Environmental justice focus of rights summit
'Privileged destruction' panel calls for more decisive action on climate change
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The problem of climate change calls for more action than merely changing light bulbs, said Tom Goldtooth, a keynote speaker for the fifth annual Human Rights Summit at SF State on May 2.

“Where does your power come from when you turn on the light switch?” Goldtooth asked. “People need to reevaluate their relationship to the sacredness of mother Earth. Americans have not yet confronted our energy addiction…We’re not making the changes that we need to do.”

The theme of this year’s summit, organized by students and faculty from the anthropology department and the American Indian studies department, was “Privileged Destruction: Examining Environmental Justice.”

From April 30 through May 2, the Cesar Chavez Student Center was buzzing with passionate articulation through panels, speeches and performances to spotlight the thematic issues.

At the “Disposable People” panel, discussant Phil Klasky, a lecturer for the American Indian studies program at SF State, highlighted the connection between environmental destruction and human rights.

“I work a lot with tribes who are treated as disposable people because they are targeted to become repositories for the toxic waste that the dominant society has produced,” Klasky said. “The concept of environmental justice is that the minority and poor are targeted and continue to experience institutionalized racism...You won’t find toxic waste dumps in Beverly Hills or the financial district downtown because they’re rich communities that won’t allow it.”

Minority communities suffer disproportionately from hazardous waste because they represent the path of least resistance by corporations and the government, he said.

The topic of toxic waste was one of many interlinked environmental issues the student panelists presented and discussed. Philip Hoover, 22, an anthropology major, presented a self-researched and written piece on the documentary, “FEMA’s Toxic Trailers: Classism and Racism in the Aftermath of Katrina.”

“I was originally going to do a piece on the Bhopal incident in India, but it was too distant so I focused on Katrina and the toxic trailers.”

Hoover described how the 12,000 trailers the Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed to Hurricane Katrina refugees contained dangerously high levels of formaldehyde. He said FEMA’s carelessness for distributing trailers with cancer-causing toxins was a form of structural violence, and that, due to the failure of government oversight, low-income and minority families have been further victimized. His presentation concluded with a call to action.

“You might have no time, you could be very busy, but the very least you can do is go online and sign petitions,” he said. “The best we can do is unite in numbers to fight for a common cause.”

Seven of the eight panels at the summit were presented by students enrolled in a class called Anthropology and Human Rights, taught by professor Mariana Ferreira.

Nathan Embretson, 27, an anthropology major, was part of the summit’s fundraising committee. He said the summit was almost entirely student-run and student-organized, with the exception of organization from Ferreira.

“We read about general human rights to get an idea [in class], and then we start[ed] digging into modern problems,” Embretson said. “There were lots of passionate papers and we were encouraged to write that way. When you start looking at how people are affected with environmental problems it’s enraging.”

The summit was supported by multi-disciplinary speakers, moderators, and performers. The co-sponsors included numerous student groups and university divisions.

Among them were Students for Critical Anthropology, Institute for Community and Civic Engagement, Public Research Institute, the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, the anthropology department, the environmental studies program, the College of Extended Learning, the College of Ethnic Studies, the American Indian studies department and the College of Humanities.

“The other side [of the summit] is that we incorporated artistic movement and expression to show these issues,” Embretson said. “Art has a way of cutting to the core issue in the way that academics can’t. It gives you the freedom to explore the gray areas that are oftentimes difficult to show in a paper. It’s a different way of communicating that is more powerful.”

On May 2, Jack Adams Hall hosted performances in a wide variety of media. There was a play called “IRONHAWK on Death Row,” dance routines, spoken word, short story readings, music, and even a fashion parade.

“The turnout for the panels was really good,” Embretson said. “It’s hard to get people on campus on a Friday because there are hardly any classes anymore. We had a crowd throughout the day in Jack Adams of around 30-40 people.”

The poetry and short story segment of the performance day was moderated by Philip Hoover. Among the poets he presented were Camille Dungy, Michael Warr and Maxine Chernoff—Hoover’s mother.

“That was cool, because I’ve been to so many of her poetry readings and watched from the audience,” Hoover said. “Her and the other poets’ readings were very relevant to our topic.”

For the capstone piece of the performance day, a Bay Area group called Trash Mash-Up exhibited a colorful display of “maskostumes” made out of non-recyclable trash. They drew inspiration for the creations from world folklore. One such costume was a lion made of plastic bags, Styrofoam packing material, soy milk cartons, bottle caps and plastic table cloths.

“One conference at SF State had enough plastic tablecloths to supply a year’s worth of costumes for them,” said Jack Mohr, 20, an anthropology major and audience member.

Mohr said he enjoyed the performances because he liked to see the issues presented through music and dance instead of papers and lectures.

“It was fun,” Mohr said. “As an anthropology student, we talk about a lot of issues but don’t get to act on them. The conference itself was a way for students to act. It’s something I wanted to go see because it was a chance for anthropology students to act and interact with the community instead of the classroom.”
After three days of activity, the event culminated with a fundraising party for next year’s summit at CELLspace, an artist collective in San Francisco’s Mission District.

“I’m very proud that SFSU has a human rights summit every year,” Klasky said. “It’s an opportunity not only to educate students and the public about these important issues, but provides a forum for students to present their research on issues that are important to them. I was very impressed by the scholarship that students presented as well as the passion they exhibited about these important issues. As an academic institution, it’s important that we provide students with research skills and opportunities to pursue issues
that are important to our society.”

Next year’s summit will focus on health discrepancies, health care as a human right and access to health care—who gets it and who doesn’t.

Staff writer Adam Loraine contributed to this story.



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Andrew Desantis | staff photographer
Dan Abbott (far left in hat) listens to a speaker during the fifth annual Human Rights Summit. The three-day event included contributions from various students groups and discussions about environmental justice.

Andrew Desantis | staff photographer
Dan Abbott (far left in hat) listens to a speaker during the fifth annual Human Rights Summit. The three-day event included contributions from various students groups and discussions about environmental justice.





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