The lead image is of Ramsey and taken by Weenta Girmay and was from a publication Medium by 350.org called "@350/from-the-bayou-to-the-bay-voices-from-the-gulf-f6707c7ecff3">From the Bayou to the Bay: Voices of Gulf Resistance"
On February 22nd of this year, I had a chance to interview Ramsey Sprague of Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition with @jywarren for the series we're exploring talking to grassroots and environmental justice community organizers (read more on the series here). Ramsey is an amazing community organizer, and since this interview happened in February, we're excited to share that MEJAC is a community partner we'll be working with under the new NAS grant. So stay tuned for projects, ideas and questions coming from MEJAC and collaborators in Africatown, Alabama on Public Lab!
In the meantime, below is our interview with Ramsey:
What kind of support do you look for for your community organizing activities?
Generally, the basics - someone willing to contribute financial resources to support effort, willing to actually go out and meet people, and be trained on what the issues are that a community is interested in.
We look for people that have a bedside manner about their politics, a willingness to listen and hear where concerns are coming from and how to meet them collaboratively. When groups are looking to work with us, I ask for them to review our strategic plan and to ensure they feel alignment with what is there and what is not. If they represent an organization, I look for their willingness to sign an MOU to avoid confusion about the work we’ll do together and on each others’ behalf. I hate that it’s necessary to have personal relationship documentation spelled out on paper but have found that it’s sometimes necessary. It’s dangerous to a project that’s fragile to have new partners come on that don’t respect that their input is contingent on the community wanting them there. Also, when people come here, I like to hear what you’re not able to do. I appreciate the honesty.
Are there any resources for your environmental work that you’ve found to be helpful? Such as guides, monitoring resources, websites, trainings, network, or otherwise?
For the community I’m most focused upon, the most useful tools are ones ready out of the box. I look for power-point presentations that can be customized for our community about a specific issue, so they have a frame. The vast majority of community aren’t digitally savvy, so websites or online monitoring resources or guides aren’t as useful as they may be elsewhere. There is too much front-end training for this and only a small handful are willing to submit to that kind of intensive computer literacy 101 stuff. Something immersive and engaging and conversational like a power point has been really useful.
There’s a strong need for 101 orientation about environmental sciences generally. These are important frames to give and see who has propensity or capacity to move into doing things like testing or monitoring. We need that kind of talent. Local monitoring must move into the gap that undone or underdeveloped federal work has left.
Ultimately, a perfect scenario would be an organization able to build literacy for frontline communities, bring in monitoring orientation resources, train people to do it, and open the door for people to do it themselves, perpetual support of questions, troubleshooting -- legal support, perhaps. No doubt that once we’re monitoring, we’ll find things where legal action must be taken. Even small stipends for work that needs to be done to give an incentive for younger people to involve themselves.
What do you think these resources could have done for you, but didn’t?
Well, the community here has repeatedly expressed concerns over the perception of disparate advocacy by larger regional or national organizations advocating for white communities strongly and less so for black communities like this one. People have asked me: “Are you getting support from local environmental organizations?” No, by and large. We’ve been around for 3 years, and individually, socially, I’ll talk to people with paid positions in larger groups. They know how to find me, and members of my group have asked for assistance, but only a few regional environmental groups have ever sat down with me to unpack what MEJAC is working on and how they could assist. I think some of this may be that the political terrain is hyper-racial, so folks just avoid confrontation. Many white professionals are uncomfortable directly assisting untrained black leadership. But before MEJAC’s work, local monitoring from independent agencies fell almost exclusively into the hands of folks who didn’t meet the community at the table and seemed to be resistant to the idea of directing resources to the environmental justice communities in and around Mobile. I know there’s a fair two-way street argument here, but work ought to be done to meet a variety of black leadership to work around any potential anti-environmental gatekeepers. The environmental community is adept at recognizing potential concerns but less so at affording patience and resources for working a long-term community engagement plan. If there is a need and a concern, keep knocking on doors. If you think there will eventually be a need to know folks from a part of your service area that’s underrepresented, keep knocking on doors.
When you, or your group, is learning something new, what is the best way for you to receive information? What is your preferred method of sharing information?
In-person face-to-face is best. We can do teleconferences, but sometimes the internet works and sometimes it doesn’t. But even for in-person meetings, our local community centers are expensive to rent. We need plenty of advance notice to work around the ridiculous fees. As I mentioned earlier, a huge swath of the community with the leisure time to learn new things have very limited computer and technological fluency.
Would being in a network of people from different backgrounds discussing environmental questions and collaborating on how to address them be useful to you? If so, in what ways?
Definitely. Networking is the gold standard, but the ability to marshal access is challenging. To belong to something of the larger networks is expensive, and we can’t afford that. People are willing to contribute to things that are useful, but any network is going to seem like any old network until it doesn't. It’s hard to convince people to shell out money for something that doesn't have an obvious great utility. What I would hope for is some table of expertise of science and monitoring with low cost effective techniques, subsidised lab work - things like that.
What would be important values or practices for the networking space to hold? If not, why not?
Emphasize what the network doesn't or cannot currently do and how the network makes these decisions. It just as important to emphasize what cannot be done as what can be done. Also, a lot of scientists don’t have easiest manner of interacting with folks. It would take a unique kind of field organizer to turn science into a how-to that’s not alienating, so for larger organizations or professional societies, implicit bias and anti-white supremacy training might go a long way. Even with strong cultural cleavage between those serving and those being served, honest recognition of shared values steeped in the history of the organizing terrain can ease tensions within power dynamics enough to move forward with challenging work. Expressing where one is coming from is a constant requirement that only gets easier with practice.
--End of interview--
Thanks Ramsey! We're so excited to loop in with you here shortly on projects in Africatown! Anyone interested in following? We'll be using the tags MEJAC and Africatown. Stay tuned for the next interview in the series, I'll post it next week.
**This post is part of a series with Grassroots and Environmental Justice Community Organizers. Read more on the series here or follow the blog tag to get updates on new posts.