On September 29th, the fourth installment of this semester’s Building a Better Environmental Movement Friday Forum lecture series took place. The week’s lecture was called “Neighborhood Approaches to Environmental Justice” and used a panel format instead of the traditional lecture format. The panel was moderated by Ross Wantland, the Assistant Director of the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations, and featured guests from two different neighborhood action groups in the Champaign-Urbana community: the Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee and the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign.
The Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee (LNAC) works to improve the neighborhood around Lierman Avenue and Washington Street in east Urbana. The neighborhood has been a historically low-income area that is largely ignored by the city government. LNAC co-founders Robin Arbitar and Gabe Lewis represented the group, and listed a number of issues with the neighborhood that they are working to have addressed. They include: the loss of 199 out of 250 apartment units on Lierman Avenue, an increase in renter occupied housing over owner occupied, a lack of sidewalks, fencing put up in residents’ walking paths, and poor biking areas, bus stops, and lighting. Since LNAC’s founding in 2009, the group has sought to empower residents through a variety of community engagement efforts. Lewis, a lifelong resident of the area, shared how LNAC had given the community a voice it did not have before, stating: “Who speaks for us? We do.”
The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign is based in Champaign, in the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of 5th and Hill Streets, which is also a low-income area. Until 1953, AmerenIP operated a manufactured gas plant at this intersection. The site is now an empty lot, but around ten years ago it was discovered by residents that it was toxic. A myriad of chemicals (including benzene, naphthalene, and ethylbenzene) have contaminated the site, and residents of the neighborhood live in direct contact with them. The neighborhood has very high rates of cancer, many of which become shockingly aggressive and untreatable. Since the Campaign’s inception in 2007, the group has provided education on the site to the community, forced Ameren to clean up the property, and engaged the US EPA, who are testing homes for indoor vapor intrusion. However, there are still many goals to be reached: homes are still at risk for this vapor intrusion, off-site contamination has yet to be cleaned up, and there is a toxic pipe that needs to be investigated and cleaned up.
The passion and determination of both groups was palpable. Neighborhood issues impact peoples’ immediate lives more directly than many larger scale political issues, but are often not considered as important to fight for. As Robin Arbitar pointed out, people who make policies don’t really know how they play out on a neighborhood level, so that means that residents must fight to rectify many of their issues. JB Lewis, a member of the 5th & Hill group, stated the role of residents in local problems clearly: “You have to ask questions and you have to be vigilant about what is going on in your community.” While it seems that the efforts of both groups will be going on for a while yet, it is clear neither will be giving up. Another member of 5th & Hill shared what was likely the most impactful statement of the afternoon: “When you get fighters, they’re gonna fight for what’s right.”
The Building a Better Environmental Movement Friday Forum Lecture Series will take place each Friday of Fall 2017 at the University YMCA until November 10th. On April 13th, 2018, Bill McKibben, famed environmental activist, will speak at the YMCA as a final installment of the series.