A few years back, Destiny Watford was canvassing her Curtis Bay neighborhood in south Baltimore, alerting her neighbors to the potential dangers of a gargantuan trash incinerator planned for their community. At 90 acres, the facility would be one of the largest incinerators in the world, and also one of the dirtiest. It would reportedly spew as much as 1,000 pounds of lead into the air annually, along with 240 pounds of mercury and millions of tons of greenhouse gases. And this would all happen less than a mile from where Watford and many of her friends attend school. Explaining this to one community resident, Watford—a teenager at the time—was taken aback by how one elderly gentleman responded.
“He pauses and looks at me and says, ‘You know, the work you are doing is pointless and Curtis Bay will always be a dumping ground,’” says Watford, recounting the interaction during an interview with CityLab.
She went back to do some research on Curtis Bay’s history and realized the man was correct, at least partially. The neighborhood is already saturated with a cacophony of agro-chemical plants, coal transfer stations, steel mills, and coke processing facilities. These pollution-heavy operations, run by companies like Grace Davison and the FMC Corporation, have used Curtis Bay as their personal ash tray for decades. The new incinerator, built by New York-based company Energy Answers International, would be just the latest polluter to join the list.
The man was wrong, however, when he said that this was Curtis Bay’s fate. Watford had started a campaign called Free Your Voice with her friends and classmates to stop the incinerator from being built. By using their greatest assets—hip-hop, poetry, dance, and other forms of artistic expression—the youth group was on a mission not only to stop Energy Answers’ plans, but also to improve the community’s perception of itself.
“We found that, when a community has been dumped on or sacrificed in that kind of way for so long, it creates a dumping-ground mentality in the people who live there,” says Watford. “So, one thing we began pushing for was to change the hearts and minds of our neighbors from having this kind of passive acceptance … just because that’s the way it’s always been. Just because polluting facilities like the incinerator have come through our community in the past, doesn’t mean that it has to be our future.”
Guided by the social justice organization United Workers, Watford’s squad also researched land-use, zoning, and renewable-energy policies to come up with a vision for more just and equitable development in Curtis Bay. They lobbied school and city leaders to abandon the incinerator plans. When they found out the Baltimore school district was planning to buy energy converted from the incinerator’s charred waste products, they demonstrated against it. Won over by the youth’s passion and drive, the school district pulled out of the energy purchasing agreement.
The dominoes kept falling on Energy Answers as the Baltimore Regional Cooperative Purchasing Committee and the city of Baltimore also pulled out of their deals to buy energy from the incinerated trash. This past December, multiple people were arrested at the state’s environmental department, where activists tried to deliver a petition with thousands of signatures from people opposed to the incinerator. And last month, Energy Answers president Patrick Mahoney was booed out of Curtis Bay when he visited to explain his project to the community.
Soon after that came the most decisive blow: The state decided to pull the company’s permit to build the incinerator for blowing construction deadlines. That construction was held up in no small part by the wrath of the community, which was informed and stirred up by Watford and Free Your Voice. The Energy Answers goliath is not completely slain, but it is incapacitated for the time being.
It’s for this victory that Watford was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, somewhat akin to the prestigious MacArthur and Pulitzer awards, but for green activism. Now 20 years old, Watford is one of the youngest to ever take the Goldman prize home. As a junior at Towson University near Baltimore, she tells CityLab that she’s definitely headed for a career in grassroots community organizing. Her efforts in Curtis Bay are currently focused on reclaiming the land from Energy Answers so that a solar farm or recycling plant (or perhaps both) can be built on it instead.
“Destiny is a talented, resourceful, and passionate young advocate with great potential to make a difference in the lives of those around her,” Maryland’s Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles told The Washington Post.
Accepting the award at the Goldman ceremony last week in Washington, D.C., Watford laid out the blueprint for her community’s success:
I’m from Baltimore, a place on the front lines of many injustices— police brutality, racial discrimination, economic inequality, and environmental injustice. All of these stem from a system that is morally unjust and which threatens our lives and the future of our planet. I’m talking about a system that wouldn’t think twice about building the world’s largest trash incinerator less than a mile away from my high school. ...
This is why we have to take the lead. Those directly impacted by the injustices we face and who know firsthand that this is matter of survival, understand that there is a need for a new vision that is based on our basic human rights, environmental justice, and the [belief] that all life is sacred. We decided that it is not the fate of our community or our planet to be a dumping ground.