Free Your Voice is a Baltimore youth group that fights for environmental justice. It was started by, and is composed of, students at Ben Franklin High School (a Baltimore City public school). The group has formed as a committee of United Workers, a local nonprofit dedicated to fighting environmentally unsound development that is particularly detrimental to low income residents. The students began by trying to understand the needs of their community. This blossomed into a campaign to oppose a proposed South Baltimore trash incinerator as a danger to the health of their and other low income neighborhoods. The group’s efforts and demonstrations helped defeat what would have been the nation’s largest incinerator less than a mile away from a high school. Some were arrested during a 2015 protest held at the Maryland Department of the Environment. The group has continued to participate in environmental issues, such as learning how to create a local development team including people in the neighborhood to gain control of a brownfield site to insure environmentally sensible development. This and other projects (e.g. an outdoor “Development Without Displacement Art Show” and an initiative involving university anthropology students exploring their neighborhood and documenting problems such as food deserts and air pollution) have led to the students developing relationships with other institutions in the city and even a new high school course.
In keeping with the theme for the 2017 Assembly, “Communities Confronting Systemic Racism,” Free Your Voice has rallied their community to protect the health of residents and demonstrate the systemic nature of racism in Baltimore. The Curtis Bay neighborhood most at risk from the incinerator is already one of the most polluted areas in the country. Specifically, Free Your Voice has highlighted how environmental injustice impacts marginalized communities and inspired residents to engage in political action that betters their lives. They illustrate “Deed Before Creed” in that they have been all about taking action, sometimes at personal risk. They have sought to dedicate their time to projects that serve the greater good of humanity. In this particular campaign their rallying cry was “Clean Air is a Human Right.” One of the founders of the group (currently working with it as a facilitator) is Destiny Watford who was one of 6 winners (and the only North American winner) of the prestigious 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize.