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PRC Oral Storytelling Project: The Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative


In this episode, listeners will hear from the Executive Director of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, Queen Zakia Shabazz, who will share about their work to address the impacts of climate change and racial inequity on communities in the state of Virginia. 

The Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative (VEJC) supports frontline communities in addressing environmental justice issues. VEJC has converted the Beaux Twenty (a historic building) into a community solar resilience hub in The Heights community in Petersburg, VA. The resilience hub will be powered by solar energy by placing solar panels. The solar resilience hub is located in the center of The Heights and is accessible to many community members. In partnership with United Parents Against Lead (UPAL) and Morua Power, the Beaux Twenty Solar Resilience Hub will become a capacity-building opportunity for residents of The Heights and function as an emergency response center during climate impacts. VEJC will continue to work with UPAL, Morua Power, The Heights Civic Association, and the city of Petersburg to build out the solar resilience hub to continue to meet the needs and priorities of the residents of The Heights. These priorities include food justice, multi-generational collaboration, and general community resilience. The solar resilience hub will have a kitchen/dining area open to community members, offering dietician programming, serving, and short-order cooking opportunities.

Full Transcript

Queen Zakia Rafiqa Shabazz [00:00:00] My full name is Queen Zakia Rafiqa Shabazz, from Earth born and small-town McColl, South Carolina and I currently live in Chesterfield, Virginia, with offices in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. Well, I got involved in this work back in 1996, when my son was poisoned by lead in a house that we were renting. I was at that time introduced to Maurci Jackson, who was the founder of Parents Against Lead in Chicago. She passed the torch on to me when I founded united parents against lead known as UPAL. UPAL advocates on behalf of lead-poisoned children and their families to have access to safe housing, quality, health care, and comparable education. So for a time, I followed my childhood goal to become a teacher. I went back to school later in life and earned a teaching license and began teaching first-grade students at Richmond Public School. Out of concern for the behaviors I witnessed while teaching, I sought and received permission to have the water fountains tested at four elementary schools in the city of Richmond. The water test came back positive for lead contamination and subsequently, I was fired from my teaching position because I alerted the parents, principles, and other teachings of those findings. The school division tried to silence me and I refused to be silenced, but in the process, I forfeited my livelihood. And as a result of that firing, I was United Parents Against Lead was already a member of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, and they threw out a…a lifesaver to me, and I started working for the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, which has led on to the position that I’m better currently hold. There’s a happy ending once I got fired from Richmond Public Schools and I appealed and people came to the…the school board meeting, lots of community people spoke on my behalf, but they still went ahead with the termination. But the good, the good thing that came out of it is that this day we have a new school in place now. So they built the solely new school from the ground up and is named after one of the first mayor’s first Black Mayor of Richmond, Virginia. And I like to think that our advocacy and our speaking out has something to do with the new school being there. You know, hopefully the water lines are not leaded you know that they have new…new pipes that the water is running through. So I’m pleased with that. Although, you know, again, the hurt that that’s still there sometimes, and that I have to shake off the fact that, you know, this did happen and this was all I wanted to do, you know, was to teach and give back to the children. And I think that…that had to happen for me to get to where I am today. So I don’t complain about this work. I think it was just a continuum that, you know, one led to the other. And so my ongoing work is with United Parents Against Lead being the mother of a lead-poisoned son. So I still advocate on just about on a daily basis. Still receiving calls from parents really across the country and sometimes out of the country. 


Queen Zakia Rafiqa Shabazz [00:03:40] I serve as CEO of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, so UPAL, along with 44 other organizations, are members of the collaborative. When I was hired in 2018 to serve as coordinator for the VJC, we had 18 member organizations I’m affiliated with and but under my direction, our member organizations have grown to 45 and we continue to grow. We are a statewide collaborative that came together out of four organizations that saw the need to really address it on the level of dealing with legislators and having laws passed to protect our environmental rights. And so The Virginia Justice Collaborative came to be back in about, I guess, around 2015. You know, we’ve seen the Environmental Justice Act of 2020. We drafted that legislation and got it passed. We’ve seen the founding and codifying of Environmental Justice Council. We advocated and recommended members to serve on that. And in a governor, I guess two governers ago, he wrote it into law and they are still around, and so we use that as a platform to bring EJ issues to that state level. These voices that wouldn’t normally be heard, these marginalized communities and voices that kind of left out the process. And so we are able to elevate those issues. We worked very ardently on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. You have probably heard about that. We were successful along with many other organizations and having that stopped–having it halted. We are now looking to do the same with the Mountain Valley pipeline, which is going across several states in Virginia through North Carolina, just this coming together across state lines to fight our common…common enemies, which has been just devastating communities with that disregard to, you know, to life or property. Since the pandemic, we’ve had not the engagement, not the community engagement that we had prior to COVID-19, when we were able to go down to the General Assembly and speak to these different bills. And I believe that they’ve just intentionally use that to silence some community voices. They have attacked a lot of the women delegates and senators that we’ve worked with to try to get bills passed through. And I mean, just the disrespect. This is so, so overwhelming that I was like the other day and we have a policy meeting every…every week, during legislative session. And I was telling them that I’m just tired of, you know, saying, “oh, it’s politics”. You know, we need to go now. We need to be disruptive, you know, like, can we go and throw some chairs or something? And they were all laughing, but I really was serious. I’m like, you know, something more has to be done. We just can’t keep saying, “Oh, well, it’s politics”. Then what…then what are we even fighting for if we are just going to accept that, you know, it’s just got to be something more. So sometimes it gets frustrating. But that’s even more reason for us to continue to fight. 


Queen Zakia Rafiqa Shabazz [00:07:19] People of color certainly have a role in addressing climate change because we are those who are most affected by climate. Having lived experience we are also the ones with the solutions and we need to be heard and listened to and our recommendations need to be adhered to. Our roles are in saving and…and in preserving this place that we call home. You know, Mother Earth, as you’ve I’m sure many have heard, said that there is no Planet B, so it’s time to mother Earth, it’s time to mother her, to save her. And although we’ve been largely disenfranchised, we have to take ownership and action and speak out and advocate for clean air, clean water, clean soil and an overall clean environment for future generations to inherit. We have to stand up for ourselves, our children, our families, our communities, for life itself. And we have to revolt, revolt. You know, the revolution is nothing but change. It cannot continue to be the same old, same old go along to get along. Revolt is…is a friendly thing, you know, and…and I do believe that it’s time for a revolution. What we can do as…as impacted people, as people of color, as women, of color, as communities of color, as historic communities that are realizing that climate change is real regardless of what we…what we hear in the news, we know that just to turn our lights off or turn the water off, that that’s not enough. That’s..that’s not really, really addressing the problem. But what we can do is unite, you know, unite our voices, unite our voices, unite our actions, our activities, those that’s in in Virginia or in the DMV, which is Delaware, D.C., Maryland, Virginia can certainly call Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative. You know, we’ve created an EJ map of the state of Virginia that shows…shows those hot spots. And we know we…we’ve created a listserv of sister communities that are experiencing some of the same…same issues and to show what this is, how we address it over here. You know, we have mega landfills being proposed and being permitted, you know, on a local level. So we tell people to start on the local level. Where they first accept the lie of, oh, we want to bring this harmful entity, but it’s going to bring jobs, you know which to me, I’ve grown to learn that best the that’s the password, which they say is going to bring jobs everybody’s just open arms and welcome it, you know, without question. So we have to start questioning that question that…that local body, that local governing body that says, OK, because you know, they may need the money that this organization corporations say they’re going to bring and then take it on up to the state level. And we have mentorships in place where we partner communities together that may be experiencing the same thing. And to learn from each other, you know what was effective, what worked or step out and try something different. But I would definitely say that it is the unity…it is our unity that’s going to…to make us successful in this. We would not have been able to stop the Atlantic Coast pipeline trying to do it singularly if we had not went to the media to share those narratives, to share the stories of the impacted people who had farmland and…and communities that are over hundreds of years old that have been there, and how dare you come and say that you’re going to put another, you know, put a piece that to a gas or gas pipeline or you’re going to put a compressor station here or you’re going to put a landfill or an asphalt plant and just, you know, literally take our breath away because that’s that’s what it’s doing. 


Queen Zakia Rafiqa Shabazz [00:11:34] A major challenge has been dealing with the lasting changes brought on by the COVID pandemic, including and especially the mental toll that it has taken on people, especially those that were already marginalized and just about rendered invisible. So we have people who are intentionally and systematically left out of the processes that are supposed to make us all American. But we have to take special and extra measures just to access the basic everyday needs and then compound that with the deadly pandemic, for instance, where we are doing a lot of work in Petersburg, creating a community, a solar power community resiliency hub, the first year of the pandemic, we had people calling us complaining about their water being shut off, even though we had a moratorium on cut offs and a moratorium on evictions. But the city of Petersburg still shut people’s water off due to nonpayment. And so we had we were getting so many calls that we had to set up a hotline. And here you are, telling people to practice more cleanliness to wash your hands, but you’re shutting people’s water off as if you’re as if they’re not living beings that you can relate to going through, you know, a struggle, going…going through a hard time. But we end up having to write the Commission of Health, who then ordered the city of Pittsburgh to turn everybody’s water back on. And one of our funders, the Institute for Sustainable Communities, they were gracious enough. I mentioned that on the on the call one day, and they gave us some technical assistance funds to actually hire a licensed clinical social worker to talk with people one-on-one private confidential sessions, and the..the amount of interest was just overwhelming. You know, that people really were feeling so honest and not really having an expression or an outlet and knowing how to even say I’m in trouble because, you know, we always taught to be strong, you know, especially, you know, women of color we  just bear the weight of the world on our shoulders, you know, because it’s not OK. And then at the same time, we had the very public invisible lynching and murder of George Floyd. And the next day, you know, we were right back on our zoom calls like, every day is like we…we didn’t have an opportunity to…to make…to stop and say, you know, this is not normal. You know, and when they talk about getting back to normal, even that was that really normal, you know, like, what are we going back to? So after a long two years, we finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Our solar-powered Community Resiliency Hub is near ready for opening with a tentative opening date of April 31, if all goes as planned. It has been an amazing journey to see our building blossom into the resiliency hub, to serve the community, to have a community advisory board in place, ready to direct and dictate the activities of the hub, and offer trainings and certifications toward entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency. Things that have been long devoid in this in the heights in the city of Petersburg, the heights is a historic community that again has been divested. But the people there, you know, they care. They are welcoming the hub. When we do the solar installation, we actually going to train community residents on how to install solar. We do lead and mold remediation. So we are just excited about the hub. There’s talks of us having EV charger, you know, so moving into that area of the electric mobility. And just, you know, the more I talk to people, I’m just so amazed because if I mentioned the hub and what …what we’re creating there for the community and place in case of a power outage or a manmade outage or a climate crisis we’ll have power, you know, we’ll our lights will still be on communities are welcome to come into power-up. Their electronics store, food, baby food power, medical…medical devices and just be around company, you know, come in in a safe, warm place and have…have something to eat, you know, break bread with people. And in addition, we’ll have activities for the elderly to…to, you know, they may need assistance taking care of their business on a computer–they may not be computer savvy. We’ve gotten…the Master Class Corporation have given us 50 annual certifications for people to be able to have a subscription to Masterclass, you know, through…through the hub. You know, that’s something that…that we’re very excited about and the advisory board that will…that will lead to hub activities and the fact that our hub was used as a USO building for colored troops during military segregation. So that history we’ve been found eligible to be listed on the state and national list of historic sites. And so we are preparing a marker to go out in front of the building and to really to know that we saved the building from being demolished safe. So we saved that piece of history. You know, when a lot of our military folk or not given the credit, you know that they deserve. But this one was particularly for colored troops, and we are just excited to be able to honor them. And even when you go into the building, you can almost just feel the energy of those that…that visit there. So to be able to keep this building alive, and to serve the community in this day when there’s so much need–that’s certainly a success that…that we are very much proud of and to say that we did it in spite of and during the time of COVID, which I think pushed us even more. You know, we had setbacks with getting contractors out to do the work, but we stuck with it. And…and now we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and about to…to open up and welcome the community and continue to grow. They thought they had written us off, but…but we’re still standing. 

Queen Zakia Rafiqa Shabazz [00:18:11] Knowing what I know now, the advice that I would give to other leaders of color…first, I would say to follow your heart, to do it, follow that inner voice and always have a moral check to determine that you’re doing the right thing. It’s draining, and it’s a waste of energy to have to drag people along. So find those…those like minds, be open, have that that open dialog establish a functioning board or an advisory board, have an inner circle of people that you trust to give you advice that you can bounce ideas off and get honest feedback. Someone who’s not afraid to say no or to disagree with you. And it’s helpful and recommended to have creative, legal and financial minds on your board, surround yourself with people who are adept and skilled in those areas and to avoid self-doubt and avoid the naysayers. You know, you run across people who will ask, you know, why are you doing that? Why do you want to do that? Or make other suggestions that…that’s and some of them may be good suggestions, but you can’t be taken off of your purpose and off of your vision. You know, in your direction, if you are the leader of the project, then just, you know, stay in that role until you see your vision through and be prepared to put in the work. Have patience, forge partnerships, mentorships, asks lots of questions, and don’t be afraid to stand alone on your ideas. And that goes back to following your heart and following your inner voice. Sometimes others don’t see your vision right away, you know, try to make them see it as best you can step back a step away when you need to. Rest and maintain your sanity, above all. Live to fight another day.