Category Archives: Community Posts

Free Curtis Bay from Environmental Racism


Free Your Voice, a 20-member human rights committee of workers, students, and teachers from Curtis Bay in Baltimore. They  have been protesting a former chemical plant less than a mile from their school – where Energy Answers wants to build the 160-megawatt trash-to-energy Fairfield Renewable Energy Power Plant.

Two of the young members, Charles Graham and Destiny Watford, both 19, have this to day about their efforts to stop the incinerator in their neighborhood, Curtis Bay in Baltimore, MD:

We would like everyone reading to stop for a moment and imagine your idea of a beautiful city. What does it look like? How do people treat each other? What are the values that matter most? What role do you play in the city? How does it feel to live there? 

We asked you all to consider this because we believe that every single one of us has the right to be involved in creating the society we want to live in. This belief is at the root of what we call Fair Development. Unfortunately, we often face failed development which leaves us out and ignores our human rights. We are writing to share a very clear example of failed development that impacts all of us along with what we are doing about it.  

Three years ago, we made the choice to form a group at our school, Benjamin Franklin, called Free Your Voice. This choice meant giving up a lot of our time so that we could learn more about the world we live in. We meet every week to study, reflect and act together. 

Along the way, we learned about another choice, one that was made years earlier. That was the choice to build the nations’ largest trash burning incinerator less than a mile away from our school and our community of Curtis Bay. At first, we were shocked because we did not have any idea that this was happening in our own community. We realized though, that learning about this presented us with a choice: should we, as a group, get involved with an issue this big, complex, and to be honest, intimidating? 

We chose yes, and proceeded to stick together to study, research and reflect. And through studying the issue we came to learn about another choice, one that connects us all to the issue and gives us the opportunity to choose. In 2011 the Baltimore City Public Schools (along with 21 other public institutions across Maryland) chose to enter into an agreement to buy electricity from the incinerator. The same incinerator that would be less than a mile from our school. The same incinerator that would burn 4,000 tons of tires, metals and plastic every day. The same incinerator that would be nearly twice the size of the troubled incinerator Baltimore already has. The same incinerator that would emit 240 pounds of mercury (more than Maryland’s largest coal fired power plants) and 1000 pounds of lead into the air each year.

The connection between the incinerator and our schools shocked us but also forced us to reflect on the meaning of schools. To be honest, as children, neither of us liked going to school. We didn’t see its purpose. In fact, only recently have we begun to understand the true beauty of it. You see, we were educated through the public school system. And, although it has its flaws, the beauty of the system is that, at it’s core, it aspires to be a public place of education. We want to emphasize the word public because this means it includes everyone, no matter what economic situation you were born into. At its root, it is a system that springs forth from the principle of equity. It represents a choice that we made as a society to reach towards fairness. It provides opportunities to enlighten ourselves and allows us to look out at the world and question what we see. Which is exactly why we are writing to everyone now.

We are writing to make it clear that this incinerator threatens the very idea of equity that we students, teachers, parents and community members share. We ask everyone: Is it fair to build the nations’ largest trash burning incinerator in the community with the highest level of toxic air emissions in the state? Is it fair to build the incinerator in the community with some of the highest rates of death from heart disease, lung cancer, and lower respiratory disease in the city? Is it fair to build the incinerator in the city that has the highest rate of air pollution related deaths in the nation (even higher than Baltimore City’s homicide rate)? Is it fair to have your life cut short simply because of where you are born? We say that it is not fair and more, that it is not right. The incinerator is failed development.

Let us conclude with a simple, but revealing fact that brings us back to the idea of choice. No incinerator has been built in the United States since 1995. Let us repeat that. We, as a society have chosen not to build a single incinerator since 1995. 

So what can be done? We are here to say that we can choose. We are here to say that we all deserve and have a right to Fair Development, development that puts our shared needs first and is rooted in our human rights. We are here to ask all of you reading this to make a choice for Fair Development. We are asking you to free your voice by joining in our call to ask the Baltimore City Public Schools, and all the other public institutions invested in the incinerator, to make a pledge to end their relationship by the Spring of 2015 (when their contract runs out). And as a first step towards making this choice, we want to invite each and every one of you to come to Curtis Bay so that we, the students of Free Your Voice, can give you a tour of what we are proud of in our community along with what we need to change. This way, we can begin to work together to achieve Fair Development and realize our human right to breathe clean air. 

You can find out more about Free Your Voice here:

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thumb_white_districts Baltimore is not a large city, and one frequently runs into people s/he knows. Because of that, sometimes people in Baltimore refer to the city as Smalltimore.  Andy Ellis, a Baltimore activist and debate coach working with Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle, suggests that Baltimore’s Smalltimore-ness is a


Click here to view the map in a new window.

result of racial segregation in the city.  Whites interact with other whites and imagine the city to be small, but in actuality they are only interacting with a small portion of the population.  Here is what he has to say:

Baltimore City is a majority Black city. This should come as no surprise to anyone who lives here or knows anything about the city (even if that knowledge only comes from “The Wire”).

It is however worth discussing for a bit, because as such it is a relative anomaly among cities its size. I think it is important to understand how unique Baltimore is among American cities in this regard, because majority Black political entities are rare in the United States. Even more rare in large cities. Among all cities in the US with over 100,000 population Baltimore ranks 21st in size with ~620,000 residents. It Ranks 7th in Total African American or Black Population with ~399,000 residents.

This city has a long history as a central location for Black life on the east coast and in America. There are plenty of places to learn about this history and how it relates to the present. People jokingly call it “Smalltimore”, and it’s a huge part of its appeal.

I have always had an uneasy reaction to the term “Smalltimore” when used by white folks who moved here as adults (like myself). That being said, I have somewhat embraced some of the potential meanings. “Smalltimore” is a place of “memorable restaurants” where “some of the brightest minds come to this city every day” (emphasis added) to embrace diverse neighborhoods, amazing educational opportunities, and harbor front communities. All in a small setting where you can almost always run into people you know.

But what is “Smalltimore”? Why does it feel so small?

In “Smalltimore,” not only do a large majority of white people live in communities with a larger percentage of white people than the city-wide average, but in fact most live in communities where white people are the majority.

There are 55 neighborhoods in Baltimore. 31 of those neighborhoods have a percentage of African American population higher than the citywide average. These neighborhoods have a total population of 360,000.They are on average 89% black, 8% white, 2% Hispanic, and 1% Asian.

The other 24 neighborhoods, with a percentage of black population below the city average, comprise a total population of 256,000 people. This grouping of neighborhoods is on average 28% black, 60% white, 5%Asian, 8% Hispanic, 1% Native American, and 2% other. The last time Baltimore was as small as “Smalltimore” was between the 1860 and 1870 Census. Even then, Baltimore had the largest free Black population in the nation. Then as now, “Smalltimore” is not a monolith, it is a place of “diverse neighborhoods.” 24, to be exact.

Race is an important component of understanding Baltimore. The construction of Smalltimore is based on establishing and defending a series of white spaces on top of a Black City. What is interesting to me is why white people find comfort in white spaces, seemingly without the ability to see those spaces as white.

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