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Finding Camaraderie at the EJ Summit

In 1998, the 1st annual NC Community Environmental Justice (EJ) Summit was held at the historical Franklinton Center at Bricks in Whitakers, NC. The summit was created from groundwork done the year prior, and helped form the NC Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) that we know today.

This past October, Clean Water for NC staff were able to attend the most recent EJ Summit and connect with fellow advocates, academics, and engaged community members. Belinda Joyner, Clean Water’s Northeastern Organizer and longtime attendee, reflected on her past experiences at the summit. She described the focus on community impacts with engagement and interaction from organizers such as herself. Camaraderie was especially important, with memories of karaoke and piano playing in the evening as participants enjoyed each other’s company. The next day would be filled with breakout sessions, with attendees splitting up into individual groups and later coming back together to reflect on their takeaways. Youth attendees had their own sessions and would report back afterwards. Babies and children brought to the summit, often year after year, were fondly dubbed “EJ Babies.”

Due to the pandemic, the EJ Summit has not met in-person the last two years. Clean Water staff were excited to participate in this year’s summit, as it was the first time for several of us to attend. This year’s summit was purposely different, reflecting the shifted dynamics of NCEJN and the world we live in today. The summit’s program stated, “[with] this being our first in-person Summit in two years, we decided to focus on connection and community, foregoing some of those aspects but maintaining the goal of building power and paving the way forward.”

With these goals in mind, the first day of the summit emphasized connecting with ourselves and others, through breath work, body movement, and storytelling. Memories of those EJ advocates who had recently passed away brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience. Moments of levity, however, interspersed the serious with jokes and fond remembrance. A disgruntled groundhog even made an appearance, running through the crowd shrieking on its way back to its burrow. As we gathered by the campfire after dinner, stories passed around about past EJ victories, the struggles for workers’ rights, and the passion that drives forward those seeking change.

EJ Organizer & Researcher Christine Diaz at the 2022 EJ Summit

The next day brought new light and renewed energy. Pallav Das, Co-founder of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group spoke of revolutionary influencers and progressive systems to push against injustice, reminding us of how we can learn from different places and time periods.

A breakout session allowed us to hear directly from a few impacted community members who spoke about barriers to public participation and the needs that have gone unmet within their communities. EJ advocates likewise expressed their desire to reach more people with the services they provide. We were reminded that we could all expand our reach and serve more of those needs by working together in cooperation to identify gaps and link to other groups who serve a specific function—perhaps it might be translation services, legal aid, or, in our case, drinking water advocacy.

The notion of providing connection where needed was present in each of the circles we shared at the summit. As the summit wound to an end, we all joined hands and spoke, one after the other,

I am a link in the chain, and the link in the chain will not break here.

These words solidify our connection to each other and the mission at hand, building a more equitable and just world, with a safe and livable environment, for all.

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