Nonprofit Spotlight: RISE St. James

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In April, PennyLoafer donors collectively gave to RISE St. James!

The Rundown

  • Years founded: 2018

  • Leadership: Sharon Lavigne, a special needs teacher turned environmental justice advocate, has lived in St. James Parish her whole life. In 2021, she won the Goldman Environmental Prize, aka the Green Nobel Prize, which goes to “ordinary people taking extraordinary actions to protect their local environment.”

  • Issue they address: chemical plants emitting toxic air pollutants in and near St. James Parish, Louisiana – a town in a stretch of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge dubbed “Cancer Alley”.

  • What they do: fight to keep multibillion dollar petrochemical plants out of their already polluted town.

  • How they do it:

    • Grassroots organizing and advocacy: door to door knocking; hosting town halls; educating and mobilizing community members; leading marches; writing letters; meeting with elected officials to bring attention to the issues.

    • Building coalitions: with local civic orgs and churches, as well as, joining forces with environmental organizations in Louisiana and nationally, including, Sunrise Movement, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Earth Justice.

Why they were chosen

What started as a meeting in Sharon Lavigne’s living room with 10 community members has transformed into a grassroots movement to stand up to multibillion dollar plastic manufacturing companies further polluting St. James. Lavigne’s impressive leadership along with passionate community members most impacted and strategic partnerships built across Louisiana and the country, RISE St. James has called attention to the environmental racism happening in this area.

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🏭 What is ‘Cancer alley’?

The ∼85 mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where over 150 oil refineries and petrochemical plants operate. Residential communities, primarily Black, are scattered among factories, smokestacks and pipelines. It’s home to seven of the 10 census tracts with the highest cancer risk in the country, and in some parts the risk of cancer is 50x the national average.

⚖️ Environmental Justice

The goal of environmental justice is that we all – regardless of race, color, national origin, or income – have the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision making processes that lead to a healthier world.

Yet communities of color are disproportionally located near polluters, such as toxic waste sites and chemical plants, and exposed to higher levels of air pollution. This concentration of fine particulate matter contributes to health issues, such as lung diseases, heart problems and premature death.

📈 What’s with all these petrochemical plants?

With the rise of renewable energy and call for reductions in oil and gas dependence, fossil fuel companies are turning their sights on plastics.

There are plans to build or expand over 300 petrochemical plants in the U.S. alone by 2025, mostly along the Gulf Coast. Much of the new infrastructure is dedicated to plastics (think grocery bags and water bottles) – 99 percent of which is made from chemicals derived from oil or natural gas. To learn more, watch this quick animated short (4 min) on plastics.

📜 Update on Formosa Plastics

In August of last year, the Army Corps of Engineers reversed its earlier position and announced it will do a full environmental assessment of the $9.4B Formosa Plastics plan for St. James, to assess its impact. This type of review can take a year or more to complete and comes as a relief for RISE St. James and other groups. For ways to take action, check out this website.

If you enjoyed this and want to get involved, you can support the Racial Justice cause on PennyLoafer, starting with as little as $5/month. Each month, you’ll support and learn about a different nonprofit creating a more equitable world.