In our season three opener, Secret Sauce, we’re heading to St. James Parish, Louisiana, to chat with Sharon Lavigne and her daughter, Shamyra. Sharon is the Founder and President of the faith-based advocacy group Rise St. James and a 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize winner.
Last fall, we caught up with Miss Sharon one week after Hurricane Ida blew the roof off her home as she was deep in the fight against Formosa Plastic. A year later, we are joined by her daughter Shamyra to have an intergenerational conversation about their Secret Sauce in staying resilient and grounded in the face of hurricane season, Big Plastic, and the industrial polluters of “Cancer Alley”. Shamyra, who has a background in mental health, shares the ways that youth remain engaged and proactive in their community and her vision for St. James.
Since our recording, a Louisiana court judge denied the necessary air permits for a massive petrochemicals complex to be built in St. James due to the relentless organizing by environmental justice organizers on the ground, with Miss Sharon at the helm.
This season, we’re honored to join forces with Prism - a nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color to go deep into the stories behind environmental racism. Our host Shilpi Chhotray and Prism’s climate justice reporter Ray Levy Uyeda investigate what it’s really like on the ground and how federal agencies ironically defend the industries that exploit them.
Key themes explored:
Who is protecting the people of Saint James and who is protecting the industry that threatens to pollute it?
How did we get here and why are petrochemical industries interested in communities like St. James Parish, Louisiana?
What is the future of environmental justice organizing?
Tune in to the latest episode, Secret Sauce, to find out. This episode was generously sponsored by Beyond Petrochemicals, a program by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Speaker 1 [00:00:01] We can't buy more clean air. We can't buy more clean water.
Speaker 2 [00:00:05] I don't care what you have to say, but we have to adapt or we die.
Speaker 3 [00:00:08] The voice of the people is the voice of the advocates. It is the power of organizing. That's what creates the initial change.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:00:19] This is people over plastic. Welcome to the People Over Plastic podcast. I'm Shilpi Chhotray, your host, plastic pollution activist and media maven. We're back with season three. And this time we've partnered up with prism, a newsroom led by journalists of color. Ray Levy Uyeda, prism's Climate Justice reporter, helps me break down the facts. We believe you deserve to know the real stories behind climate chaos and society's most pressing injustices. It's time to set the record straight.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:00:58] On today's episode, Ray and I reflect on a recent conversation I had with my friends, Sharon and Shamyra Lavigne, from St James Parish, Louisiana. So we've seen it time and time again, right? Tons of media coverage when extreme weather events happen and then silence. We're seeing it with the Jackson water crisis and the floods in Pakistan and Puerto Rico. The Gulf South is another region prone to climate inequities, where communities are constantly looking for a break. The last time I had Ms Sharon on our show, her roof had just blown off from Hurricane Ida. So here we are a year later in light of yet another hurricane season.
Sharon Lavigne [00:01:47] Me, myself, I'm working on my home right now as we speak.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:01:53] How many people in St. James still don't have roofs on their houses?
Sharon Lavigne [00:02:00] Well, we still have people that are still struggling to try to get a roof on their homes and to get back into their homes.
Speaker 3 [00:02:08] Thank you for watching, ladies and gentlemen, please come forward, everybody.
Shamyra Lavigne [00:02:13] In July, we had a chance to go and visit Washington, D.C., My mother and I, to meet with a FEMA representative. And we spoke about our concerns about their process of how people get funds after a disaster happens. So whenever someone says that they're denied and people understand, it's to say that they're denied, but actually they just need to submit more proof. And that miscommunication in itself caused a lot of people more stress and anxiety and worry because the print isn't laid out in layman's terms, the climate is is changing. So being prepared, being aware, being knowledgeable of all of these processes and your insurance is so important.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:02:55] Okay. So here's what you need to know about FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused over 1800 deaths, a $125 billion in damage. And it has become a symbol of inept bureaucracy, especially with the majority black population in the region. Ray breaks it down.
Ray Levy Uyeda [00:03:19] For most of American history, there just hasn't been a ton of funding for people of color. I think part of that is just because of the wealth and income disparities between white folks and people of color and the kind of funding that people of color have access to.
Sharon Lavigne [00:03:33] We are hoping that the money gets into the right hands. We need this money to help us with the fight that we're going through, to help people to construct their homes again and pick up the pieces and go forward.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:03:50] There seems to be a big disconnect with what the politicians are saying and what's actually happening on the ground.
Sharon Lavigne [00:04:00] We only get bits and pieces of what's going on behind the scenes. We don't have a say so in what's going on. The politicians does. We don't see the funds. So I don't know how do we go around the politicians to be a part of the decision-making when these funds come down?
Speaker 3 [00:04:20] And with all due respect.
Sharon Lavigne [00:04:22] We all going to die. We're all going to die. But why? Why rush it? Why rush it when in distress?
Speaker 3 [00:04:29] My my main concern is the health and safety of our.
Sharon Lavigne [00:04:32] This is Cancer Alley.
Speaker 3[00:04:34] It's not cancer.
Sharon Lavigne [00:04:35] This is Cancer Alley. Not tell me it's not Cancer Alley.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:04:40] On September 14th, a Louisiana court denied permits for the Formosa Plastics complex to break ground in Saint James Parish. The judge's decision was based on health concerns that would impact the majority-black and low-income community. The proposed $9.4 billion facility would have emitted 800 tons of toxic pollution in an area already overrun with industry. It would have also been a major producer of single use plastic. Ms. Sharon and Shamyra have been on the forefront of this four year long battle. We recorded before this historic win. But pressure is mounting. Have a listen.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:05:22] You've been so prolific in getting Formosa to listen and take heed of the power that's in St James. How does that apply to the local parishes and the government?
Sharon Lavigne [00:05:37] It's hard to get the parish officials to listen to us from also listening. But then Formosa has the parish officials on their side. So it's kind of hard to fight when our public officials are listening to petrochemical industries.
Ray Levy Uyeda [00:05:59] I read about Cancer Alley a while back because ProPublica had been doing some really amazing reporting. So I was thinking about that and I was like, Well, what's going to happen? You know, what does that look like? And so from from that question, I then started reaching out to people and reaching out to legal experts, as well as people who live in St James Parish and live in Cancer Alley, which is just a horrible and efficient way of talking about the disgusting air quality that people have to live with.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:06:32] Over the last few years, Shamyra Lavigne has been getting more involved in the fight to save Cancer Alley. Let's hear more from this incredible mother-daughter duo.
Shamyra Lavigne [00:06:44] Our main goal is to educate, to educate and to advocate. So many people don't know what's going on. And and it's okay if you don't. I didn't either. But this job has forced me to learn. And as long as you're willing to learn, there's someone that is willing to teach you.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:07:02] There are so many community level fights across the world when it comes to petrochemicals and big oil and big plastic. What is your secret sauce that has really brought attention to this issue?
Sharon Lavigne [00:07:17] Our secret sauce is the good lord.
Shamyra Lavigne [00:07:22] Amen.
Sharon Lavigne [00:07:23] That's our secret sauce.
Shamyra Lavigne [00:07:27] And my mom is anointed. I call my mom America's sweetheart because people adore her. You know one thing about people they can tell Genuity, authenticity within seconds of the meeting. And when she opens her mouth, people understand and they feel her passion and they feel their purpose and they feel that light.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:07:50] Myra, how do you feel your role is as you're stepping into this space? It's really incredible that you're able to share this with your mom.
Shamyra Lavigne [00:08:02] The image here or the bigger picture here is my mom's been a school teacher all of her life. My mom is in rare form right now, and I'm blessed and honored to be able to witness it, to be able to see this happening in front of my very eyes. This is incredible. She's known all over the world. This doesn't happen every day. Before this, I was doing mental health, mental health therapy, counseling, and I was also working with youth. So I came in in 2020 when my mom was swamped. And in 2021, she went to Goldman Prize. And then I was swamped.
Speaker 3 [00:08:47] For outstanding environmental achievement for North America. The 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded to Sharon Lavigne, St James Parish, Louisiana.
Sharon Lavigne [00:09:01] I'll get what nobody say the governor. Anyone? I'm not afraid. God told me Formosa not going to do that to us.
Shamyra Lavigne [00:09:10] It's been overwhelming, but it's been forcing us to be there. But it's also brought us closer. And, you know, life is a little different when you're waking up to find a purpose, when you're waking up to fight for your hometown, when you're waking up to fight for people that look like you, and when you're awake enough to fight for years of oppression and intentional sacrificing of your community and people that look like you. And as you learn and you grow when you realize there's a bunch of little towns like St James all over the world that are being sacrificed the exact same way. So imagine waking up every day knowing that you're fighting for people's lives. I mean, what better feeling is there? There's so many young people in St James Parish that have a voice and I think that they are the future for this movement. We can't do it without them. They're going to be here when we're not here anymore.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:10:09] With the election creeping up, I was so inspired to hear how much passion Shamyra has to bring in the youth perspective. We know we cannot win without the next generation of voters, especially in states that have immense voter suppression, like Louisiana.
Shamyra Lavigne [00:10:23] Previous engagement with the youth has been through Black History essay contest. Our most recent one was excellent youth to write about what are their vision for St James. Because it's important not to only say what you don't want and you also have to be clear on what you do want. And it's so important to have what we're saying coming from the mouth of the kids. Sometimes people will listen if it's their kids telling them that when they won't hear it from us.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:10:50] It's that kitchen table organizing that's so powerful and that's where it starts. I would love to ask you to recall a moment if you had a similar experience when you first started this.
Sharon Lavigne [00:11:04] Well, after I got that message from God, we had a meeting in my den. I think it was about eight of us in the den, and we were all fired up because we heard about Formosa. We said we wanted to start an organization, an organization that did something that they didn't just have a meeting because the other organization I was in, we just had meetings once a month and we talked about what's going on, but we didn't have any action behind it.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:11:38] As somebody who has been so successful in the U.S., how do we make sure this doesn't happen in other parts of the world? I really look at plastics and in climate as a global issue, not just something that we have to focus on nationally. And I get really worried about if they take their business elsewhere.
Sharon Lavigne [00:11:58] And we don't need all of these throwaway plastics and the petrochemical industry that makes plastics that would be out of business because the the chemicals that's used to make the plastics are cancer causing. So we have to get to the root of the problem.
Shamyra Lavigne [00:12:18] And to add on to that, using our voice, putting pressure on our local leaders, we're stronger in numbers. And if the people in your parish or your your county aren't doing the right thing, vote them out. Get them out, replace them.
Sharon Lavigne [00:12:35] We need more help with that. And next year, we're going to vote for our parish council members. So we are trying to gather those people right now for the parish council meetings for next year. If they need to be trained to make sure we get someone that understand about what's going on in the issues that we are facing in St James Parish.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:12:58] Ms Sharon for President.
Sharon Lavigne [00:12:59] If God tell me to run trust me, I would run.
Speaker 3 [00:13:05] The Supreme Court capped off a week of landmark decisions yesterday by limiting the EPA's power to curb carbon dioxide emissions.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:13:18] So last summer Prism published this great article written by Ray about the Supreme Court ruling that guts the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate climate change. Here's what it means for Cancer Alley.
Ray Levy Uyeda [00:13:31] What I was wanting to demonstrate in this article is that the EPA had already been failing people who were living in Cancer Alley and in this ruling would continue to let people down. You know, the EPA, like a lot of other federal agencies, doesn't exist to protect the environment or to protect people. It exists to tell polluting entities how much they can pollute.
Sharon Lavigne [00:14:00] I'm sorry they did that to the EPA. EPA is federal and we need them to do their job. So I'm sorry they weakened them. They are protecting industry. Meaning you can go on and pollute even more. They come in there, sit down, have a cup of coffee or whatever you're drinking. And when they leave, they don't have any violations. Let the people in St James evaluate these industries. We live there. Let us be trained on how to evaluate them and I'll be the first one there. It angers me to know that they are not protecting us. For years I was told, call this number whenever you smell something or hear something. And I found out that I was wasting my time when I found out they were working for industry and not for us. Had me call him like a fool. We need to vote those people out and vote people in that cares about people.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:15:00] Louisiana continues to be one of the friendliest states to the chemical production industry. Shamyra question for you. Knowing what you have at stake in communities like Saint James, how can we make sure Louisiana becomes a little bit less friendly to to chemical producers?
Shamyra Lavigne [00:15:20] Resistance is the number one thing we need. But in reality, they're fighting against us, and we want to expose that. When they're fighting on the side of the industries, they can be bought, they can be bought, they have a price tag. And if you're paying a certain amount of money, they will completely disregard the lives of the human beings and the poor black people that are getting the brunt of this agreement that they're making.
Sharon Lavigne [00:15:43] And also going out to vote. That's one of the big issues. Vote out the ones that are deceiving us and put in people that care about us and care about our community.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:16:02] So here's another layer to all of this. I've seen this time and time again in the advocacy space. White NGOs are co-opting terms like environmental justice and equity for their own political gain. We have to make sure the term is owned and defined by the communities who are most impacted.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:16:23] What can these groups do to really give the environmental justice the power and the dignity it deserves?
Shamyra Lavigne [00:16:30] That's a great question. I would say if you want to donate resources, donate to the organizations that are actually on the front line doing the work. We don't need a person that's over the region or a person that doesn't look like us for you to give the donations to so they can distribute it as they see fit. Speak directly to the people that's in the community. So that's your number one sign. Make sure the person lives there and is in fact is impacted and is on the front line. If not, don't donate to them.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:17:03] Please look at who sits on their board, who their donors are. You know, there's these big ocean NGOs that are often led by white leadership that have no real sense of what Coca-Cola or Exxon or Dow or DuPont is doing in these frontline communities. But that's who sits on their board and they're taking up all of their resources. I don't care how many clean ups they're initiating. That is not a systemic solution. You don't need to be told how to run St James.
Sharon Lavigne [00:17:31] That's right. That's exactly right.
Shamyra Lavigne [00:17:33] Honestly, we know that these chemical plants have been strategically placed and built in poor black communities because they expect to receive the least amount of resistance. Every time another person is educated, every time, every time the conversations happens. That is a one march towards the resistance of these plants. The more that we speak against it, the less they can do. And that's where our power is going to be, is in our voice, is in these conversations. It's in education and it's in reaching out and just having some type of human concern for other human beings.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:18:22] Big hugs to our Louisiana fam to learn more about Miss Sharon and Shamir's groundbreaking work in Cancer Alley in how to support Rise St James, check out our show notes. Thanks so much for tuning in all. We're just getting started. This episode was generously supported by Beyond Petrochemicals. A new Bloomberg campaign aimed to halt the rapid expansion of petrochemical and plastic pollution in the U.S.. This episode was produced by Dennis Maxwell. If you haven't done so yet, subscribe and follow us on social. And if you're loving the show, be sure to give us a review. Signing off for now.
Season and episode cover artwork by sofahood @sofahood