Rhonda Anderson has been an organizer and activist for most of her life. She began her career with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as a labor organizer. She then pivoted to a career in environmental justice first with Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. For nearly two decades, Anderson has worked for the Sierra Club where she is currently the Regional Organizing Manager—where she describes herself as a support person for organizers.
Anderson grew up in the city of Detroit. Her ancestors were from the south—parts of Arkansas and Mississippi–who came to Detroit during the Great Migrations. She believes that she is a descendent, in part, of the Choctaw Nation. She was of the first generation in her family to be born and raised in the North—but, she remembers growing up with segregation. In Northern states, that looked like redlining and inferior schools. However, she and other members of her family in her generation had other opportunities like being able to buy a home. Yet, years later, she lost that home to foreclosure taxes—something that has since played a role in her activism. Researchers found that by the height of the foreclosure crisis—more than 100,000 Detroiters were foreclosed upon after being assessed more than their homes were worth.
Working at the SEIU, Anderson learned how labor organizing is around “jobs, safety…benefits, and things of that nature.” At first, she hated organizing and only did it when she was forced to for her job at the union. It wasn’t until years later that she began to embrace and excel at community organizing while working with the Warren/Conner Development Association. “That job taught me how to organize, how to get out into the community and organize,” she recalled. “Community organizing is any and everything. It’s streetlight, it’s whether or not the garbage was picked up, it’s whatever services that are provided to the people in general.” Organizing with people to meet the immediate needs in their communities offered Anderson an on-ramp to get involved in social movements.
Anderson called her time with Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice as her birth into the environmental justice movement. “One of the first things I worked on was the Henry Ford Hospital medical incinerator,here you have this huge hospital authority inside the city of Detroit, but they were bringing all of their medical waste from their auxiliary group hospital units out in the suburbs. So, they brought all that waste into the city and then incinerated it at Henry Ford Hospital on (West Grand) Boulevard,” she explains.
Putting harmful waste management facilities in working-class Black communities has been a common practice across the country and has sparked resistance to environmental racism. “a number of groups worked together around that to shut it down. But, that was a major role that was played by the residents in that community, and it was really the organizers working with that community that got–that finally convinced Henry Ford Hospital to shut down that incinerator.”
Through that struggle, Anderson learned some principles from Damu Smith, Dr. Robert Bullard, Dr. Beverly Wright, and more. “It was literally Dr. Robert Bullard’s work that identified environmental racism because he did so many research projects that looked at the proximity of toxic sites to Black communities, and it was his work that identified and proved that they were suffering because they were in such close proximity. Most of these industries always were in Black communities–or people of color, but it was always Black communities first. And the reason why? Because the land was cheap and there wasn’t too much push-back, okay. So, those were the pioneers. Those were the leaders. They were the instruments and the tools that we were able to use later on because of their many, many publications and research that they did.”
Anderson worked on several more projects shutting down dangerous projects that affected the environmental health of Detroiters—including the eventual closing of the Detroit Incinerator—which burned for 30 years. The fight to close it lasted years before it was finally shut down in 2019. It will be demolished in 2022. “When it was a Black issue, no one listened to us, and they told us over and over and over and over again, no, they weren’t gonna shut it down. Soon as that community changed with gentrification and became white and those were white families, you know, that were being impacted, white folks said, “Oh no, you’re not gonna operate an incinerator when we’re here.”
Anderson notes that environmental racism can also look like what municipalities allow to happen to neighborhoods—like the difficulty of finding affordable or even Section 8 housing in Detroit. The lack of long-term residents means that many neighborhoods are allowed to erode. “But when I see little children that live on a block where there’s probably only ten houses that…where people are living, but those other homes are abandoned and…and just neglected so, nowindows, no doors, they’re not even boarded up.”
She adds, “What is happening to that child? You know, what’s the impact on that family? You know, for that baby to have play up and down that street next to an abandoned house. And we learned long time ago that blight is one of the major contributors to asthma, okay. But what is the psychic impact on that child that’s growing up, you know, in a neighborhood like that?”
She also notes that children should be considered when it comes to other environmental issues including lead poisoning. “At one time,” Anderson says, “there were probably 12 or 13 lead smelters in the entire state of Michigan. All of them were in the city of Detroit except one. Now, that meant that lead is going up through these towers and then dispersing over, settling down into the dirt. We talk about lead in the house. Nobody is talking about the lead that’s in the soil. You walk through that soil, you walk into the house, you know, and it’s a baby in that house and the baby crawls across the floor, puts its hand in its mouth. We know now that even small amounts of lead in children are…is debilitating, okay. It impacts their cognitive learning, okay. And so, these children are impacted by lead by the time they reach kindergarten. They don’t even have a chance!”
She notes the pervasive racist narrative that African Americans are genetically inferior and prone to violence—yet, the fact that consistent lead poisoning in the city could contribute to some of the city’s societal ills.
Anderson notes that even crime can be linked to lead as it causes developmental delays, neurological changes and irritability.
“We have three stadiums within walking distance. We have three casinos within walking distance, and almost none of it is helping the people in the city of Detroit. You can pay 400 and some million dollars for this stadium, but you can’t find a million dollars to help the residents keep their…keep their homes, keep..and keep the water turned on? Yeah. So, we got to do something’s around that, and then we’ll have a better city.”
Anderson spent some time of her interview thanking the organizers and activists who came before her and whom she has worked with—Maureen Taylor and Marian Kramer, Lila Campbell, Monica Lewis-Patrick, and Charity Hicks. She also has advice for those in the next generation. “I would say to the young ones, just to, one, go on out here and do what you got to do because you have major things towork around, you know.” She adds, “The younger ones are going to have the energy, the stamina, but what else they’re gonna need is creativity, you know, because that’s what it’s gonna take. It’s gonna take creativity. It’s gonna take innovation. It’s gonna take the ability to make something out of nothing, you know, and that’s what they’re gonna have to do.”
Rhonda Anderson, interviewed by Marcia Black and Peter Blackmer, August 13, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.