Lunch with Sierra Club’s Rita J. Harris in Memphis

What a great afternoon. I spent time with Rita J. Harris, the Regional Representative and Environmental Justice Organizer with the Sierra Club. We went to Boscos Restaurant & Brewing Company and her office, both in Memphis.

The Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships is part of the Sierra Club. Over our meals of salad, shrimp, and artichokes, Rita shared about her work at the Sierra Club.

Dotted all over Memphis are industrial companies polluting the environment and people. As a result, residents, particularly the impoverished, are exposed to air and water pollution. Carcinogens in pollution have long been shown to cause cancer, miscarriages among women, and deformities in newborns.  In addition, the many waterways including the Loosahatchie River and McKellar Lake are sources for catching fish, fish often poisoned by chemical pollutants like PCB’s and mercury. When people eat fish that looks seemingly healthy, they are ingesting these poisons.

Rita and Dianne Outside Boscos

Rita is passionate about environmental justice, fighting to protect marginalized people and the fragile environment. She works with citizens in monitoring air pollution levels, seeking to pass laws to regulate environmental inequities, and checking that the groundwater piped into homes is safe.

In the short history of environmental justice in the United States, we have environmental heroes including Benjamin Chavis and Robert Bullard who have served in the community striving to eliminate environmental racism. I count Rita among them.

She responded saying, “I know there are many others, and the fight for environmental justice has been brief if you compare the time it has existed with the long history of the Sierra Club, or other efforts that are over 100 years old. The EJ movement began back in the mid-1980s, but there are many EJ activists, community fighters, and I probably fall short in their shadows.”

Photo by Dianne Glave

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