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Friday, June 9 • 4:50pm - 5:10pm
Art and Environmental Racism in the United States

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Though environmental racism is not as readily visible and commonly discussed as other forms of discrimination, such as mass incarceration or police brutality, it drastically impacts the lives and well-being of Black and Brown communities across the United States. Through focusing on three case studies, this paper examines the ways contemporary artists have addressed this phenomenon across the country and demonstrates that they have the agency and visibility to bring attention to cases of environmental racism, which otherwise get overlooked due to their complexity or irrelevance to mainstream news.

In structuring my paper, I used three US locations and their local histories as starting points: Braddock, Pennsylvania, Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans, Louisiana, as all these cities and towns have a majority Black population and have battled with significant environmental pollution. I borrowed from the methodologies of sociology and environmental justice scholarship to highlight the disproportionate environmental hazards Black and Brown communities face in the United States. Following a brief investigation of discriminatory practices in each city, such as redlining, I highlight artistic projects that have addressed these issues through different forms of collaboration with the residents.

First, I discuss LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photo series, The Notion of Family (2001-2014), in which the artistdocumented the lives of her family’s three generations of women living in Braddock, Pennsylvania—a Rust-Belt town that had been home to many steel mills, producing severe toxic pollution and endangering the lives of its population. Through its incredibly personal narrative, conveying her family’s everyday joys and battles, Frazier calls attention to healthcare inequality and environmental racism that the residents of Braddock have been facing on a daily basis.

Second, I discuss Pope.L’s Flint Water Project (2017), which addresses the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.Described as “an installation, a performance, and an intervention,” the Flint Water Project transformed an artist-run gallery in Detroit into a water bottling facility and sold the contaminated Flint water in signed and editioned bottles—bought from Flint’s citizens. Through his project, Pope.L not only called attention to the water crisis but also raised $34,000 for local organizations to alleviate the crisis.

Lastly, I focus on Mel Chin’s ambitious socially engaged artwork and nationwide campaign, the Fundred Dollar Bill Project (2006-ongoing), which addresses the lead poisoning crisis of New Orleans, Louisiana. Chin’s long-term art project incorporates public education, political lobbying, and collective art making through the creation of “Fundreds” —hand-drawn bills created by kids in affected communities. More than 500,000 Fundreds have been collected and used to educate people on lead poisoning through various exhibitions and workshops all over the country.
In conclusion, this paper demonstrates that artists can instigate real change by utilizing the tools of exhibition-making, activism, fundraising, and political lobbying, and thus help meet the needs of communities affected by environmental injustice.


Veronika Molnar

Independent curator

Friday June 9, 2023 4:50pm - 5:10pm EDT
PS 308 (Design Center)