Everyone Deserves Clean Air and Water, No Matter Their Zip Code

Effluent pipe, Willamette River. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I grew up in a loving family — financially poor, but spiritually rich. My family was blessed with the abundance of having my two strong grandmothers who helped us make it out of poverty.

But when they both died from pollution-related illnesses, I learned that simply having a good, strong family isn’t enough. You also need to be born in the right zip code.

My parents were hard-working but very young when they had my four siblings and me. Life was tough, but they never gave up. Inspired by a local pastor in Memphis, they pursued a college education as their ticket out of poverty.

My parents studied hard — while my grandmothers helped house us, feed us, and keep us afloat. Thanks to their help, both of my parents graduated. My mom became a school teacher and my dad became a pastor.

While my dad was in divinity school, we lived in a predominantly white suburb in Virginia. It was a revelation — life there looked like a storybook.

My siblings and I couldn’t believe that people lived in such big houses and such pristine neighborhoods. They had clean air and water — and even art and science and AP classes in schools.

Our life in southwest Memphis looked nothing like this.

We moved back to Memphis for dad to pastor a small church and things got leaner again. My mom had a hard time finding a teaching job, and when she did the pay was very low. The air was dirtier, and once again we had schools without art, advanced science, or AP courses.

But I had seen a different reality. It made me an advocate. I fought for AP classes and won, which helped me get into a good liberal arts college and start my own journey forward.

Along the way, our family suffered devastating, back-to-back tragedies — both of my grandmothers, the hearts and safety nets for our family, died from cancer. So did many of their neighbors and friends.

Memphis is a majority-Black city — and a ground zero for environmental racism. Unfortunately, all the hard work and family support in the world won’t protect you from pollution when it’s pumped right into the air you breathe and the water you drink.

The cancer rate in southwest Memphis is four times the national average — a result of industrial benzene and formaldehyde pollution in our air and arsenic in our water. My grandmothers, who made it possible for my family to escape environmental racism, lost their own lives to it.

In my life as an advocate, I believe that the right to clean air and water should have nothing to do with luck — or your zip code, skin color, or family’s wealth.

That’s why I joined in the fight against the Byhalia Connection Crude Oil Pipeline project that threatened my late grandmothers’ community. The pipeline route, just four feet underground and up against the most seismically active area in the eastern and central United States, snaked around white areas — and right through the 99 percent Black areas of Boxtown and Westwood in southwest Memphis.

I co-founded the advocacy group Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, which allied with other local citizens. This July, we killed the pipeline project before it had a chance to kill our community.

I’ve been blessed — I was able to learn from adversity and become an advocate for myself and my community. But things have to change systemically. The deep inequities that allow whole zip codes to stay impoverished and polluted have to change.

We should have policies that ensure equal opportunities for all, no matter your zip code.

Justin J. Pearson is the co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline (MCAP) and a member of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.