Grassroots Environmental Leadership in Baltimore
Photo and excerpt information from ECOWATCH
BALTIMORE, MD: Destiny Watford (center top photo)
“Watford, now 20, became an environmental activist when she learned about Energy Answers’ proposal to build the incinerator in Curtis Bay. Her first-hand experience watching neighboring towns wither from industrial pollution motivated her to protect her battered community. With clear-eyed enthusiasm, Watford and other public high school students united the people of Curtis Bay in support of their efforts.
“After attempts to halt the project by invoking local health-related regulations were unsuccessful, Watford turned to arts and information as modes of activism. Inspired by a play she saw about pollution and deception, Watford called for her schoolmates to utilize their passions in videography and design to put pressure on 22 local organizations—including the Baltimore City Public School system—that had pledged to purchase energy generated by the as-yet-unbuilt incinerator. Through education she provided about the incinerator’s impacts, Watford convinced 18 of the 22 organizations to nullify their contracts, effectively cutting off the main source of revenue for the incinerator.
“However, the threat of the incinerator looms. Energy Answers still holds the lease on the 97-acre site, and Watford has reached an impasse with the Maryland Department of Energy, which has the ability to force Energy Answers out since it violated its permit by not beginning construction.
“Despite this, Watford is not sitting idle. She has a vision to transform the site for the true benefit of the community by exploring alternatives like solar technology, filling the site with community-owned panels to make it the largest solar farm on the eastern shore board. This would provide clean energy jobs for locals and would be a first step to encourage sustainable development. Toward this end, Watford is collecting signatures and video testimonials appealing to the Maryland Department of Energy to enforce the law and evict Energy Answers. With enough support, Watford hopes to begin the process of re-claiming Curtis Bay for its resident.” (Read more from Ecowatch)
Curtis Bay as a Crucible of Change
In an August, 2015 interview, Watford said about her community:
“Curtis Bay is a community just like any other. My family, my friends, my teachers and neighbors all live and/or go to work in the community. My life is very much rooted in Curtis Bay. To have an incinerator that would be burning 4,000 tons of trash per day, emitting 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead into the air every year — less than a mile from where I play with my baby nephew on the playground, where my little brother goes to school, and where so many of my family members work — is a perfect example of failed development. I wanted to have a hand in changing that.
The power of art, community, and youth [impacted me the most.] Art has played a very crucial role in our campaign. Throughout our fight to stop the incinerator we have expressed our concerns through a kaleidoscope of mediums – we wrote speeches, poetry, two of our group members wrote a fantastic rap about our struggle and our fight for clean air. And, without our neighbors and community members working together to change the fate of our community, we wouldn’t have made the progress that we did.”
How She Leads
According to a Sierra Club interview, creative education and group leadership strategies are at the heart of her work. “Essentially, our entire campaign can be boiled down to shaping narrative and storytelling,” says Watford. “I’m a writer, other members of the group were poets and musicians, and we used our skills and our creativity to show and to tell our stories.” The students collected hundreds of video testimonies from people in Baltimore and beyond, including one from writer and activist Naomi Klein, and used social media to garner wider support for the campaign. “The first video we made was shared on social media by one of my favorite authors, Margaret Atwood!” recalls Watford.
One of the entities that had contracted with Energy Smart was Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS). So Watford and her Free Your Voice classmates attended a School Board meeting in an effort to sway the board. “We were readily armed with our poems and our songs and our speeches and two amazing members of the group sang a song that they had written about the shift from passive acceptance of the pollution, to waking up and taking that stand,” says Watson. The School Board responded with a standing ovation, and in February 2015, the BCPS board backed out of its contract with Energy Answers.
“After the School Board, there was sort of this domino effect of us doing similar performances and all these entities backing out of their contracts,” says Watford. By the fall of 2015, Free Your Voice had convinced all 22 public agencies to terminate their contracts to buy energy from the incinerator developer.”
According to an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Watford knows her fight isn’t over. “The world is watching Baltimore and the injustice that we face,” she said. “After the tragic death of Freddie Gray and the unrest that followed, serious questions about structural racism and economic inequality, are rightfully being asked.”
(Listen to this Video to hear her clarity on the big questions that need to be asked and answered, and the riots/protests in Baltimore.)