Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fabulous FAMU: Quilts Loved at Symposium

The weather was beautiful on November 11 and 12 as folks gathered in Orlando from around Florida and from other states to attend the Environmental Justice Symposium of the Florida A&M University Law School and FAMU Center for Environmental Equity and Justice.  FWAF was invited to participate and the Quilt Project was a sponsor of the event.

On Thursday evening, November 11th, the Symposium welcomed and hosted a reception and dinner by and for the new Region 4 EPA Administrator, Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, Esq., the first African-American woman administrator for the region.   Keyes spoke to a group of over 60 attendees on her experience and motivation, her vision and priorities, and her commitment to addressing the environmental justice issues affecting communities in the Southeast U.S.  Afterwards, she took questions from the audience.  A FWAF staff member and a community member Linda Lee asked the Administrator what she could do to improve compliance and enforcement of pesticide regulations in Florida, a task that EPA authorizes the state Department of Agriculture to undertake.  Keyes replied that she was new to the position, but that she would look into it.  FWAF will continue to follow up with her and work to develop a working relationship with the Administrator to address both EJ and farmworker issues. 

Thanks to Sarah and Jenn, the quilts were hung early Friday morning in time for all attending the symposium to see.  After registration and opening remarks by FAMU faculty and students, guest speaker and noted community activist and author, Beverly Wright, gave a presentation that focused on her hometown of New Orleans and the environmental justice issues resulting from both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill in that area.  The afternoon events included panel discussions on Toxic Dumping and Brownfields, Impacts to Indigenous People and Wildlife, and a student led debate on environmental justice.  Experts in different fields and issues conducted interesting and thought-provoking presentations.  Presenters included representatives from various organizations and disciplines, from the Center for Biological Diversity to a professor from Seattle University School of Law, among others.

The most important part of the symposium was at the end, when, on Friday evening, the Listening Session began.  Community members from an environmental justice group from Jacksonville were able to tell their own personal stories and that of their EJ community to several EPA representatives that were there to listen.  The last item on the agenda was the Lake Apopka farmworker community.  Geraldean Matthew, former FWAF staff member and community organizer, spoke from her heart about the impacts to her community from the exposure to pesticides on Lake Apopka and the other contaminating sites in the community.  After she spoke, there was not a dry eye in the room.  The story of the quilt had deeper resonance for everyone after hearing personal testimony by a member of the community.

A hopeful result of the symposium is that the Jacksonville community and EPA promised to embark upon increased dialogue and communication to work together to help find solutions and solidarity for their issues as we move forward together.  The quilts, again, have proven to be an important tool for raising awareness about farmworker, pesticide and EJ issues.  

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