JACL Youth Participate in Environmental Justice Summit


Summit participants before planting marsh grass at Bayou Sauvage with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

WASHINGTON — The JACL National Youth Student Council (NY/SC) engaged in an intensive two-day Environmental Justice Youth Summit in New Orleans during the Memorial Day weekend.

NY/SC is composed of student and young professional representatives who hail from various regions of the U.S. With the sponsorship of State Farm Insurance and Southwest Airlines, the summit was a collaborative effort of the JACL National Washington, D.C. staff and New Orleans-based groups Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation (MQVN CDC) and the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association-New Orleans (VAYLA-NO).

The focus of the summit was to educate participants about environmental injustices faced by the New Orleans community after Hurricane Katrina and, more recently, the BP oil spill. In particular, New Orleans East has a large fishing community, and many were without work after the oil spill.

JACL Ford Program Fellow Christine Munteanu plants marsh grass at Bayou Sauvage.

On Saturday morning, the participants headed out early to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge and planted marsh grass in Louisiana’s marshland. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the participants as they worked waist-deep in the bayou.

The rest of Saturday’s schedule included an introductory screening of the documentary “A Village Called Versailles,” which shed light on the struggles faced by the “invisible” Vietnamese and New Orleans East community after Katrina.

Following that, the participants were led on an enlightening environmental justice landmark tour by MQVN CDC staffer Daniel Nguyen. One of the highlights was seeing large toxic landfills that would have threatened New Orleans East’s water supply if it had not been for fierce protests from the Vietnamese community.

On Sunday, Darcy Taniguchi, a Ph.D. candidate in the UC San Diego oceanography program, gave a talk on the biological effects of the BP oil spill. Her presentation was followed by a “clean up your own oil spill” activity in which participants were given a budget and tools to clean up an oil spill in a pie pan.

JACL National Youth Student Council members Kaila Yoshitomi, Jeff Moy, and Matthew Farrells plant marsh grass at Bayou Sauvage.

In the afternoon, there was a collaborative meeting with the executive director of VAYLA-NO, Minh Nguyen, who shared the work his organization is currently doing. The NY/SC told the local youth about its work, the JACL, and Japanese American culture.

A crawfish cookout was hosted by the New Orleans JACL and its president, Jennifer Vu. The summit ended on a high note with Father Vien Nguyen, an honoree at this year’s JACL National Convention in Los Angeles, speaking about his community’s work on environmental justice.

“It was great having the Youth Council literally getting down and dirty in the mud and water to plant marsh grass,” said Devin Yoshikawa, NY/SC representative. “I had a great time learning from local community members about the region and the effects that continue to linger from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.”

“From planting marsh grass in the mud to a bus tour of illegal landfills and the after-effects of a hurricane to a 40-pound crawfish feed, I have never had an experience where service, fun, great food, hands-on interactions and adventure were all meshed together so seamlessly,” said Kaila Yoshitomi, Pacific Northwest Region student/youth representative.

JACL National Executive Director Floyd Mori listens as Father Vien Nguyen speaks about his community's work on environmental justice issues.

“Opportunities like these for the JACL to partner with other APA communities are absolutely necessary,” said Rachel Seeman, Pacific Northwest Region student/youth representative. “Through this summit we learned about the illegal landfill near the Vietnamese American community. The city’s lack of compliance to remove the dump shows just how evident socioeconomic and racial disparities still are in our society. I believe that the JACL can serve as a catalyst for this issue to be voiced and publicized throughout the nation. It is now our role to assist and partner with APA communities in need.”

Darcy Taniguchi, UC San Diego Ph.D. candidate in oceanography, gives a presentation on the BP oil spill.