The Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans is hosting a multimedia exhibition that explores the history and future of climate and environmental justice. "Climates of Inequality: Stories of Environmental Justice” is an international traveling exhibit and series of dialogues that opens Thursday at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
Led by Midlo Center director and UNO history professor Mary Niall Mitchell, UNO public history students collaborated with a Rutgers University-Newark-led coalition of 500 university students, scholars and frontline communities from 22 cities to create the traveling exhibition, which launched in Newark, New Jersey, on Oct. 3, 2019.
“Climates of Inequality vividly documents how environmental and economic conditions experienced by people of color are influenced not only by the environmental injustices of living in contaminated areas, but also by climate change,” said Adrienne Hollis, lead climate justice and health scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Those impacts affect vulnerable communities first and worst, and this is exacerbated by COVID-19, which has ravaged the lives of Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities. As Climates of Inequality reminds us, the underlying cause that runs through these issues is racism, plain and simple.”
Over the course of two years, communities in New Orleans and South Louisiana joined communities across the hemisphere to explore the deep historical roots of climate inequality and environmental injustice in their localities, share personal experiences and develop strategies for change.
Through virtual reality, moving audio testimony and historical imagery from each community, the exhibition explores how the climate crisis and environmental injustice is intensifying inequality—and how the experiences of the hardest-hit communities hold the key to confronting these issues and finding ways to move forward.
“To contribute to Climates of Inequality, UNO public history students collaborated with activists and residents living in communities that remain ‘on boil’ in terms of environmental injustice,” Mitchell said. “Our partners have argued that Cancer Alley, or Death Alley, includes toxic neighborhoods in New Orleans, such as Gordon Plaza, as well as fence line communities wedged between refineries upriver.”
For its staging in New Orleans, the exhibition includes “Standing Up on River Road: Activism in South Louisiana,” a special focus on how the petrochemical corridor along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, disproportionately affects Native and Black communities, causing high cancer rates, devaluation of property and displacement of neighborhoods.
University of New Orleans students created the exhibition in collaboration with a number of community partners including: Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an organization that work with neighborhoods next to petrochemical infrastructure to help residents challenge the petrochemical industry’s expansion; residents of Gordon Plaza and New Orleans People’s Assembly, an organization advocating for economic, racial and environmental justice by demanding the fair and just relocation of Gordon Plaza residents, whose homes where erected on top of a toxic landfill; and historian Leon Waters, director of Hidden History Tours and chair of the Louisiana Museum of African American History.
“The students have played a tangible role in supporting residents and advocates, even as they learned from them what books simply cannot teach,” Mitchell said. “They have seen from Gordon Plaza activists and the Bucket Brigade all that it takes to stand up for your community and press for change. And they understand much more deeply than before, through residents and their personal stories, the history of structural and environmental racism.”
Although the exhibit had been planned for 2020, the delay caused by COVID-19 had two significant silver linings, organizers say. First, the Midlo Center was able to involve high school students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. The students, working with their integrated science teacher Travis Haas, created artwork and videos for projection in the gallery.
In addition, with Ryan Gray, Midlo’s associate director and UNO anthropology professor, UNO students, community partners, and architectural researchers at Forensic Architecture, will contribute interactive maps related to ongoing efforts to locate and protect African American cemeteries in fence line communities.
The exhibition will open with a public reception on Thursday from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at 5 Press Gallery at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Regular hours for the exhibit will be Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. through Feb. 13.
Climates of Inequality is a project of the Humanities Action Lab, a collaboration between the University of New Orleans and 21 others, led by Rutgers University-Newark, working with community organizations and public spaces to foster new public dialogue on contested social issues, through public humanities projects that explore the diverse local histories and current realities of shared global concerns.
Partner communities are: Amherst, MA; Bogota, Colombia; Chicago, IL; Durham, NC; Greensboro, NC; Indianapolis, IN; Mayaguez, PR; Mexico City, Mexico; Miami, FL; Milwaukee, WI; New Brunswick, NJ; New York, NY; Newark, NJ; Northridge, CA; Philadelphia, PA; Providence, RI; Riverside, CA; Saratoga Springs, NY; Tempe, AZ; Twin Cities, MN and Nassau, The Bahamas.
Liz Sevcenko, founder and director of the Humanities Action Lab, believes that the University of New Orleans exhibition “captures the especially vibrant work of so many communities and activists in and around New Orleans. UNO’s list of community partners just kept growing over time,” Sevcenko said. “The fight for environmental justice demands leadership and radical revisioning from ‘frontline’ communities like those in south Louisiana, building on generations of knowledge, experience and connecting local knowledges across the country."
Climates of Inequality was designed by design firm MTWTF, led by creative directors Glen Cummings and Sarah Dunham, which has a strong background in built environments and working at the intersection of art, communities, and environments. The exhibition incorporates a short documentary about the creative process behind Climates of Inequality produced by Talking Eyes Media, a New Jersey-based media firm specializing in visual storytelling for social justice.
The project was made possible in part by Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Andrew W.Mellon Foundation, Rutgers University-Newark School of Arts and Sciences, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) Foundation, and a Louisiana Culture Care Fund grant administered by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH) and provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and the NEH Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (SHARP) initiative.