Friday, August 24, 2018

Sierra Club Belle Glade Office Grand Opening!

New front door!
On Saturday, August 11, 2018, we celebrated a new and exciting phase of Sierra’s work in South Florida with the grand opening of our Belle Glade office in western Palm Beach County. Sierra Club is the first environmental non-profit to open an office in the Glades, within the Everglades Agricultural Area and by the shores of the water heart of South Florida and the Everglades - Lake Okeechobee.  

The office was packed with sixty-six  partners, local activists, and new friends from across Florida. Attendees shared stories, ate food prepared by a local activist Kina Phillips, and heard presentations from Belle Glade and South Bay activists and Sierra Club organizing staff.  After the program many took a guided tour of the surrounding community and the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee.

Patrick welcomes all 
Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign Organizer Patrick Ferguson kicked off the presentations with an introduction encouraging attendees to explore how the office can be used as a collaborative space for individuals and organizations seeking to have a positive impact on the Glades. Then the real heart of the program began with words of wisdom, encouragement and solidarity from three local leaders of the Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign:

Jam-packed with organizers, activists leaders, and new friends!
Kina Phillips, a local community organizer and small business owner, gave a powerful presentation on how pre-harvest sugar field burning has negatively impacted the people of the Glades and what drove her to fight for environmental justice in western Palm Beach County. She described how her grandson's need to use a breathing machine during the burning season inspired her to speak out against the practice which threatens the health of so many of her neighbors. Kina finished by entreating all to join the fight for clean water here in the water heart of the Everglades.

Steve Messam in action.
Steve Messam, a local entrepreneur and minister, echoed a similar story about how his family's health, especially his young son's health, suffers during the burning season. Steve described the negative economic impacts pre-harvest sugar field burning brings, including the costs residents shoulder during burning season to clean up the “black snow” (ash) and soot off of their property. He introduced many in the crowd to the alternative to burning called “green harvesting” which can bring new economic opportunity to the Glades.  He explained that if sugarcane “trash” (the leaves and tops) wasn’t sent up in smoke, it could be used to make electricity and products such as biochar, mulch, tree-free paper products, ethanol, and more.  He called on sugar growers to use this currently wasted “trash” to create jobs instead of pollution.

Shanique Scott, former Mayor of the City of South Bay and local business owner, railed against the injustice of pre-harvest sugar field burning.  She shared how many Glades residents are faced with having to move away from the community they love because of the health impacts and how this campaign is a fight over what is right and what is wrong. She described how she witnesses first hand how her dance students’ respiratory health is impacted during the burning season.  She spoke of how responsible she feels for the well being of the young people she teaches and her hope for a smoke-free future in her beloved hometown. 

Sierra Club Everglades Restoration Campaign Organizer Diana Umpierre drew everyone in to imagine a new “Nearby Nature in the Glades” initiative that will be based at the new office and will work with parents, teachers, and community activists to give kids and their families the opportunity to explore, enjoy and protect the natural environment in and around the Glades.  She finished by reminding all of the starry night sky in the Glades - a treasure urban South Floridians do not get at home - and encouraged all to wait until dark and look up into the heavens to catch the Perseid meteor shower.

After the tour!
The highlight of the event might have been the tour of the surrounding community led by local activists. A caravan of vans and cars drove by the homes, schools, and businesses that are so directly affected by pre-harvest sugar field burning and passed by many sites key to the current and potential future socioeconomic status of the Glades:  migrant worker housing, a sugar mill, Glades Central High School, Herbert Hoover Dike, Torry Island on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, and more.

All our guests were invited to leave a message on our wall - we hope you can come make your mark too! We welcome existing and new partners to join us.  The Grand Opening was a great start for what is sure to be a collaborative space and hub for the growing grassroots movement for environmental justice. What are we fighting for?  Clean water to drink and play in, safe and healthy places to live, equity, justice, and economically and environmentally sustainable                        jobs for all!  
                                      All Photos By Lomiekia Messam