On Oct. 8 2019, Roosevelt University alumna Gina Ramirez entered the school’s Auditorium Building as she had many times before while obtaining her graduate degree. However, rather than returning to her university to be taught, Ramirez returned as the educator. The university’s alumna was invited back to the university to present a lecture on environmental justice in Southeast Chicago. The event was hosted by members of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice.
Ramirez is the current Midwest outreach manager at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRCD). Her position is focused on progressive outreach throughout the Midwest, working specifically with environmental justice communities across Chicago.
A lifelong resident of the Southeast side of Chicago, Ramirez expressed concern for the well-being of her neighborhood. In the early to mid 20th century, the Southeast side was a hub for industrial mills such as U.S. Steel and Wisconsin Steel. These mills produced toxic waste and would store these hazardous chemicals dangerously close to nearby residential neighborhoods. As a consequence of this rapid industrialization, Ramirez and other residents of the Southeast side have feared for the safety and health of their community for decades.
“I grew up surrounded by seven-story-high piles of black soot,” Ramirez recalled. “Those piles are still there.”
After steel companies closed in the 1970s, a BP oil refinery was constructed in nearby Whiting, Indiana. Despite not being directly located in Southeast Chicago, residents still suffer from the consequences of living near this hazardous site. The city advised residents to keep children from playing in the soil in the neighborhood, and a thick black powder of petroleum coke (often referred to as petcoke) residue drifts through the air and into the lungs of unknowing residents.
“Petcoke is a byproduct of coal,” explained Ramirez. “It’s a carbon particle—similar to coal dust—that has been found to cause emphysema and lung scarring.”
The Southeast Environmental Task Force, a group that Ramirez works with and advocates for, recently found in a study that soil in Southeast Chicago was contaminated with toxic chemicals such as lead and manganese. Because of this, Ramirez and other grassroot organizations advocate for the removal of harmful storage sites such as the S.H. Bell Company that lines the rivers of Southeast Chicago.
“There needs to be land use and zoning reforms in the city of Chicago,” said Ramirez. “There’s so many inequities in place that impact the health of residents on the South and West side. The cumulative burden of pollution shouldn’t be concentrated in communities of color in Chicago.”
Despite the severity of environmental damage happening in Southeast Chicago, the progress towards ridding these communities of harmful pollutants is slow. According to Ramirez, the Chicago Department of Public Health declared that there was not enough data about the potentially dangerous effects of petcoke on the human body to prohibit the creation of the chemical.
Ramirez continues to lobby for nationwide environmental justice, as predominantly working-class Hispanic and African-American communities are most affected by contaminated air in the U.S.A. While making up only 13 percent of the American population, 68 percent of African Americans live within a 30 mile radius of a coal plant, according to a greenamerica.org study. Additionally, in an NAACP-published study titled “Coal Blooded,” it was found that communities that are predominantly black and brown breathe in 40 percent more polluted air than predominantly white communities.
“Environmental justice is social justice,” said Ramirez. “The neighborhood I live in is a transportation desert and a food desert. There’s not investment in the schools or in job creation, so we need to look at the whole picture and address the inequities that the residents of the Southeast side face on a day-to-day basis.”
Bekah Nichols, junior at Roosevelt University and Mansfield Institute scholar, helped coordinate the event. According to Nichols, she had never heard of environmental injustice in Southeast Chicago prior to the lecture.
“I had no idea about the environmental racism happening in Chicago,” said Nichols. “It was an eye-opening lecture, and Gina’s work is really inspiring.”
Roosevelt’s Manfield Institute helps to put on several events throughout the academic school year, most of which are geared towards themes of social equality.
“The goals of the Mansfield Institute are to promote social justice, as we want to be a tool for Roosevelt students to be able to participate in social change,” said Nichols. “We also want to educate students about current issues, and help them to get involved.”
Ariana Pozos, political science major and Mansfield Institute scholar, described the event as a massive success for the program.
“The Mansfield Institute is really focused on social justice, and environmental justice is a really hot topic right now with all of the conversations surrounding climate change,” said Pozos.
“Social justice is not only for us, but for our posterity,” Pozos said. “The goal of the Mansfield Institute is to pass along this information in order to create a world of inclusivity, and to create a world where social mobility is possible.”
Advocacy groups such as the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and the People for Community Recovery continue to fight for improved environmental legislation, accessible health screenings and new zoning laws throughout Southeast Chicago. According to Ramirez, grassroot organizations such as these are a necessary force when fighting environmental injustices across Chicago.
“I hope to bring more awareness to these issues,” Ramirez said. “I want to bring more people into the work that I do, and it’s always awesome to bring new voices to the table who want to advocate for what’s right.”