Excerpted from a speech by Kelly Klinefelter Lee, a teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School on December 18th, 2013. She spoke to a group of students and citizens protesting the planned construction of the largest incinerator in the United States in a Baltimore neighborhood already among the most polluted areas in the country. You can see video of her speech and the protest at www.coolgreenschools.com.
The American philosopher and educator John Dewey said, “The only freedom of enduring importance is the freedom of intelligence, that is to say freedom of observation and of judgment exercised on behalf of purposes that are intrinsically worthwhile.”
When you come to school here at Ben (Benjamin Franklin High School) your teachers work to make you critical thinkers. Yes, reading and writing and calculating are important.. but we are also preparing you to be voters and parents and community members and maybe even someday, office holders.
I’d argue that our most important goal as teachers in a democratic nation is to teach you to use your intelligence and your skills to understand your world, to analyze the problems you observe in your community, to evaluate the decisions being made by your leaders and to use your voices to object when you object.
There is much to object to in the case of this incinerator. If built it would bring hundreds of trucks of trash imported from other counties and states into this community every single day. That trash will burn and turn out mercury, and lead, greenhouse gases and particulate matter into the air that we breathe. As young critical thinkers, you are looking at this situation and asking the right questions.
Aren’t there better and cleaner ways to make power for our city?
Don’t we owe our earth better stewardship?
And why is the incinerator coming to our neighborhood?
You students know that the children who will breathe the incinerators pollution are already asked to bear a bigger burden than most. You know that the children of this community are more likely to be food insecure, more likely to be housing insecure, more likely to be the victims of crime than other children in Maryland. You know that the children in this community have been disproportionately affected by economic crisis and by government cuts. You know that the children in of Brooklyn-Curtis Bay go to under resourced and underfunded public schools and you know, Destiny, you just told us that these children already breathe some of the dirtiest air in Maryland and that their young bodies pay a horrible price for this. So this is not just an environmental issue. It is a social justice issue.
It is a moment when our learning community has to ask our leaders– we must– why does this incinerator belong here, why does it belong here, in this community?
This is a cause that is intrinsically worthwhile to which we must develop our minds and our hearts and our best efforts. Students, thank you for sharing your time and passion in the service of your community.
We are blessed by your offerings and we are grateful for your leadership.