The water in Flint, Mich. had been contaminated with lead for months before the crisis entered the national consciousness in 2015. Like many African Americans, LaTricea D. Adams wanted to help, so she did what so many did, the only thing any average citizen could do – she sent water. Lots of it.
Adams, a Memphis native, founded Black Millennials 4 Flint (#BM4F), and launched a bottled water drive. Working with other young black professionals from across the nation, she was able to partner with Target to get water shipped to Flint.
“After I was able to organize that, honestly, I was like, ‘Okay, I did my part. I hope it gets better,’” she said to The New Tri-State Defender. “But in 2016, I met a young woman who said she appreciated what we did, but she said that lead is not just in the pipes and that the problem isn’t limited to Flint.”
Fast-forward to July 2019, and Adams would find herself as a featured panelist at the 110th Annual NAACP Convention, which wrapped up Wednesday, July 24 in Detroit.
Adams was part of the Environmental and Climate Justice workshop on Tuesday. Her organization has grown in size and scope, and now she’s representing her generation before the oldest civil rights organization in America.
“This is definitely not something I felt myself doing at all,” said the Wooddale High School and University of Memphis alum before the event.
Black pipes matter
After the initial bottled water drive, Adams said it was the officer-involved shootings of Korryn Gaines and Freddie Gray – both in Baltimore – that vaulted her into action. Both deaths drew headlines about trigger-happy policing, but there was another culprit in play.
Multiple news outlets have extensively reported that both Gaines and Gray had lead poisoning, which can lead to erratic behavior and violent outbursts – the kind of behavior that can tempt an officer to pull his weapon. Adams, who was living and working in Washington, D.C. at the time, knew then that her work with #BM4F was not done.
“(The Flint Water Crisis and Baltimore shootings) had all taken place in 2015, so it was really a sensitive time,” she said. “I had no idea that these two people had been impacted by lead poisoning.
“The more I learned, the more I was like, ‘Okay. This is a black people’s issue,’” she added. “And we know the least about it. I have three degrees, I had no idea these things were happening to my community.”
From there, #BM4F expanded its work – it’s not just about Flint anymore, it’s about making sure that people of color nationwide have access to clean, safe water.
“We kept the name because Flint rocked the nation,” she said. “We have service areas right now in Memphis, Baltimore and Washington, DC, and as we get more funding, we look to expand further. But the name will stay the same to preserve the connection back to why we started this work.”
NAACP: “We Stand with Flint”
Environmental and Climate Justice has been on the NAACP’s agenda since 2009, and got an early test with the BP Oil spill in 2010. When the Flint Crisis happened, the NAACP launched its “We Stand with Flint” campaign.
“The NAACP has been fighting for the rights of Flint residents since this travesty began over a year ago, holding community listening sessions, participating in public hearings, passing a resolution at our last state convention and being a signatory to a multi-party petition to the Environmental Protection Agency to call for justice,” said a January 2016 statement.
According to NAACP.org, the Environmental and Climate Justice program focuses on three primary objectives:
- Reducing harmful emissions, particularly greenhouse gases
- Advancing energy efficiency and clean energy
- Strengthening community resilience and livability
Locally, Adams said that #BM4F has not partnered with the Memphis branch of the NAACP just yet, but remains open to the idea. “A lot of my time is allocated towards working with the Urban League, but I do think the next step is possible to engage with the NAACP,” she said.
“What I like about the Memphis Chapter of the NAACP is that they will get up for things that are blatantly wrong,” she added. “Regardless of the politics, if tit’s something that’s detrimental to black people, whether it is around police brutality, wages or anything around discrimination and around equity, I have seen the NAACP show up and be vocal.”
Bridging the gap with Millennials
A persistent question facing the NAACP for decades has been how well it connects with young people. Often, younger generations can view the older civil rights organizations as old and out of touch with the modern struggle. Conversely, some in those senior civil rights organizations can be dismissive of millennials and their opinions – even as they acknowledge the need for an injection of youth.
When Adams was living in D.C., she said she worked with the local chapter there to get water quality legislation passed there. She said the NAACP was instrumental in getting that done, and thinks the older organizations can amplify efforts of these social justice startups.
“While it may not be as highly revered as it was during the Civil Rights Movement, the name (of the NAACP) still carries a lot of weight,” she said. “When you have the backing of the NAACP, the Greater Washington Urban League, these historically black organizations, it carries a lot more weight than just being this young, new little grassroots organization (#BM4F).”
However, she told the story to illustrate how organizations like the NAACP miss opportunities to engage with millennials. #BM4F was awarded a grant to implement a “lead prevention ambassador” program, which trains people 18-38 “to become advocates for the eradication of lead through political advocacy, activism, and organizing,” according to the #BM4F website.
Adams said that ambassadors selected for the program received free memberships to various organizations, including the National Society of Black Engineers, National Urban League Young Professionals and the NAACP.
“All the ‘young’ organizations were on it – they immediately sent membership materials, they started to engage with our young people,” Adams said. “But the NAACP didn’t sent a membership card, didn’t send a confirmation even though we rushed them a check….
“It kind of reinforced the opinion young people have of the NAACP,” she added. “It was disappointing that there was no real engagement. They really live up to their mission and vision from a legislative perspective. But there are some nuances that need to be ironed out to truly captivate and maintain engagement with young people.”