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Photo caption: Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, was the keynote speaker at the 2012 URBAANE Conference in Chicago. Defender/Worsom Robinson

Environmental groups from around the country recently converged for the 2nd annual URBAANE (Urban Resolutions for Bridging African Americans to Natural Environments) conference at Chicago State University.

The existence of food deserts, poor air quality, the proximity of housing to polluting industries and a myriad of other issues are in their opinion, the result of persistent environmental racism in African-American and Latino communities. Michael Howard, chief executive officer the Fuller Park Community Development Corporation, thinks an organized effort by green organizations could help solve these problems.

The FPCD, a local leader in environmental activism, organized the event with the goal of building a strong and cohesive environmental agenda from the perspectives of people of color who have been disproportionately affected by environmental problems over the years. “URBAANE’s mission is to bring like-minded people of color that are working on environmental issues together,” said Howard. “We want to bring smaller organizations to one place where we can galvanize our missions and start having a dialogue so we can put together a voice that will be heard on a larger platform.”

The conference brought together environmentalists from many different backgrounds. The diversity was key to building a strong organization from within the community, he said.

“We’re not going to stand here and wait for somebody outside our community to validate what we’re doing – we’re self validated. We have doctors and PhDs at the table with us. We have scientists, we have biologists, we have physicists on board to help us spread our message,” said Howard.

The conference had panels and discussions on several environmental issues and a linking thread was the view that African-American communities were at greater risk than other communities; Black people must begin to address these issues sooner than later.

“As an undeserved population African Americans have been left out of environmental conversions,” said panelist Kellen Marshall-Gillespie, a 3rd-year doctoral student at UIC, and hostess of “Living healthy”, living green” on WVON radio. “For example our communities will be disproportionately affected by future climate change events and with little money for moving out of disaster zones cities will become poverty traps for poor blacks.”

Another panel discussion at the URBAANE Conference focused on food deserts.

Chicago has several areas designated as food deserts and there are organizations sprouting up to take on the challenge of getting healthy food to underserved areas. One such organization is Fresh Moves, a mobile market that uses a renovated CTA bus to deliver fresh produce on the West Side. Fresh Moves’ Program Manager Dara Cooper said African Americans have always loved fresh produce. “We deserve to be fed good nutritious food and it seems unfair to me that that’s what our kids are eating,” Cooper said. “A lot of that is because we don’t have more choices – we need wider choices and we need to reclaim fresh food and produce as a part of our culture. We have a long history of appreciating and loving fresh produce and we’ve gotten disconnected from that.”

Another connection addressed was the link between people and nature. City dwellers often forget about life outside of the environs of the city, but it’s critical to a persons overall well being to experience greenery as much as possible.

“The human spirit is renewed when they reconnect with nature. It’s been proven that crime and violent behavior drop significantly when gardens and green spaces are put in high crime areas,” Howard said.

“Being around nature is good for the soul,” added Marshall-Gillespie. “Seeing these amazing parks and forests sometimes helps people make choices that protect natural resources as well as change behaviors that cause environmental harm.”

Howard said post-conference meetings have been scheduled to work on the next steps of the effort and he urges people interested in addressing environmental issues to stay abreast of events at the FPDC and Eden’s Place websites.

“If we can keep this group moving forward with positive momentum, in five years this will become a national conference – we want to broadcast this message nationally. As we build the collaboration we’ll be able to step up with our agenda on the state and national level,” Howard said.

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