Reflections on the Fight for Social Justice

A group of anti-mountaintop removal activists gather outside of the Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters in May 2013 to protest the poisoning of their waterways./Photo by Mary Kroeck

A group of anti-mountaintop removal activists gather outside of the Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters in May 2013 to protest the poisoning of their waterways./Photo by Mary Kroeck

Mary Kroeck

Over the past two weeks I listened to Chicago Teachers Union President, Karen Lewis, and Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. talk to students at NEIU about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and fighting for what is right. In doing so, I reflected on the words of Fannie Lou Hamer and asked myself, “When are you going to come alive and say something, do something to help keep the doors of Chicago State, NEIU and other state schools open? Why aren’t you sick and tired of being sick and tired?”

Truth be told, I have been – for a long time now and you should be too.

After I received my undergraduate degree, I lobbied Congress to try to pass the Clean Water Protection Act. It’s a very simple one page bill that would reverse a Bush administration ruling that allows coal waste to be put in waterways, poisoning water all across the Appalachian Mountains, causing high rates of cancer, birth defects and irreparable damage to ecosystems. Sound familiar? It would also curb mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR), a process where mountains are blown up to get to very small seams of coal. In fact, according to Appalachian Voices, “Every week, giant strip mines across Appalachia use the explosive force of a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb to blow up the nation’s oldest mountains.” MTR has been happening in the mountains of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee for over 25 years. You would think this would be a simple bill to pass – it’s about water and keeping it clean. Of course coal lobbyists tend to have pockets lined with cash. We had bottles of polluted, rust colored water from the faucets of those being impacted. That bill started its journey in Congress in 2002 and still hasn’t been passed. Let me tell you, when you walk into the offices of elected officials, meet with their aides and are flat out told they don’t care, it’s easy to get discouraged.

Activists I knew in the fight for clean water and an end to MTR have died in the process of this battle, which continues to this day. Yet, I’m willing to bet that until now most readers had no idea this was going on at all. Why would you? You probably don’t live in the hollows of Appalachia and you probably don’t work in a coal mine. However, we all live downstream.

I choose my battles – and so should you. Mayor Emanuel step down? Yeah, right. He’s really going to do that. Gov. Rauner pass a state budget? Well, they have to pass one sometime or, it stands to reason, the politicians won’t get paid and we can’t have that, now can we?

I say all this to acknowledge that it’s easy to take up the mantle for a cause, but most battles worth fighting are not easily won and sometimes we don’t get the result we really want. It’s easy to say we’re going to take to the streets and make Springfield feel our footsteps. It’s another thing to get Gov. Rauner and our state politicians to care about what we’re fighting for. We can’t just make them feel our footsteps, we must make them feel our very presence, our hurt, our confusion, our dismay at the fact that a lack of state budget means the doors of our school might not be open this summer, thousands of people might be losing their jobs and oh, your diploma, well, unless you’re certain you’re graduating in May, you might not get that either – at least not from NEIU.

There’s a chance, however, that the budget will pass between now and May and this current state of worry will be all for not. Yet, only God knows the amount of cuts it will hold and what it will really mean for the future of education in Illinois.

There are many problems in the world today. However, we can’t continue to believe that someone else will make positive changes for us. We must be the ones we’ve been waiting for. Meet with your representatives. Send them emails. Call their offices. Express your concern. Tell them that you see students – be them your peers or your pupils – who are fighting back tears because they don’t know whether or not they’ll be able to register for classes in the fall or graduate after working so hard. These things that get representatives off of their extremely well paid elected bottoms – especially in election years.

I’m sick and tired of cuts to education, the arts and much-needed social services while war is fully funded and people are killing each other in our streets. I’m sick and tired of talking to friends in the educational system and hearing about their students being shot. I’m sick of having friends say they don’t vote because their vote doesn’t matter. Your vote is your voice. You have to make it heard. Starting whenever you feel sick and tired of being sick and tired, it’s time to get to work and save our schools, nay, save our lives. We must be our own heroes, collectively fight this battle and win. If we don’t, who will?