Community Artists Envision a Thriving Baltimore without Displacement
"Robust, democratically controlled community-based organizations have the capacity to drive development locally," said Greg Sawtell, a leadership organizer at Baltimore's United Workers. The human rights organization is gearing up for a month-long exhibition of the community's multiple visions for local development, opening in September. The Development Without Displacement art show will highlight works focusing on neighborhood revitalization efforts that aim to protect the city's vulnerable low-income residents from displacement, eviction, and alienation.
United Workers' arts and culture projects are intertwined with their campaigns: the projects are tools to critically engage with issues of housing, labor, and environmental injustice and draw attention to the lived experience of locals. "The arts — in the form of music, painting, storytelling, and more — are a strength that we have on the ground," said Sawtell. "We've used art both to shine a light on untold stories, and as a way to ignite the collective imagination to think beyond what seems possible in the everyday."
Free Your Voice and the fight against an incinerator
One of United Workers' most successful and well-publicized recent campaigns was an effort to block the building of a trash-to-energy incinerator in the Curtis Bay neighborhood of South Baltimore. Proposed in 2010, the 90-acre site was planned to house a plant that would burn 4,000 tons of trash a day. The complex would have been less than a mile from two public schools, in a neighborhood already beset by multiple toxic pollution burdens.
The anti-incinerator campaign was largely youth-led, spearheaded by one of United Workers' human rights committees, Free Your Voice. Young people conducted research about the impacts of the incinerator, canvassed neighborhoods to disseminate information about the plans, and organized protests and events. The students discovered that Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS), other city government agencies, and local entities — including several arts-based institutions — had signed contracts to purchase energy from the proposed incinerator. Students launched a divestment campaign to put pressure on these entities to demonstrate their commitment to environmental justice and equitable development. Sisters Audrey and Leah Rozier wrote and performed the song "Free Your Voice" for the Baltimore City School Board in 2014, singing: "It'll all get better/We can save the world/And it starts with music/Get your message heard."
In 2015, BCPS and the Baltimore City Board of Estimates terminated their contracts with the incinerator developer, Energy Answers. In spring 2016, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Public Service Commission both declared the incinerator's permit to be invalid, halting the project indefinitely. For her leadership in the campaign, high school student Destiny Watford became the 2016 North American winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental activists.
Sawtell said that local residents initially supported Free Your Voice as a nice research project and leadership development activity, but didn't have much faith that young people would be able to stop the construction of the incinerator. "Those weren't cynical adults," he explained, "Those were people who felt like they were managing the expectations of young people. Free Your Voice went from hearing those responses to their efforts to steadily building power and a campaign, and now this is recognized as one of the most successful environmental justice campaigns currently in Maryland."