Cultural worker Marie Medjine Antoine is an environmental activist and intern for RISE St. James, a faith-based environmental justice organization in Louisiana.
Antoine couples a degree in sociology and Black studies with her passion for the arts. They advocate for divestment from polluting industries and investment in community-centered initiatives.
“There really does need to be a divestment in the sense that these industries are funding the schools, the local economy, our politicians,” Antoine says. “It’s creating an environment where without these industries, we can’t survive.”
During the 24-year-old’s time in undergrad at The City College of New York (CCNY), Antoine was a fellow of Beyond Identity, a gendered platform for scholar-activists in collaboration with the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at CCNY. There, they learned about ethnography and studied several Black feminist scholars and their philosophies of activism.
Through this program, Antoine learned about RISE’s founder, Sharon Lavigne, and Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch in southern Louisiana along the Mississippi River with over 200 petrochemical plants and disproportionately high rates of cancer. Inspired by the frontline work the organization was doing, she applied to their internship program.
Since moving to the parish in January for her internship, Antoine has worked directly with Lavigne to host tours of the 10-mile radius around Lavigne’s home, swamped with 12 chemical plants. Members of the Environmental Protection Agency, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Clean Air Task Force among others have been guided through the area as they view the continual degradation of the majority-Black community ridden with carcinogenic air, toxic water, and land.
RISE’s top priority is to prevent Taiwanese-owned Formosa Plastics from building a $9.4 billion complex in the parish.
Building an Alternative Economy
Aside from helping to facilitate tours and administrative work, Antoine recently helped coordinate the organization’s Black History Month program, which honored the seven Black men and women who integrated St. James Parish Schools in 1966.
They have also been pushing for initiatives that disinvest from industry and production, leading away from waste and pollution and toward more reliance on community-oriented efforts that uplift culture, art, and education of local history.
“By doing that we’re learning more about Black and indigenous practices that actually help the planet and help reverse the pollution processes,” Antoine says. “Manufacturing jobs are seen as the only job opportunities because economically it helps America. But if we were actually to invest more in art and culture, we will be learning more about our history and by learning more about our history, we'll learn about the practices that actually help sustain the Earth.”
She believes it’s important to keep shedding light on what’s happening in Cancer Alley as more people move away and elders of the community die from cancer and other pollution-related illnesses.
“It’s really easy to forget about these places and the way that industry has been trying to push people out. If nobody lives here, there’s nobody to tell the story. The more we bring awareness to this area and community, the more that something can actually be done about it before we get to the point where all is forgotten.”
Take Action: Join young leaders like Antoine and mentors like Sharon Levigne in the fight to stop Formosa Plastics by donating to RISE St. James.
Photo courtesy of RISE St. James.