Newly appointed Chair of Indiana’s NAACP Environmental Climate Justice, Denise Abdul-Rahman, visited the NUVO/Indiana Living Green offices to discuss her new position, its mission and challenges. Interviewing her were Hannah Leyva, editorial intern, Jim Poyser, Indiana Living Green editor and Rebecca Townsend, NUVO news editor.
Indiana Living Green: What do you understand your mission to be?
Denise Abdul-Rahman: Indiana NAACP has 26 branches and my charge is to try to get as many of those branches on board … to get involved in advocating for clean air, clean water and [lower] energy costs.
ILG: What are the challenges to communities of color when it comes to the environment?
Abdul-Rahman: Communities of color are impacted because coal plants, like the Harding Street coal plant [in downtown Indy], are built within their community and the toxins that they emit — sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide — are typically within the three-mile radius of people of color and of low-income people. Statistics show [an increase in] asthma attacks, heart attacks.
ILG: What is your plan of action, regarding the Harding Street plant?
Abdul-Rahman: First, is to go out into the community, organize township meetings and get feedback. Also, identify a person that can engage in Indianapolis on behalf of the Indianapolis NAACP. We don’t have a lot of time, we want to do it by 2025.
ILG: There is no dispute over the science of what fossil fuel and industrial pollution does to the environment. Why aren’t we moving from something that is clearly destructive to energy sources that are not destructive?
Abdul-Rahman: I believe that companies are highly invested in their current infrastructures. And communities are not as outraged to move them to make them be more socially responsible. To move them to clean energy requires an investment.
ILG: So you are not seeing outrage in the immediate communities that are being dumped on?
Abdul-Rahman: In my short period of time I have not seen it. I do need to still go out into the community and gauge why there hasn’t been outrage. Is there no knowledge or are people just concerned with getting up and getting a job and just trying to make it?
I think it is our responsibility — those that are aware — to make them aware that life is going to be affected — the longevity of your life, the quality of your life — is affected. And so there is a fierce urgency to engage.
ILG: Why did NAACP pick you for this job?
Abdul-Rahman: I’m a hard working and determined person and I’ve worked for the NAACP for major campaigns. Also, I have a health care management Masters degree and I’m also studying health informatics which incorporates environmental informatics.
My whole background has been in civil rights. My grandmother made the march in 1963 to the “I Have a Dream” speech. She was the first black woman in Lafayette to come to the Indiana convention in the 1970s. My mother has been a civil rights advocate and a grass roots advocate.
ILG: Do you feel that there are special ways to frame environmental issues?
Abdul-Rahman: I have to then look at myself and say what would motivate me to buy the 7th generation product for seven dollars as opposed to another product for just a dollar. When I went into that thinking it just came down to some messages. One is, if we don’t move into sustainable living then from a health standpoint we’ll be challenged. Economically, if you don’t make your home more energy efficient, if you don’t reduce your energy costs, then the person next to you is going to be able to have more cash flow. If you own a home you’re not going to be able to start selling it if you don’t start making your home sustainable. So that’s a motivator.
We need to teach our children to take care of our earth, so that they won’t have to live in horrible tornadoes or hurricanes.
I understand that as a person of color it may be challenging economically, but if we don’t [change] we will be left behind.
From the NAACP Coal Blooded report:
Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People focuses on the role that coal-fired power plants have in the inequitable health outcomes of low income communities and communities of color in the U.S. and in the contribution of greenhouse gasses that drive climate change, the consequences of which will disproportionately impact people of color and low income communities globally. Additionally, this report provides an empirical discussion of the effects of burning coal in power plants. Researchers focused on the coal plants in the U.S. with the worst records on environmental justice, and on the companies that own them.
Harding Street Plant facts:
- Capacity: 698
- Electricity Production (MWh, av. 2005-08): 3,863,590
- SO2 Emissions (tons, av. 2007-10): 25,259
- NOX Emissions (tons, av. 2007-10): 3,525
- Pop. Within 3 Miles: 35,209
- 3-Mile Average Income: $17,092
- % of State Average Income: 83.8%
- 3-Mile POC Pop: 8.3%
- Overall rank: 53
- Grade: F
For more info., see The Coal Blooded report, naacp.org/pages/coal-blooded1