catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 4 :: 2007.02.23 — 2007.03.09


Paint, politics and parents

While much of the world seems to be waiting for the next charismatic leader to come along and take us to a different place, I’ve become increasingly convinced that real changes come from the small and varied acts that millions of people can make every day.  With a dozen years of grassroots organizing in my recent past, maybe it’s no surprise that I’m not banking on Obama or Romney, Clinton or McCain to change the destiny of our nation.  Instead, I’m thinking the real pay-offs will come from the somewhat organized daily acts of critically conscious people.

I work on the problem of childhood lead poisoning.  For decades, paint manufacturers added this known toxin to their product in an effort to boost sales and claim market share.  When paint companies found a way to reduce lead content without a negative impact on the bottom line, it then took the U.S. federal government another handful of decades to outlaw the sale of lead-based paint in 1978.  Until then, corporate trustees and elected officials were either not interested or powerless to protect the millions of US children that would be poisoned by lead-based paint.  In return, they left us a legacy of aging housing stock tainted with the toxin of lead-based paint and residual lead dust.

That legacy of lead continues today.  Many people are surprised to learn that lead-based paint still poisons tens of thousands of US children every year.  42,291 children under the age of six were identified with elevated blood lead levels in 2004 (the last year national figures were available, figures that exclude reporting from 8 of the 50 states).  In my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, that translated into about 200 children who needlessly ingested a toxin that will adversely effect their cognitive and neurological development.

The more we learn about lead, the more we know about the sad outcomes for children exposed.  These 200 children from Grand Rapids may face everything from poor health to reduced I.Q.  They are more likely to struggle with school and are more likely to have rubs with the law.  In adulthood, their wage earning will be hindered by the lead that laced their hands many years ago as they explored their infant world through age-appropriate hand-to-mouth activity.

Childhood lead poisoning is a messy topic, especially as established urban communities struggle to provide safe, decent, affordable housing.  At the close of the last century, even many non-profit organizations working on the provision of affordable housing in Grand Rapids balked at the prospects of addressing childhood lead poisoning head-on.  Instead, non-profit housing agencies sought clever ways to work around Title X and other federal housing policy that requires federally subsidized projects to address lead hazards.

With the paint industry, elected officials and even community-based organizations seeking to dodge the problem of lead, is it any surprise that the problem persists into the 21st Century?

Yet more shameful is the fact that the problem of childhood lead poisoning significantly affects the poor and people of color with great disparity.  Nationally, it is estimated that 80% of children with elevated blood lead levels are Medicaid recipients.  That figure was 82.1% in my home county (Kent) in 2005. 

In Kent County that same year, less than one out of 140 White, non-Hispanic children tested for lead had an elevated blood lead level (0.7%).  For children of color, the rates were significantly higher.  Hispanic children saw a rate of nearly one in forty (2.4%), Black children a rate of one in every twenty-two (4.5%), and multi-racial children nearly one in twenty (4.8%).

Both nationally and locally, it is clear that childhood lead poisoning is an issue of environmental justice.

Since the concept of environmental justice became established and popularized at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC in 1991, people have been seeking ways in which local communities can reverse long-standing environmental injustices that target low-income people, people of color, and women.  Key in this campaign has been engaging the knowledge and culture of those most directly affected.

While the Principles of Environmental Justice drafted in 1991 speak plenty about the role of multi-national corporations, government, academia and others, there is clearly an underlying role for the public.  The Principles do not suggest that some abstract leaders or small group of people solve this problem, but that we all get active and lend our knowledge, skills and energies.

Seeking environmental justice is not just a privilege for the politically successful.  Environmental justice “affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.”  It is not just something our lawmakers do, but instead “demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.”

What the people said in Washington in 1991 is that moms matter as much as magistrates, that fathers matter as much a senators and congressmen.  That communities matter as much as caucuses, and book clubs and bowling teams matter as much as political parties.

In Grand Rapids, community leaders and our coalition are proud of our recent ability to leverage millions of dollars in federal resources to fix homes and protect children from lead hazards.  While this pride is well justified, it must also be put in perspective.  Fixing 850 or so houses is not enough to eliminate childhood lead poisoning in our community.

Instead, we must work together to shape more reasoned policy—policy that recognizes the significant return on investment that comes from primary prevention of lead poisoning.  We must work together to integrate prevention into the community systems that already support many of our families and children, systems like Medicaid, WIC, Head Start and LaLeche

Most importantly, we need to recognize the critical role parents play in protecting children.  While parents may not meet in boardrooms or in congressional chambers, they do have the intrinsic knowledge and motivation required to protect their children.  Regardless of their socio-economic status, race, ethnicity or a host of other distracting categories, there is one thing that people of all cultures hold in common—care for their children.

Bringing people together to act on a common threat is as old as community itself.  Sharing and solving common concerns is bedrock for building community.

When I reflect on how communities need to coalesce to solve tough problems, I think of Nehemiah.  While the issue in Nehemiah’s case was extortion through lending, the approach is the same as it should be for lead poisoning and other issues of injustice.

Here’s what Nehemiah did: 

“When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry.  I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, 'You are charging your own people interest!' So I called together a large meeting to deal with them.” (Nehemiah 5:6,7)

Nehemiah declared his righteous anger publicly.  But he did not stop there.  He thought about the problem and what it meant for him and his community.  And he didn’t think alone.  He called together those in his community and those most directly affected.  Together, using knowledge that only they possessed, they solved the problem.

As we ramp up to what promises to be yet another over-the-top Presidential campaign season, I’m still holding my faith in the everyday people of my neighborhood to solve the real problems at hand.  Sure, Obama is angry about childhood lead poisoning too.  But I just think that the moms and dads and others who care for the children of my neighborhood will get the job done just the same.

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