"If we can’t imagine a better future, we can't create a better future." That's what my friend Khafre Jay, the executive director of Hip Hop for Change, likes to say. When we first met back in 2015, I was inspired by how his organization engaged local youth through music with messages of social justice and positive action for the future.
I invited him and his team to join me on a pollution patrol on the Baykeeper boat. They got to see firsthand how we investigate polluters and reduce pollution affecting communities of color around the Bay. Khafre came alive on the water: He grew up in SF, in Bayview–Hunters Point, and was moved to see the plight of his old neighborhood from the boat. We wondered out loud if there was anything our organizations could do together to promote environmental activism through our mutual love for the Bay and hip hop.
Since then, Baykeeper has partnered with Hip Hop for Change on its annual environmental equity summit, which brings together local hip hop artists, dancers, and young activists. The summit's main goal is to educate by elevating the voices of POC-led environmental organizations and the work of local hip hop artists who care about the environment. And as if that wasn’t great enough, the free annual event always ends with a killer concert!
Though this year's virtual summit was somewhat tamer, I was honored to moderate a panel discussion focused on industrial pollution in Bayview–Hunters Point. I've always appreciated knowing that Baykeeper, along with our partners at Arc Ecology, won the first lawsuit against the US Navy over 20 years ago, holding it accountable for over ten thousand water pollution and hazardous waste violations at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
The panel highlighted the injustices that communities of color continue to endure in this historically Black neighborhood, the importance of listening to the stories the residents have to tell, and the role that we all have in building a more just future.
One of the panelists, Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai, was born at the Bayview's Sunnydale housing project. She’s carrying out the important work of creating a toxic chemical inventory of residents, and says it’s getting to where she can look at someone’s urine to tell if they're from the Bayview. That's a frightening reality: everyone growing up in the Bayview carries a signature mix of heavy metals and radiation.
"The toxic burden," she says, "is the same within the community, whether among white women, Chinese American males, or African American women. The community is united by this cruel irony.”
And that toxic unity also sadly seems to be a common trend in the Bay Area.
Across the Bay in Richmond, Baykeeper and our partners at Communities for a Better Environment and Asian Pacific Environmental Network are shining a light on the toxic burden borne by communities along refinery row. After yet another hazardous incident at the Chevron site this last February—an oil spill that dumped over 600 gallons of diesel product into the Bay and onto neighboring beaches—young activists sounded the alarm about how they, and their friends and family, have been harmed by constant exposure to Chevron's pollution.
And nearby in Oakland, Baykeeper and our community partners at the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and No Coal in Oakland have been fighting to prevent toxic coal trains from carrying millions of tons of coal from coming into their neighborhoods. The residents there are demanding a healthy future, and for a Bay Area that's built on clean energy, free of fossil fuels.
It’s no surprise to see that around the Bay, the neighborhoods exposed to the worst pollution are the ones that lower income residents and people of color call home. These areas also suffer a disproportionate pollutant burden from freeways and toxic industrial sites. But while certain communities bear the brunt of the injustice, their plight affects all of us who care about a healthier future for the Bay Area. That’s why Baykeeper will continue to listen to our most vulnerable neighbors and make it a priority to support our community partners—because in the end, there’s just one San Francisco Bay. And if we can imagine a better future for it, then together, we can make it better for everybody.
Sejal Choksi-Chugh, Executive Director
Pictured, above: Khafre Jay and Sejal Choksi-Chugh aboard the Baykeeper patrol boat