St. Louis-area community leaders want more say in environmental improvements
The effects of climate change have become much more obvious in the past few years both nationally and across the St. Louis region.
“Climate change is not tomorrow, it’s today,” said Maurice Muia, a climate adviser with the international environmental advocacy group NRDC and a Richmond Heights councilman. “We are seeing the effects daily. We have to adapt and become more resilient.”
What this looks like in practice is still taking shape and requires more sophisticated planning than just planting trees or building renewable sources of energy, he said.
“We can’t divorce environment from economic performance or from societal benefit,” Muia said. “Because if you say one is more important than the other, then you lose the total benefit to society or a community more specifically.”
Muia understands this concept well as a city council member. In many ways, projects to improve the environment across the region will look like economic investment in specific communities, he said.
This becomes increasingly complicated because of the region’s long history of racism and disinvestment in communities of color on both sides of the river, said Charli Cooksey, CEO of WEPOWER, which she founded to build economic and political power in Black and Latino communities in the St. Louis region.
“You can’t talk about environmental injustice and climate change without acknowledging this is a race issue,” she said. “This is both about racism and capitalism.”
Missing the mark
The Rev. Rodrick Burton, pastor of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, recalls when a nonprofit approached his church with the idea to manage excess water from large rainstorms with a rainwater catch basin at the nearby community center.
“They were saying, ‘We’ll do the project and afterwards it’s just a little cost for you to sustain it,’” he explained. “They were just saying how we needed to do this.”
But the project would have also eliminated parking at the community center, which was a deal breaker in the end, Burton said.
“Parents need to be able to get their kids to our childcare center,” he said. “People in the community needed the programs and resources we had and needed the space to be able to get there so they’re not on a dangerous street.”
The project aligned with some of the values at his north St. Louis church, which has been involved in environmental advocacy for nearly a decade, but didn’t support the community, Burton said.
“That was a situation where they wanted it more than we wanted it,” he said. “In theory, yeah, we were for it. But it just was not going to work for us.”
Cooksey also has examples of “green projects” that seemed to ignore what local residents really needed. What sticks in her memory are the bike lanes that suddenly appeared on major streets like West Florissant and Natural Bridge years ago.
Those roads see heavy traffic, making them dangerous for cyclists, Cooksey said.
“I still find frustration when I drive down those major streets in my family’s neighborhood and realize these bike lanes are not designed with the residents in mind,” she said. “Not to say folks don’t like bikes.”
One size doesn’t fit all
For her work with WEPOWER, Cooksey has asked those in majority Black and brown neighborhoods across the region how they define a community’s vitality.
“Consistently, we kept hearing the environment; we kept hearing green space,” she said. “Residents want to be in a beautiful neighborhood that’s full of greenery and safe places for their kids to play.”
Engineering physical changes to meet these goals isn’t difficult, Muia said. The challenge comes with ensuring those solutions fit what locals want, he added.
“You can’t go to a book or a standard, because there’s no standard for that,” Muia said. “You have to develop that on the fly and make sure it’s for the long term.”
This will look different for places throughout the St. Louis region, even if the environmental challenges are similar. Each area—from urban neighborhoods to rural communities—has specific economic conditions that alters what they need.
“Pollution is so difficult because it’s often invisible,” said Patricia Schuba, president of the Labadie Environmental Organization, a coalition of Labadie residents like her who want stricter rules on the local coal-fired power plant.
Schuba said the Labadie Energy Center has contaminated the land and water her neighbors rely on, but added that its effect extends far beyond her small rural community in Franklin County an hour west of St. Louis.
“We impact the air pollution of a whole region,” she said. “One could say part of the ‘just transition’ from Labadie is to remediate for air pollution in St. Louis city. And I would agree with that.”
Schuba wants the chance to decide what happens next, especially since she’ll have to live with the pollution that will remain in her area after the power plant inevitably shuts down.
“There’s an obligation,” she said. “Our community, much like the coal mining communities in Appalachia, have paid a price for everyone to have convenient and cheap energy.”
Locals know best
There is no blueprint for transitioning from fossil fuels that both achieves environmental goals and helps the communities most harmed by their use, Schuba said.
“The new green economy can be as exclusive and as unjust as the old one,” he said. “There’s got to be equity built in and not lip service. You need to do the legwork and have the humility to listen to people in the community.”
That may be easier said than done, especially for places that have languished under a system that reinforces generational poverty, said Zach Chike, a community pastor with City of Joy Fellowship in East St. Louis. He said he and others in the nearly all-Black city are weary of outsiders who may come with their own solutions or improvements.
“It’s really a perfect scenario for power to come in and crush the most vulnerable,” Chike said. “The tough reality of being in Black communities is that your voice, for the most part, historically is silenced.”
This viewpoint is reinforced by what residents have seen, even from their own elected representatives, he said.
“Nobody is coming to save us. Nobody is going to help,” Chike said. “We’ve spent decades waiting for people to do what they’re supposed to do. And when there’s money involved, it usually doesn’t get done.”
He instead advocates his neighbors take active ownership of their living environment. For Chike, that meant clearing overgrowth and trash from a handful of streets in East St. Louis, even if he was the only one doing it at first.
“The community needs to know that we care about this city,” he said.
Cooksey shares this sentiment, adding that local residents on either side of the Mississippi will have the best knowledge of what their communities need.
“The solutions that come from community, that have buy-in from community will be the most sustainable versus a corporation coming in and doing a few projects here or there,” she said. “Good intentions aren’t good enough, but they’re a starting point.”
Illinois’ 2021 Climate and Equitable Jobs Act is one attempt to recognize this reality. It allocates money and other resources to communities whose economies have relied on fossil fuels. It also provides funding for renewable projects and job training in places overburdened by past pollution, which tend to be majority Black or brown.
“It’s geared toward getting the community involved in the funds and the implementation of where they’re going,” said J.D. Dixon, an environmental justice organizer for United Congregations of Metro East.
Many of the programs under that legislation are far from their final form, making it difficult to assess how effective they are.
That adds an extra layer to the challenge of building community buy-in to changes that will almost certainly affect how individuals manage their lives day-to-day, Burton said.
“Show them somewhere where that’s happened before,” he said. “Otherwise you’re denigrating, you’re not taking seriously people who are trying to feed their families, raise their families. You’re telling them to buy into esoteric plans.”
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.