Oppressed-Gender Leadership on the Eco Justice Frontlines

From Appalachia to Cancún, the common thread in the
environmental/environmental justice movements are that oppressed-gender people
are at the very front of these frontline struggles. Throughout my organizing
experiences, in Hamilton County and the town of Dickson, Tennessee, in Central
Appalachia and from Acapulco to Cancún, Mexico, I’ve met oppressed-gender
people who came into this struggle because corporations and government
officials were knowingly destroying their health by commodifying the land, air,
water and other natural resources that are necessary to the survival of their
cultures and communities. Women of color and poor white women are are on the
front lines of these struggles because of the greed of corporations being
prioritized over their communities health and well-being, and because their
governments, from the local level to the federal level, spend more time
catering to dirty energy than coming up with real, truly green solutions.

In Hamilton County, Tennessee —the place of my birth,
there is story after story to provide examples of how environmental injustice
affects oppressed-gender people. One of my family cemeteries, in Summit
(formerly James County), and now being annexed by the City of Chattanooga, is
located directly above a landfill that has been putting off methane for longer
than I’ve been alive. In the 1990s, women of color —from one young girl
in her adolescence, to my mother in her 30s and 40s, to elders including my
grandmother—were being diagnosed and treated for cancers. The City has
allowed its trash to be poured into our community and has done nothing to
remedy the situation or take responsibility for the devastating problems it has

In the Westside (what we call the several neighborhoods that
make up the west side of Chattanooga), the last store that sold food was
closed—a Dollar General store. When the store closed, community
members—who mostly do not own their own personal transportation or have
money to splurge on taxis or bus fare—were forced to walk approximately a
mile and a half to the closest grocer. Walking with a month’s worth of
groceries for almost two miles can imaginably be quite taxing, especially if
you’re a single mother with children walking with you or an elderly woman with
a disability (as many of the Westside residents are). As we organize on the
Westside, we’ve heard from several residents about the need to fight obesity,
diabetes and other diseases associated with food. There’s an assumption by some
Chattanoogans that Westside residents are just making poor decisions when it
comes to food; however, the food provided in their environment, the food
available to them, is a contributing factor that is many times overlooked.
There are no Whole Foods, Earth Fares, or Fresh Markets on the Westside, and even
if there were, the high prices would hinder residents from purchasing food from
those establishments. It’s important to remember that the last food source in
the community was a Dollar General store, but the Dollar General is not a
grocery store. The food that could be bought there would have been mostly
canned goods and processed foods.

We believe a Westside-owned food cooperative for the
Westside, where residents could make decisions about their food, some of which
could come from a community garden that is proposed for the area, and about how
their workers are treated provides a real solution to the food desert crisis.
Residents have asked our local elected officials about the possibilities of
getting government subsidies to bring in or create a new grocery store in the
community, but have been told that government subsidies are not a viable
option—even though the Volkswagen plant that is coming to Chattanooga
received government subsidies. As community
members demand food sovereignty in the Westside
, the elected city officials
continue to make excuses for their inaction on the issue, reassuring community
members all across Chattanooga that working with the most underserved people in
our communities (elders, women, communities of color, etc.) is not a priority
compared to gentrification and developing riverfront properties for the
wealthiest Chattanoogans.

In Dickson County, a struggle around another toxic landfill
has received nationwide
attention because of the strength and courage of a woman in the community. Sheila
Holt Orstead
, who was building a name for herself as a female bodybuilder,
was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recognized a suspicious pattern of several family
members and loved ones becoming sick
and began the process of investigating
the environmental causes. The landfill, located across a small road that runs
beside this young woman’s family farm, was tested by the EPA, which found that
the landfill was leeching toxins into their water source. Since most people in
the community used water from wells, as well as using that water for everything
from watering the gardens to washing their clothes, etc., the community was
saturated in poisonous water. When the municipality found out about the results
of the EPA’s test, they immediately sent notices to the white community
affected by the landfill that informed them of the toxic water, that they
should stop using the water, and explaining that they would be put on municipal
water immediately. Another letter was sent to community members of color saying
that the water wasn’t exactly pure, but that the water was still usable. Sheila
has been fighting ever since, explaining that the reason these events could
ever take place is because she is from a black,
working class, community

There are so many living examples of women on the frontlines
in Central Appalachia who are demanding that the billion-dollar coal industry
stop destroying their land and their health. Judy
, who has been a leader of the anti-mountaintop removal (MTR) movement
for a very long time and had been fighting an even more critical
battle—to survive cancer. There is very little doubt among our movement
family that the environmental devastation contributed to Judy’s illness and
death, living in a community that is contaminated by the practice of
extraction, by the fuel that is produced and then used to blow up the
mountains, by the dust it produces, by the slurry that is produced, etc. [Judy
passed away during the process of writing this
piece. Judy
, Presente!]. A
study sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and led by Harvard
has even found that the life expectancy for Appalachian women
is on the decline.

I’ve had the opportunity to hear story after story from
women in the coalfields about not having access to their family cemetaries and
being cut off from wooded spaces from which their family harvested food and
plant-based medicines for generations. Although they are still able to tell
their friends, children and grandchildren about their ancestry and educate them
about what hunting ginseng, ramps, and molly moochers entails, out-of-state
land holders are leasing and selling land to the coal companies who attempt—sometimes
successfully—to push these women and their families from the land that
they have been intimately connected with their entire lives. It not only
negatively affects their culture, but also hits some of them in the pocketbook,
considering some Appalachian women sell ginseng and other plant products to
supplement their family’s income.

There is also the reality of women being left alone to raise
families when their husbands are killed in the coal mines (either slowly by
black lung disease, or quickly through mine disasters). Women that work in the
mines are virtually invisible. Did you know that there was one woman who was
killed in Massey
Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster
? It is also women, the wives of men
who work in the mines, who are some of the biggest opponents of transitioning
to clean energy—and for good reason. They know that their husbands are
making more money in the mines than they could in most of the other jobs that
would be available to them in their state. Wives of miners are rightly
concerned that the transition to clean energy could mean they would struggle,
more than usual, to feed their families. These are issues around which movement
folks are working to find solutions.

When thinking about how women in our movement are affected,
I think back to an experience I had in my home state, shortly after the
Tennessee Valley Authority Coal Ash Disaster in Harriman, TN, where I met a
teenager from the affected community. We had a conversation about how she was
dealing with the aftermath of the disaster, and she told me that she had been
tested to see if she had ingested large quantities of heavy metals that could
negatively affect her health. When asked about the results of her test she said
that the doctor told her that there were heavy metals in her body, and that
they could negatively affect the health of her offspring. This young woman, a
high school student, having to think about how a corporation has put her in a
position to have to think about childbirth and the health of the children that
she’d be having years down the road, this shows the intergenerational impact of
dirty energy on women in Central Appalachia.

I can’t write about oppressed-gender people without sharing
thoughts from my trip to Mexico for La Via Campesina’s International Caravans
for Life, Resistance, and Environmental Justice and to participate in the
Grassroots Global Justice Alliance Delegation to Cancún. From Acapulco to
Cancún, many of the communities who welcomed us, educated us about their local
struggles, rendered speeches that moved us to action, and cared for us during
our stays, identified as gender-oppressed people. There were so many examples
of this, too many to put into this one piece, but there is one story that
stands out in my mind. I rode to the Klimaforum with three other companer@s to
participate in a panel/workshop about youth organizing on the frontlines of
struggles. It was my first time in the space, which was really far away from
the other alternative forums, but I was really excited because the Klimaforum
was a space that I expected would have a large number of young folks, and knew
some American youth who are involved in environmental movement work were there.
As we started the workshop, people slowly trickled into our tent, including the
only transgendered person I met during my two-week trip. Nayeli
, a Mexican healer, spoke to us about our cultures’ disconnection
from the land, and about restoring the connection between our minds and hearts
to reconnect with Madre Tierra. Her very presence pushed many of us to think
about who’s voice was altogether missing in our movement spaces, and encouraged
us to step up and encourage others to not only ask themselves the same
question, but to move towards making the inclusion of those absent voices a
critical part of our organizing in the future.

It has become clear to me and many others fighting for
climate and environmental justice, that those of us who identify as
oppressed-gender are not only on the frontlines of these struggles, but leading
them because of the intersections of our gender oppression, classes, races,
etc. None of our struggles are happening in a vacuum and clearly the root
causes of many of our problems are directly tied to capitalism and
neoliberalism—which perpetuate dirty energy practices, patriarchy,
classism, racism, etc. We also recognize that solidarity is more than sharing
stories of struggle, and that the longer it takes those of us in the global
north to get some tangible solutions in place, our companer@s in the global
south are forced to struggle because of our lack of actions (as it is mostly
corporations from our countries causing environmental problems in the global
south, and the United States consumes so much, creates unimaginable waste, and
is one of the largest contributors of carbon to our atmosphere, etc.).
Solidarity is finding the intersections between our movements and strategically
working together to win solutions that target the root causes of our

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson is an immediate-past member of the United Students Against Sweatshops national Coordinating and Collective Liberation Committees. Additionally she is a long time activist working around issues of community empowerment, environmental destruction, mountaintop removal mining, and environmental racism in Central and Southern Appalachia, and serves on the Student Environmental Action Coalition’s National Council.

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