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Damu Smith Chapter Excerpt

Damu Smith, founder of Black Voices for Peace and executive director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, worked tirelessly on the front lines of the anti-war and environmental justice movements for decades. We interviewed Damu in 2005, just months before he was struck down by cancer at the age of 54.


"...Damu will probably be best remembered most for his role in building the environmental justice movement. He was a pioneer in identifying and combating environmental racism and he led a number of landmark campaigns for Greenpeace, including the successful effort to stop the world's largest polyvinyl chloride manufacturer, Shintech, from siting a huge chemical plant in the heart of Louisiana's 'Cancer Alley.' It was Damu Smith's enthusiasm, boundless energy, respect for citizens struggling on the front lines, and ability to lead that made him a true environmental hero."

"Before arriving in Washington, he sealed his life-long commitment to organizing for justice by changing his name to Damu Amir Imara Smith. In Swahili, Damu means blood: 'the blood I am willing to shed for the liberation of my people.' Amir means leadership: 'the leadership I must provide in the service of my people.' Imara means strength: 'the strength and stamina I have to maintain in the struggle.'

"When we went to Convent, Louisiana we were told straight up, 'The governor's with the project, most of the politicians are bought off and the community is apathetic, so you can just forget it,' Damu told us with a grin during his interview. 'Well, I responded by saying, "I think we can do some things to turn some of this around,' you know? And we did. We went into the community, and when I say we, we didn't go in as the saviors on the white horse. We went into a community that already wanted to do something but just didn't have all of the information they needed. They didn't know how to meet with the editors of newspapers. They didn't know anything about accessing public information from the local courthouse. They didn't know anything about lobbying. They didn't know anything about how to get testing done from the stuff coming out of the smokestack and into the plant. All of these little, big, grand, basic things that people had to come to be familiar with. When they did, it was so empowering to see people whose gut instinct was 'we want to protect the community, we want to keep our community safe' to now have the tools than can enhance and strengthen our capacity to fights. And they did. They did it in Norco. They did it in Convent. They did it in St. John's Parish where we worked. They did it in a whole host of communities around Louisiana and other places and, in one of the most corrupt states in the union, won victories'..."

"You want to know why I'm so passionate about my work? I've just seen so much suffering around the world....And you know, if it takes the last breath out of my body, I'm going to use my mouth to speak on behalf of those who are voiceless, and use my mind to provide whatever wisdom and experience I have to train young people and train others to be more effective about how we can organize and stop these problems.'"