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A Breath of Fresh Air: “Undesign the Redline” Exhibition & Symposium

By Maitefa Angaza

There is hope—both on the horizon and here in hand—for some measure of justice and redress concerning the egregious effects that redlining has had on our communities. Students and faculty, environmental, community and political activists, historians and other scholars, technology experts, etc., were treated to a captivating keynote speech given by environmental activist Peggy Shepard, founder of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the legendary West Harlem based organization. Attendees were gathered late last month for the Undesign the Redline two-day symposium at Barnard College in Manhattan, convened and hosted by Barnard Library & Academic Information Services on the Columbia University campus.

We await the release of the official video recording of the symposium, which covered not just the environmental, but the housing, economic, social justice and other impacts of the practice of redlining. In the meantime, Our Time Press shares here some of Shepard’s keynote remarks. The history she told was unflinchingly honest, but she was also inspiring and empowering. First, a blit about the background framing this event.

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The symposium was organized around an eye-opening exhibition at the library examining the history and effects of redlining in the Upper West Side neighborhood in which Columbia University and its Barnard College are located. “Undesign the Redline” has traveled across the nation to numerous colleges, universities, private institutions, community organizations, and other hosts. It was last in NYC hosted by a venue in Gowanus in 2019 and New York City Health and Hospitals has featured the exhibition here as well. The current exhibition is on display at Zora Neale Hurston’s alma mater  until May, 2022. Free tours are conducted on Friday afternoons to allow visitors to experience it.

April De Simone of Designing the WE, a Manhattan social and civic justice organization, created the foundational model for the Undesign the Redline exhibitions. The organization works closely with host teams in communities and institutions, helping them to input their neighborhood specifics, making the exhibitions their own. (At Barnard she worked alongside Miriam Neptune of the Barnard Center for Research on Women and Mary Rocco of Barnard Urban Studies, and others team members as well.) The result is something people involved in each local installation, as well as residents and former residents of the surrounding area, can clearly see—the roots of structural racism and inequity in their local histories. In many cases, the conveners’ own roles in this history are revealed in undeniable clarity.

So, as to be expected, Columbia University had lots to confront, having displaced countless residents for decades in what was widely considered to be a profiteering land-grab. In discussions at the Barnard event people unfamiliar with the term “redlining”— though they’d lived through it—interacted with those who’d studied it and attended in order to understand it fully. The fundamental definition and impact realities offered for consideration by Designing the We, include statements like this: 

“Redlining demonstrates how the explicit racism of the Jim Crow era was designed into the structural racism that continues to plague cities across the nation. Massive post-war era programs would go on to reinforce these divisions, such as the Federal Housing Administration’s requirement to only insure loans made in “racially homogenous areas” and the targeting of Urban Renewal programs in redlined neighborhoods, which disproportionately displaced communities of color. The devaluation of many communities through redlining resulted in the deepening of segregation and wealth inequality throughout the United States. This is a legacy we are still grappling with today.” 

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Shepard has, for decades, shared with fellow advocates, the community and legal and government representatives, the human health, and environmental aspects of the unjust practice of redlining. In her keynote address at the symposium she explained how she got into this field of endeavor.

“I valued that all people have the right to clean air, clean water and a toxic-free future,” said Shepard. “And there’s just compelling evidence that we’re all exposed—whether it’s at home, in schools or in our communities—to toxic allergens that have lifelong and intergenerational effects on our public health, our reproductive outcomes, human development and the sustainability of the planet.”

Shepard, originally working at her dream job of magazine editor, entered politics, becoming a Democratic district leader. But she felt that some of the community’s critical needs were unmet by the people and organizations positioned to make the biggest difference. Eventually, it was a few ordinary citizens who lit her fire.

“I interacted with key leaders around the state… and it was a trio of elder women who provided my insurgency and my leadership position with a real energized surge of support. And they really became my political-based community mentors. They told me it was my generational turn to take over the organizing and community action that was necessary to improve West Harlem’s quality of life.

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“And that effort to grow new, progressive leadership in West Harlem became the foundation of the struggle for environmental justice in Northern Manhattan. And so through strong organizing efforts, we got the City to commit $55 million to fix the North River Plant, which was spewing odious emissions that were making people sick. …And 18 years of advocacy (you’ve gotta be in this for the long haul, folks) has made the MTA diesel-fuel bus line one of the cleanest in the nation.“

Shepard also mentioned a critical factor in the ways inequity shows up in the real estate-development process.

“Communities need legal support and technical support to analyze and respond to, say a thousand-page environmental impact statement in 30-45 days, because that’s the way large environmental impact projects are rolled out… thousands of pages produced over a year’s time by engineers and suddenly a community has 30-45 days to assess and analyze that. These communities need the same sort of access to regulators as industry has, instead of getting three minutes to testify at a public hearing — even if one is held! Even when we understand the permanent process, regulators are biased and they assume community members are exaggerating the conditions.”

As mentioned, these excerpts from Shepard’s keynote address represent the depth and breadth of the Undesign the Redline two-day symposium. Clearly Our Time Press won’t be able to mine all the riches, but for next week, we’ll select some information to share with readers and will include the link to the full (edited) symposium as well.

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