Upstanders: The Kids Who Killed an Incinerator

In contrast to the divisiveness and cynicism currently fueling our national discourse, Starbucks created "Upstanders," its first original content series, which aims to inspire Americans to engage in acts of compassion, citizenship and civility. “Upstanders” features ten stories, each told in written, video and podcast form, about ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities. The series is written and produced by Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman and ceo, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Starbucks executive producer and a former senior editor of The Washington Post.

Four years ago, when Destiny Watford was a high school senior, she learned that the nation’s largest trash incinerator was going to be built less than a mile from her school and the house where she lived with her family. The facility, to be erected on a 90-acre tract in her Baltimore neighborhood of Curtis Bay, had the enthusiastic support of state and local political leaders, who touted it as a job-creating, green-power initiative.

Watford, a shy, hard-working student, hadn’t thought much about environmentalism. But a facility that would burn gargantuan piles of garbage so close to her community, even if the politicians promised it would have sophisticated air filters, didn’t seem like a cause for celebration.

So she teamed up with a half dozen fellow students at Benjamin Franklin High School to learn as much as possible about the project. 

“We were confused,” she recalls. “We asked ourselves, ‘What aren’t they telling us?’”

As their research turned up more information, her trepidation turned to anger. The incinerator would be allowed to burn up to 4,000 tons of trash a day, including shredded tires. It was permitted by the state to release 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead into the air every year. And  many of the promised jobs required technical training that most Curtis Bay residents didn’t have.

Even more worrisome, this racially diverse enclave of brick row houses, united by poverty, already had more than its fair share of industry. Hard by the Patapsco River on Baltimore’s south side, Curtis Bay is home to oil storage tanks, the city’s wastewater treatment complex, an animal rendering plant, and one of the nation’s largest medical waste incinerators. Giant mounds of black coal arrive by rail car and loom in the background of the neighborhood park until they are transferred to ships.

“Why are all of these polluting industries in Curtis Bay?” she says. “The reality is because we’re poor. It’s because we’re viewed as invisible.”

To Watford, foisting more pollution on Curtis Bay felt like a manifest injustice – one she needed to address. This 17-year-old’s decision to stand up for her community and take on a well-funded, politically supported project would lead to an improbable series of events that would stun her neighbors and everyone connected with the incinerator.

She started by organizing the students who had helped her look into the project to knock on the doors of local residents, seeking to rally them to oppose the incinerator. One of the first people she encountered was an older man who told her he hated the project, but scoffed at her efforts to challenge it.

“The work you kids are doing is pointless,” he said. “Curtis Bay is, and always has been, a dumping ground.”

His words – echoed by other longtime residents she spoke with – stung. She had expected her biggest challenge to be making her neighborhood visible to the political leaders north of the river who had long ignored it, not persuading her fellow residents to reject the status quo.

This doesn’t have to be our future, she thought.

* * *

Watford and her classmates huddled inside their brick-walled school with Greg Sawtell, an organizer with United Workers, a Baltimore-based human-rights group. Sawtell, a former Peace Corps volunteer who had moved to Baltimore to get a graduate degree in social work, saw in these young kids the passion that had fueled his decision to join United Workers. With his encouragement, the students decided to give their quest a name – Free Your Voice – and to push forward despite neighborhood apathy.

Their efforts began when Sawtell took them on a field trip to see a performance of "An Enemy of the People." Written by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in the 19th century, the play concerns a tannery that pollutes a public bath. Its central message inspired Watford: Change can be sparked by a brave individual who stands alone.

Everywhere she turned, she saw warning signs. One day at school, she asked a room of 30 classmates whether anyone had asthma. Almost everyone raised a hand.

That prompted the students to look for more information about Curtis Bay’s air quality. What they found astounded them. In 2007 and 2008, their ZIP code had the worst toxic air pollutant rating in the country. In more recent years, it had remained the worst in Maryland.

“Just because we live here and go to school here, we’re more likely to die of lung cancer and respiratory disease,” Watford says. “And that’s really disheartening.”

Since the students lacked the resources to hire lawyers and lobbyists, they sought to fight the project with the skills they did possess. “We were all artists. We were poets, writers, and musicians,” she says. “So that’s what we used to fight this dumping-ground mentality.”

Their target was not the company seeking to build the incinerator, which was not violating the law, but the politicians who had approved the project.

Watford created a series of short videos that she shared online: clips of people discussing their asthma; students insisting their rights be respected; children frolicking on a playground with huge mounds of coal in the background.

Another student wrote poetry, and two sisters composed a rap anthem:

All that I can see is landfills.

We have our rights according to the amendments. But why do we feel like we’ve been so resented?

Ignored, shoved to the side, where opinions don’t matter. It’s time to stand up, let our voices be heard.

Incinerator move cause you’re not preferred.

Although the students spent most afternoons working on their anti- incinerator campaign, their passion and creativity wasn’t having the impact they had hoped. Most residents weren’t in the habit of watching videos on the internet. Nothing they were doing was filtering up to the political leaders who had approved the project and touted it as a boon for a struggling community. The state legislature had classified the incinerator as “Tier 1” renewable energy, on par with solar or wind power.

“It seemed like an insurmountable challenge,” Sawtell remembers. “It felt like there was nothing we could do to stop it.”

Then, as the students and Sawtell were poring through documents about the project one afternoon, they found something important: a list of government entities that had committed to purchase electricity from the incinerator to satisfy state-mandated green power goals. Among them were the Baltimore City Public Schools.

Watford’s initial reaction was outrage. “The very system that was enlightening us ... was planning to buy energy from something that would have been hurting us.”

But she also saw an opportunity.

What if, she wondered, we could convince the school board to change its mind?

* * *

Watford and the rest of Free Your Voice went to the next public meeting of the city’s board of school commissioners. When the session was opened to public comments, they rose to speak.

They were allotted two minutes.

Watford walked up to the microphone and announced, “We are here tonight to talk about choices.” She explained that she and others from Ben Franklin had made a choice to spend their afternoons participating in Free Your Voice. And she reminded the board of the choice the school system had made to buy electricity from an incinerator that would be built less than a mile from a high school.

Public schooling, she said, “is a system that springs forth from the principle of equity. It represents a choice that we made as a society to reach towards fairness. It provides opportunities to enlighten ourselves and allows us to look out at the world and question what we see.” Then she went after the project:

We are here tonight to make it clear that this incinerator threatens the very idea of equity that we students, teachers, parents, and board members share. We ask everyone here tonight: Is it fair to build the nation’s largest incinerator in the community with the highest level of toxic air emissions in the state? Is it fair to build the incinerator in the community with some of the highest rates of death from heart disease, lung cancer, and lower respiratory disease in the city? Is it fair to build the incinerator in the city that has the highest rate of air pollution– related deaths in the nation? Is it fair to have your life cut short because of where you are born? We say that it is not fair and, more, that it is not right. The incinerator is failed development.

Watford had two requests: that school board commissioners visit Curtis Bay, and that they take a fresh look at their contract with the company building the incinerator. She was followed by a classmate who read a soliloquy critical of the project, and the sisters who performed the rap anthem.

Ten minutes later, they sat down.

And the school board stood. To give them an ovation.

Several board members toured the neighborhood in a bus the following week, led by Watford and Sawtell. For commissioner Cheryl Casciani, witnessing the sea of industry so close to homes was an aha moment.

Although the incinerator’s emissions would have been within public health guidelines, and it would have produced far cleaner energy than coal-fired power plants elsewhere in the state, she concluded that the project had not been evaluated in the context of Curtis Bay’s existing industrial base.

“Curtis Bay was getting a disproportionate burden of toxic pollutants,” she says. “There was nobody [in government] doing the math,” adding up the collective impact on the community.

But, she discovered, “the kids were doing the math.”

Within a few weeks, the commissioners decided to back out of their contract to buy power from the incinerator. Their move led to a similar decision by the City of Baltimore.

The work of Watford and her fellow students led community activists in Baltimore to target 20 other government agencies that had contracts with the incinerator. The dominoes fell. All of them pulled out.

“We had begun to turn the tables,” Sawtell recalls.

But the project was far from dead. The company seeking to build the incinerator still had a permit from the State of Maryland to commence construction.

So, once again, the students, with the help of Sawtell and environmental activists, began to comb through documents. And they discovered that the company appeared to have missed an 18-month deadline to start construction of the incinerator.

Even though by then many of the original Free Your Voice members had graduated from high school – Watford was a sophomore at Towson University in Baltimore – they continued their campaign. The students sent letters to the

Maryland Department of the Environment, which had issued the permit, making their case. “We got silence,” Sawtell recalls.

After six months, the students lost patience. They, along with hundreds of other Curtis Bay residents who had thrown their weight behind the cause, caravanned to the Department of the Environment’s headquarters to deliver petitions – cut in the shape of sunflowers – and to hold a sit-in inside the building until they received a response. The protest, which began with chants of “enforce the law, do your job,” and ended late in the evening with the arrests of seven residents for failing to vacate a government building, sent an unambiguous message that Watford and the rest of Free Your Voice would keep fighting.

This March, the department finally made a decision. It declared that the company’s permit had expired, effectively scuttling the incinerator project.

Sawtell called Watford with the news. She screamed with joy.

* * *

“Without the leadership of Destiny, without the leadership of the students of Free Your Voice who have worked alongside her, and the countless residents who have been inspired by their bold leadership, we would likely have the nation’s largest trash-burning incinerator less than a mile away from where we go to school, from where we work, from where we live,” Sawtell says.

That the battle was led by kids has evoked deep admiration – and some chagrin – among Curtis Bay’s older residents.

“Us adults, we were jaded. We’re apathetic. We’re used to this. We’ve seen this happen for the last 30 years. We didn’t think it was going to change,” says Amanda Maminski, a mother of two who lives a few blocks away from Watford. “It took a very determined group of kids from the local high school to show us that what we think and what we dream can actually become possible.”

thumbnail for Starbucks Milano Duetto – an innovative ode to coffee, arts and culture

Starbucks Milano Duetto – an innovative ode to coffee, arts and culture