The Midwest Environmental Justice Organization is a grassroots, citizen-based group that educates the community about environmental justice issues, facilitates the community’s ability to address these issues, and supports environmental justice for the benefit of the general public. Environmental pollution affects everyone, but has disproportionate impacts on the poor and minorities, which are not being addressed by our institutions or our community as a whole. MEJO aims to change this.
MEJO Board Members: Maria Powell (President), Sue Pastor (Vice President), Jim Powell (Treasurer), Abha Thakkar, Jody Schmitz, Kristine Mattis. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to attend a meeting or for more information about what we are working on and how to get involved.
MEJO has been generously supported by citizens, USEPA, Pink House Foundation and HOCAHAN. Thank you!
MEJO’s first community organizing project was focused on fish consumption and risk disparities. Since we didn’t have a web presence then, see below for summary of that work. See our posts for more about subsequent and current projects.
Madison Fish Project
We aim to build community capacity to address the public health and water quality issues related to the consumption of contaminated fish among people of color and the poor, focusing on both Madison’s Northside and Monona Bay.
The broader Madison area includes a chain of four freshwater lakes in Dane County called the Yahara Lakes. Madison lakes are heavily fished by thousands of recreational, subsistence, and ice anglers from Madison and surrounding areas. While beach use is declining in the lakes because of high algal levels and bacterial counts, according to government agencies, fishing in the lakes has increased in recent years. However, like all Wisconsin lakes, the Yahara lakes are on mercury advisory, and monitoring data suggests that Yahara Lakes’ fish also have levels of PCBs that could be of concern. Pesticides and other contaminants are also likely to be in Yahara Lakes’ fish, given that Dane County is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country.
Lake Mendota, the first of the four lakes, is surrounded by the cities of Madison and Middleton. The Northside of Madison is along the north edge of Lake Mendota, and is one of the more ethnically and economically diverse parts of Madison. The Northside is also directly adjacent to the Yahara River (which feeds into the four lakes) and Cherokee Marsh (a large wetland area that surrounds the river where it enters the lake). The Yahara River and Cherokee Marsh, before they enter Lake Mendota, flow through an intensively agricultural area, and Cherokee Marsh is slowly filling in with agricultural sediment. Northside residents, particularly Hmong and Southeast Asians, African Americans, and Latinos regularly fish in Cherokee Marsh, the Yahara River, and Lake Mendota—as well as in other Yahara lakes and lakes/rivers in the surrounding area.
The potential risks related to the consumption of contaminated fresh-water fish are well documented. Contaminants such as mercury, PCBs, and pesticides–which can accumulate to harmful levels in fish tissues–are associated with developmental, neurological, immune system, reproductive, and a variety of other long-term human health problems. Subsistence anglers, who are often minority and/or low-income, may be particularly at risk for these health problems because they depend on fish as a source of food and/or fishing/fish consumption are culturally important activities.
Fish advisories are less likely to reach minorities and poor
Unfortunately, although advocacy groups, public agencies, and university extension programs in the U.S. and in the Madison area have created a variety of excellent fish advisory materials, and some of these materials are translated into Hmong and Spanish, research and outreach indicate that these materials are not reaching many people, particularly people of color and poor. Recent research shows that awareness about limiting fish because of mercury content is lower among people of color, lower income, and less educated people.
Although very little is known about fish consumption and fishing practices among minority and poor subsistence anglers in the region, past research on fishing and fish consumption in the Madison area suggests that various racial/ethnic groups have very different cultural traditions related to fishing and fish consumption, and that the reasons they eat and catch fish and the contexts in which they engage in these activities can be very different. These issues could be barriers to effective education and outreach in these groups.
Communication strategies for healthier fish consumption, cleaner fish, and environmental justice
MEJO argues that to be more successful than they have been to date, fish advisory outreach efforts need to be more connected to the locally-based knowledge and perspectives of subsistence anglers, and more importantly, sensitive to the social, economic, and cultural contexts of fishing and fish-consumption among these groups. Healthier relationships among anglers with different backgrounds will help build capacity among these anglers to address fish consumption and water quality problems together. Educational efforts that start with the anglers themselves, utilize existing community assets such as leaders in the angling community, minority organizations, and other community resources, are likely to be more effective than efforts originating from and driven by outside institutions.
We feel that fish consumption and broader water education efforts, in other words, are likely to be more effective if they are based on “bottom-up” or community-driven approaches. Community-based approaches that begin with anglers’ and fish consumers’ local contexts and perspectives, tap into what they care about in their local communities, and give them some say in decisions about these issues, will be more likely to motivate them to learn about and address the issues in meaningful ways. Once empowered and trained as effective leaders, subsistence anglers and local community groups will be better prepared to address fish contamination and water quality issues in their community themselves.