University of Memphis and the Sierra Club Team up to Promote Education, Advocacy & Activism at Grassroots Environmental Conference

By Kathryn Hicks, Rita Harris, Keri Brondo and Robert Marczynski §

Memphis is a highly segregated Southern city with a long history of both environmental inequality and of environmental justice (EJ) organizing. A valuable resource for the city and region is the grassroots environmental conference that annually brings together academics and community organizers. Designed for “college students, neighborhood watch leaders, community activists, teachers, community groups and church leaders,” the event has always been free and open to the public, involved easy-to-understand discussion of local and regional EJ issues, and drawn in nationally-recognized presenters. This year’s conference, held at the University of Memphis, included a keynote lecture by Dr. Robert D. Bullard, one of the nation’s foremost environmental scholars. The conference has been organized for the last 12 years by Sierra Club Organizer Rita Harris, along with members of the Tennessee Chapter and Chickasaw Group of the Sierra Club and the Sierra Club Environmental Justice Program.

Ms. Harris has been part of the EJ movement in Memphis since the early 1990s, working alongside residents to protect their communities from industrial hazards. Since she started working with the Sierra Club in 1999, she has produced an annual Shelby County “Terrible Ten” report highlighting the city’s largest polluters and related health effects, and played a major role in organizing to prevent the siting of a new hazardous waste incinerator on President’s Island. Recognizing that the issues most directly facing communities of color are largely absent from other environmental dialogue in the city has driven her long-term commitment to organizing this conference. With vast amounts of toxic air pollution from numerous industrial sources and threats from hazardous waste landfills, there was, and continues to be, a need for information on how these things affect health and quality of life in the Memphis area. In addition, the community needs to be aware of who to call about their concerns, the protections provided through regulations and laws, and how to be effective advocates; thus, the emphasis on community organizing. The conference provides an important opportunity for members of EJ communities throughout Memphis to network with each other around critical environmental problems.

Rita Harris speaks with students from two anthropology classes about industrial hazards surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. King Park on a toxic tour
Rita Harris speaks with students from two anthropology classes about industrial hazards surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. King Park on a toxic tour

Our collaboration on this conference has grown out of a decade-long relationship between the Sierra Club and the Department of Anthropology, beginning when Melissa Checker was on faculty. For the past several years, Ms. Harris has led a “toxic tour” of Memphis for Hicks’ EJ class, something she does regularly for classes and community groups. Each year on the tour we travel north from the University to the Douglass community where public housing, a high school, and a public park sit in close proximity to several active and abandoned industrial facilities, including Velsicol and Southern Cotton Oil. Ms. Harris explains to students how crisscrossing train tracks have the potential to trap residents in the neighborhood during an emergency. We then proceed to SW Memphis where majority African American neighborhoods sit adjacent to some of the county’s largest polluters, including the Valero Oil Refinery and the TVA coal-fired power plant. On this leg of the trip, students experience the oppressive smell from the sewage treatment plant, something that residents live with every day. This is an invaluable opportunity for students to hear about and discuss the history of EJ organizing around industrial facilities and waste-disposal sites in Memphis, particularly those who live in or grew up in these neighborhoods.

Building on these collaborations, Drs. Hicks and Brondo have recruited students to attend Sierra Club press conferences and public meetings, and to introduce speakers at the annual conference. Brondo and Marczynski were able to obtain a grant for the conference from The University of Memphis Green Fee, and a number of departments and programs on campus and the Sierra Club provided additional support. This year, the four of us planned the conference with the help of Anthropology MA candidates Laura Van Booven, Taylor Arnold, and Kyle Simpson, and Sierra Club member Sue Williams.

Keynote lecture by Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University
Keynote lecture by Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University

The 2014 conference, entitled “Community Health, Environmental Justice and Clean Energy: The 13th Annual Grassroots Community Conference,” (brochure) was held November 1st and involved ten sessions by local activists, organizers, and academics and a keynote lecture by Dr. Robert D. Bullard. Dr. Bullard’s talk focused on disproportionate social and environmental vulnerability in the South, and the importance of grassroots organizing and building community resilience. Attendees were uniformly impressed and energized by Dr. Bullard’s talk, and several students were pleased to have the opportunity to meet him in person. In addition to asking questions, audience members rose to share opportunities for students and activists to get involved in EJ organizing in the region. One example of our wonderful breakout sessions was “Organizing 101,” delivered by Brad Watkins of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. A number of people rated this as a particularly productive session in post conference evaluations, as it provided an opportunity to discuss strategies for advancing EJ and other social justice work in Memphis.

Rita Harris presents Dick Mochow Award to Madeleine Taylor of the NAACP for her long-term focus on environmental inequality in Memphis
Rita Harris presents Dick Mochow Award to Madeleine Taylor of the NAACP for her long-term focus on environmental inequality in Memphis

The conference attracted a larger crowd than in previous years, with 230 registered attendees. Importantly, the event drew students from a number of local schools in addition to the University of Memphis including LeMoyne-Owen College, Rhodes College, Rust College, and Christian Brothers University, along with members of the Sierra Club and other local environmental organizations. Several regular attendees approached organizers to tell us that it was the best conference yet, and expressed pleasure at the number of young people at the conference and their apparent interest in EJ organizing. Holding the conference on campus seems to have been important in attracting more students.

As Dr. Bullard noted, the Sierra Club’s annual conference serves an important role in a city and region disproportionately affected by environmental and economic inequalities. The unequal distribution of toxic hazards in Memphis has real implications for the health and well-being of city residents (E.g. Braud et al., 2010). This opportunity for networking between groups of people who might not otherwise get a chance to meet is critical for developing effective EJ strategies. This year’s conference was successful in bringing together a larger group of participants, particularly students, and providing a forum for interaction between activists from throughout the region.

For faculty, the conference fits both with the commitment to engaged anthropology here at the University of Memphis and to larger calls to critically applied, public, activist, and engaged anthropology within the discipline. The conference allowed us to express solidarity with the communities most affected by environmental injustice, and to learn from the many experienced and committed activists who have been working on these issues. Members of two anthropology classes helped design and carry out an ethnographic evaluation of the conference, contributing both to efforts to ensure that the conference is worthwhile for grassroots participants, and to knowledge building within the environmental community in Memphis. As the organizing committee, we were thrilled to see such a large turnout, and look forward to planning next year’s conference.

Works Cited:

Braud, T, S Nouer and K Lamar. 2010. Residential Proximity to Toxic Release Sites and the Implications for Low Birth Weight and Pre-term Delivery. Journal of Environmental Health. 73(6): 8-13.


Kathryn Hicks is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Memphis. Her interests include biological anthropology, developmental systems theory, political economy, social justice, human-environment interactions and health inequities in the Bolivian Andes, and the US.

Rita Harris is the Senior Organizing Representative with the Sierra Club in Memphis, TN. Harris served on the Enforcement Subcommittee of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (1996-2001) and has received several awards for her leadership in diversity work and environmental justice.

Keri Brondo is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Memphis and Executive Board member of the American Anthropological Association. Her interests include gender and development, indigenous identity politics, environmental anthropology, conservation voluntourism and applied, practicing and engaged anthropology.  Her most recent book is Land Grab: Green Neoliberalism, Gender and Garifuna Resistance (U Arizona Press, 2013).

Robert Marczynski, J.D., is the Assistant Director of the College of Arts and Sciences Interdisciplinary Programs at the University of Memphis, which includes a minor in Environmental Studies.

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