Clean air: is it the new civil rights struggle?

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LaMoine LaPointe, Lakota and board member, Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy

That is what various student groups and organizations gathered to discuss on the last day of Black History Month. The Will Steger Foundation sponsored Clean Air: the New Civil Rights Struggle at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities last week with a diverse coalition of partners, including Sierra Club, Black Motivated Women, Black Student Union, Native American Law Students Association, Black Law Student Association, American Indian Student Cultural Center, and EcoWatch.

An introduction to the health impacts of air pollution was provided by Wendy Brunner, an Asthma Program epidemiologist from the MN Department of Health. Equipped with maps and data, Wendy spoke about air pollution and asthma trends among youth in the seven county metropolitan areas. She shared that although asthma afflicts youth in those areas at higher rates than greater Minnesota, this trend is optimistically declining. A new EPA rule to limit ozone is expected to continue this progression. LaMoine LaPointe, a board member at Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy, spoke about the need for clean air from an Indigenous and spiritual perspective. “We must protect our right to breathe clean air because as humans we have an incredible intimacy with it.” said LaMoine. He shared that his Indigenous language conveys this intimacy in its name for air. “Wonia,” is literally translated to mean “breath of life.”

“In polluting the air, we are polluting the very essence of what sustains life,” agreed Karen Monahan, an environmental justice organizer at Sierra Club.

Karen spoke about environmental justice and her experience working with families impacted by air pollution. She shared that power plants and large factories are often placed in low-income and minority communities. The pollution emitted has long been associated with respiratory and other illnesses. As a result youth in these areas have higher rates of asthma, which leads to missed days of school, bad grades, and decreased graduation rates.

Everyone deserves clean air and a safe community. Karen continued, “We all share the same air. It’s all of ours, regardless of the color of your skin or what continent you live on. There is a place for everyone in this movement.”

Fuel combustion, like from cars and power plants, is a major source of fine particles. This image (see below) demonstrates how small fine particles are, which makes them incredibly easy to become stuck and embedded in our lungs.



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