Excursion into Justice; Student Interns Travel Through the South Seeking Truths into Civil Rights, Climate, and Environmental Justice

February 3, 2020

Typically, students sit behind closed office doors performing their assigned tasks during their summer internship period.  Only on rare occasions do students venture into the field to get a better understanding in a more practical manner of the true nature and potential impacts of their work.  Contrary to this norm, four students working as summer interns with the Center for Sustainable Communities this past summer decided to participate in what turned out to be quite an adventure.

The students - Jamie Hunt (Georgia Tech),  Zach Starbuck (Georgia Tech), Charlotte Dankwah (NYU), and Tim Melton (AMSC) decided to take their venture to the road - traveling to four states, visiting and experiencing nearly twenty civil rights, and social and environmental justice sites, and traveling nearly three thousand miles while not only experiencing a  number of places of historical legacy (including seeing the actual underground railroad for the first time), but places and experiences that advance our clean energy economy, and engage with faith leaders on front line issues.

Beginning their journey, the students first visited the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King Historic District in Atlanta, including the grave site of Dr Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, the adjacent reflecting pool and internal flame, the King Center and the Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

While at the King Center site they were surprised by a visit from a civil rights icon, the Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley, whose image was etched in the nearby Civil Rights Hall of Fame. Rev. Durley talked candidly and discussed with the students his insights into the civil rights movement and how he personally dealt with both the triumph and tragedy of the period.  He spoke about his tenure as a Junior Pastor at the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.  He encouraged the students to be their best and to stay engaged in the movement for climate and environmental justice. The students toured the historic church with Reverend Durley where he spoke about his exploits in the civil rights movement with the likes of Andrew Young, John Lewis and a host of other legendary activists. Then it was back to our vehicle, which was packed to the brim with back packs, suitcases and duffle bags, and a myriad of snacks, and it was off  to our nation’s capital …

In Washington, DC the interns were able to walk the halls of Congress, most for the first time, where legislation was being discussed on new environmental justice policies. The students had the opportunity to discuss with other students and peers their experience and impressions of the current process they observed and how frontline communities could get involved. 

Leaving Washington and heading to Hampton Road, Virginia, the students met up with faith leaders on a civil rights and environmental justice caravan, visiting various civil rights venues and environmental justice landmarks around the region including a natural gas pipeline construction, coal ash sites, coal loading facilities, environmentally contaminated and toxic sites, and bio mass incinerator facilities. They also visited restored wetlands, urban forests, green building construction, and one of region’s premier environmental showcase parks: Paradise Creek Nature Park, a 40-acre waterfront park in Portsmouth, Virginia, teaching generations what it takes to bring back the health of an urban river, once presumed dead.

Next the students went over to the site of their summer long projects, the ECO District Hampton Roads Project, where they actually saw and experienced their assigned projects in real life, including watershed protection, bike and walking trails, housing justice, and transportation.  This visit enabled the students not only to see first-hand their projects, but to also visualize their implementation and impact, and assess resources needed for completion.

After being on the road for several days, the students were due for some relaxation time. So its was off to the beach –Virginia Beach --where students enjoyed themselves in the warm ocean waters, the sun, and sand, with hundreds of people in and around the beach, which acted as a reminder of the care and preservation of this great resource.

The crew next visited the Great Dismal Swamp, legendary site of the Underground Rail Road. The swamp is historically known for being a refuge for thousands of runaway slaves and passage to the North and freedom.  The next day, the students traveled to North Carolina to see massive renewable energy production facilities for clean energy generation, visiting several wind and solar farms. Most had always discussed and advocated for clean energy as part of their course work but had never actually seen the apparatus, or experienced its functionality and power production capabilities.

As the students traveled home to Georgia, they began work on their group project, creating a unique set of motivational cards designed to help keep advocates “moving forward” and engaged during the many months of policy formulation, designing an extensive array of activities focused on surmounting the significant barriers. The card deck was modeled on a set of motivational cards produced by Juliet Hall INC, a local, women-owned, minority small business who has adapted as one of its focus areas to advance underserved communities through leadership development.  The cards were modified to contain messaging that would sustain activists through long periods of policy making and associated tasks.

The students ended the journey back in Atlanta at the Center for Human and Civil Rights, rejoicing in the success of their journeys and experience. Charlotte summed up the trip as follows, “This was the most fantastic experience; that raised not only my knowledge level but my consciousness about stewardship of our planet.”

The Center for Sustainable Communities (CSC) is a non-profit that uses a variety of programming to make under served and marginalized communities greener, cleaner, healthier, safer and more climate resilient through equity and environmental justice lens.  CSC is a founding partner of the Regional Center for the Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development (RCE Greater Atlanta) and sponsor and supporter of the Environmental Justice Academy, as well as a key partner for the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain working with affiliated faculty and capstone projects at Georgia Tech, serving as a host site for the SLS Summer Internship Program, and participating as a key member of the SLS Partnership Advisory Council.