Youth who began organizing in the halls of Curtis Bay’s Benjamin Franklin High School in 2011 have created a powerful, multipronged movement for fair development in Baltimore City. They took on an incinerator and won.  They taught city officials and politicians with a too-long history of investing in urban renewal what alternative, community-centered, affordable, and green development can look like. The youth—and later, young adults—fought for housing, for health, for their friends and neighbors, and when they could find no other way to defeat the behemoth Wheelabrator–BRESCO incinerator pumping toxic gases into their airways, they organized in support of zero-waste initiatives to “starve the beast”: without waste, an incinerator soon loses its purpose.
The youth did all of this as students, and later as collaborators in and instructors of the after-school program Free Your Voice.  For more than a decade, I learned from these students, participated in their activism, and observed as they trained other students to fight for environmental justice. Twenty young people in a classroom can reclaim development for and of the people and build a viable movement around zero waste that bridges race, class, and generational divides.
Curtis Bay, Maryland—seven miles from downtown Baltimore, and where the young activists resided and attended school—is one of the most environmentally unhealthy places in the United States. Home to two medical-waste incinerators, a landfill, and an open-air coal pier, Curtis Bay has the highest rates of childhood asthma and respiratory illness due to incineration in Baltimore—a city whose asthma rate of 13.7% is already 50% higher than the national average (EIP 2012).  Yet Baltimore city officials continue to ignore the alternatives to waste incineration.
Incineration is an easy, cheap way to deal with trash. Because trash-to-energy incineration was given Tier 1 renewable status, such facilities even receive subsidies from the state.  Baltimore has been dependent on incineration for waste disposal since the 1970s. The city’s largest incinerator, Wheelabrator–BRESCO, which is the largest of two remaining trash incinerators in Maryland, burns 2,250 tons of trash per day and was responsible for 36% of all toxic stationary emissions in 2014. BRESCO emits mercury, lead, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, chromium, and nitrogen oxide into the air. The toxic ash produced from burning trash travels to the landfill in Curtis Bay. Incinerator ash leaches heavy metals and harmful chemicals into soils and waterways. This violence against people and land is not accidental but rather deeply embedded in historically established systems and structures that perpetuate market-mandated exploitation of natural resources, including human beings (Sze 2020). Curtis Bay is a classic example of toxic overburden, similar to many other well-documented cases of low-income communities of color that bear the brunt of polluting industries due to cheap land prices and the illusion that poor people will not fight back (Bullard 2004, 2000, 2007; Taylor 2014; Pellow 2018; Sze 2020).
© Nicole Fabricant.
In a city where politicians work in lock-step with the private sector to extract wealth and profit from the poor (Taylor 2016, 2019; Brown 2021; Fabricant 2022), Destiny Watford and her high-school comrades felt deeply the structural inequities in their daily lives which lit a flame to hold city politicians and private developers accountable to the needs of the local community. Watford’s group, Free Your Voice, started organizing against a trash-to-energy incinerator. From there, the movement has evolved into a model for “people-centered” development. Free Your Voice wants to control land in overburdened communities in order to redefine how poor people could build affordable housing and zero-waste infrastructure. Their proposal for a community-owned and community-controlled composting site intends to starve the incinerator of food scraps, while redirecting resources and capital back into their community.
Free Your Voice
Free Your Voice began as an afterschool program at Benjamin Franklin High School. It fostered dialogue about social, environmental, and political problems in the Curtis Bay area. Led by a social worker from a grassroots organization, youth were prompted to dig deeper into their family histories and to see the interlocking systems of oppression in their lives and communities. The focus of the program shifted when someone from the group shared a Baltimore Brew newspaper article article about a proposal to build a trash-to-energy incinerator a mile from the high school. Free Your Voice youth discovered that the plant would emit mercury, lead, and heavy metals into the already polluted air. From 2011-2016, they built a campaign which included popular education, canvassing (door-to door), marches, protests, art builds, and even occupations of the board of education and the Maryland Department of the Environment. Their struggle culminated in hundreds of allies gathering in protest in Montgomery Park (in front of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE)) on December 15, 2015, and small group occupying, and being arrested, in MDE’s offices. Free Your Voice protesters called on the state to extinguish the plant’s 2010-expired permit. They won. In a David-versus-Goliath victory, MDE canceled the incinerator’s permits due to multiple construction violations.
© Nicole Fabricant.
The youth of Free Your Voice believed that stopping one polluting incinerator was a victory, but wanted to shift from reactive to proactive. As Destiny Watford articulated, “We wanted to make decisions about the land. How could we begin to define development? It was not enough to stop one incinerator …we had to become amateur developers” (Watford Interview, January 15, 2019).
Free Your Voice continued to run youth-based education in the community as a means to teach residents about “unfair development.” Several youth leaders traveled to Oakland, California, to learn about zero waste and reuse facilities as a strategy for dealing with systemic overburdens of our waste system. Youth and their adult allies connected with Global Anti-Incineration Alliance (GAIA) and other larger networks like PLAN (Post Landfill Action Network) to hear about other proposals, plans for pushing forward zero waste at a city-level which emphasizes a regenerative rather than extractive economy.
For Free Your Voice activists, zero waste became both a goal and a call for action at a community and city-wide level. Zero waste became a tool for addressing systemic racism and toxic overburdens, for thinking about the just transitions towards green industries, and for healthier waste reuse, recycling, and composting initiatives that could benefit and generate wealth for historically marginalized communities.
In 2016, the Free Your Voice youth began working with a local coalition of grassroots organizations including the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, Housing our Neighbors, and United Workers on a Zero-Waste Plan for Baltimore, which evolved into the Zero-Waste Coalition. The Zero-Waste Coalition developed alongside other activists, and zero-waste experts underscored the importance of “fair development” or development without displacement  and to promote community development that highlights the key benefits of community ownership strategies.
The “Fair Development Zero-Waste Report”—based on the findings from a participatory process with community residents written by Free Your Voice youth and United Workers organizers—laid out a just transition from an economy of extraction to one of reuse and regeneration. It calls for 90% of all the materials discarded in the city to be diverted from landfills and incinerators by 2040. It charges the city to contract with mission-based or worker-owned recycling and compost operators, and demands that enterprises that hire local residents pay family-sustaining wages. The Zero-Waste Plan expands on relationships formed during an intensive planning and listening process, and establishes close partnerships between elected officials, public housing, and school systems community groups and Universities and anchor institutions throughout the city of Baltimore and neighboring Baltimore County. Baltimore’s city council officially endorsed and approved the plan in 2020. If implemented as official policy, this will be the nation’s first zero-waste plan for Fair Development, crafted by and for grassroots communities.
Within months of the report’s endorsement, the interim mayor Jack Young—in a highly undemocratic fashion—signed a commitment to rely upon BRESCO (the city’s primary incinerator) for another 10 years. This undermined zero-waste planning and felt like a betrayal to activists who had been negotiating with Young. The offer to extend BRESCO’s contract came as part of negotiations over a legal challenge from a year earlier to enforce strict emission standards imposed earlier in 2020 under the Baltimore Clean Air Act.
Starve the beast
Due to the tense political climate and a new 10‑year contract, grassroots organizers had to think creatively about how to “starve the beast” of Wheelabrator–BRESCO. Activists could not rely upon city officials to quickly transition to implement their vision. Months after the 10‑year contract was signed, a new mayor, Brandon Scott, who ran with endorsements from Free Your Voice and other grassroots movements and labor unions, promised to transition the city away from burning waste. City officials have, nevertheless, been scaling back on their commitments to Zero Waste. Mayor Scott hired a new Department of Public Works (DPW) director, Jason Mitchell, in 2021. Mitchell has experience implementing zero-waste infrastructure in the Bay Area of California, but neither Scott nor Mitchell has made any serious commitments to implementing infrastructure tied to Free Your Voice’s plan.
In this context, the question of how to starve BRESCO of food waste became critical to the organizing work; more than 40% of the waste burned at BRESCO was food waste which could be diverted to composting. Free Your Voice youth worked alongside Neighborhood Design (NDC) architects and others to envision and build a local compost site in Curtis Bay. The Zero Waste coalition identified a 64‑acre, city-owned, former landfill, and determined it would be appropriate for their envisioned composting facility. Activists have engaged the South Baltimore Land Trust (501 C3), the local compost innovation Atlas Organics, and others to flesh out its plan for a cooperatively owned, collectively operated community composting facility.
© Nicole Fabricant.
While I had been participating in this movement as a scholar activist since 2011, many of my young interlocutors asked if I could turn the lens back on some of the institutions (like Towson University, my institution, and Johns Hopkins University where many colleagues taught) to commit tonnage of food waste to the Curtis Bay compost facility as a “buy-in” to convince the city that institutions will not only support but provide critical materials to this community-owned compost site. As a result of organizing work facilitated by Free Your Voice youth across the University of Maryland system, Johns Hopkins University has begun to make serious commitments that could encourage or stimulate other anchor institutions to commit their food scraps and yard waste to provide a stable feedstock for the new facility. The entire cost of developing the community-owned, community-controlled compost facility is estimated at fifty thousand dollars, an expenditure that is minuscule when compared to the fiscal, environmental, and social costs of incineration. Nevertheless, Baltimore city officials, many of whom publicly support the Zero-Waste Vision, have not yet committed any concrete resources.
The proposed community-owned and community-controlled composting site was a plea to city officials to bring good jobs—green jobs—to their community in Curtis Bay while at the same time addressing our waste crisis. Our city has failed to be creative in its thinking about alternatives to incineration. However, youth of color in Curtis Bay realized if they could “starve the beast” (statement used publicly by Marvin Hayes ) of food scraps and implement this compost facility in their community, then they could divest critical resources from dirty forms of burning our trash. This is Baltimore grassroots politics at its best: young people defining development, rallying support from anchor institutions with resources, and overstepping the neoliberal city of Baltimore to get the facility built.
- Brown, Lawrence. 2021. The Black Butterfly: Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Bullard, Robert D. 1994. Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color, San Francisco: Sierra Book Clubs.
- Bullard, Robert D. 2000. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, 3rd ed., Boulder: Westview Press.
- Bullard, Robert D. 2007. Toxic Wastes and Race at 20, 1987–2007: Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States, report prepared for the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries.
- Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). 2012. Air Quality Profile of Curtis Bay, Brooklyn and Hawkins Point, Maryland.
- Fabricant, Nicole. 2022 (forthcoming). Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity and the Rise of Youth Activism in Baltimore, Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Pellow, David Naguib. 2018. What is Critical Environmental Justice?, Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Sze, Julie. 2020. Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger, Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Taylor, Dorceta. 2014. Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution and Residential Mobility, New York: New York University Press.
- Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. 2016. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Chicago: Haymarket Books.
- Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. 2019. Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real-Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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