids are used to,” says Fabricant. “It’s not easy to teach kids to think critically, when a curriculum is very standardized today.”

Still, it’s offered students a new way to engage with their education, including some who have struggled in traditional classroom settings. “We have students who have been off-the-charts brilliant, but not necessarily performing in the classroom,” Fabricant says.

Joy echoes the sentiment: “Students that haven’t had a college-bound path set out before them, are feeling that if this is what college is like, they can handle it.”

The collaborators are now working to grow the class into an independent study course that will offer students three college credits.

“A lot of work we do in the neighborhood is more challenging than a college course.” says Watford, who has gone from being student to mentor. “Having an integrated class at Ben Franklin that explores issues in our neighborhood is something that’s not done, not in a Baltimore City school or a neighborhood like ours. To dedicate an entire class to it? It shows the values of this community.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: baltimoreenvironmental justiceyouth

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