Finding Power in a ‘Toxic Environment’: A Lifelong Miami Activist’s Story

Madame Renita Holmes is a lifelong activist, a resident of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood and a graduate of CLEO’s Empowering Resilient Women (ERW) program. In this blog post, she talks about how her experiences living on a low income as a Black woman in Miami have brought her to prioritize what she calls “red, black and green” climate justice activism.

I live on the east side of an inner-city community in Miami-Dade. You know, you would think that Lemon City is closer to the coast, it would be a lot cooler. And that it would be less toxic. But the truth of the matter is, I live near a Superfund site. I live in a community that’s becoming more blighted and gentrified. I live near a dividing line, Northeast Second Avenue, that separates the haves from the have-nots, the developed from the underdeveloped, the residential from the commercial.

Madame Renita Holmes (Credit: J. Wesley)

We all have diverse origins, but we all live in the same toxic environment. A lot of us can’t afford to move anywhere else. But I don’t want to talk about money. I want to talk about the powers we have. How we make change and how we, and especially our children, live.

Every living thing is affected by heat. But the greenery is over on the other side of Northeast Second. On the west side of this block, there are hardly any trees. A little bit of grass. After that, nothing. Hard concrete. Several blocks of hard concrete backed up by I-95, hot rubber, carbon monoxide and people going to and fro all day long. Vehicles, they’re dripping their stuff into the drain.

We’ve got houses that are old, 20 or 30 years, and have been underdeveloped, never re-certified, painted-over toxic garbage. With the humidity, you get mold. The water system, the humidity, the smell, the spores, you know it’s toxic. Not being able to afford to run the AC all day, you can smell funk when you walk into the yard of some of these buildings.

I feel like I’m being poisoned intentionally, just thrown under the bus, because you’ve got people buying these houses and properties and they don’t know how to clean this stuff up, or they choose not to. So many landlords, they own four or five houses, but they don’t live in the area, so they could care less. They don’t understand the culture of the people that are here and they don’t give a damn about each other.

The minute I follow I-95, everything is the same. Old houses. Old ways of thinking: the power is given to those who are coming in, buying the land and putting the people out. Developing the community, but not raising human growth or human development, or environmental growth and development.

It’s not going to change until people start using their powers, or become aware of the value in their voices.

One of my powers is my awareness. I pay attention to my neighborhood. One by one, I talk to people. Oh, my neighbor, he’s got five windows, but it’s hot as hell, he’s got an AC system that’s too weak for the heat. Watching him and his kids walk around naked and sweaty, I point it out. I give them a little scientific thing, what I’ve learned from CLEO, how the changing environment, not having power in the environment, is a health and safety issue. I tell them what they have the ability to change, I show them the laws and the rules, and I build conversation under the tree. I do community cleanups, or I’ll just rake their yards.

I’m not the outreach specialist for the county, I’m not the resilience officer appointed to the board. I’m not public works. But I use my relationships as a teaching and sharing opportunity, and to empower my neighbors, which further empowers me.

Activists protest against the Magic City development in Little Haiti in 2019. (Credit: Kate Stein)
Translate »