Close to Home: Door-knocking in Chester

Close to Home: Door-knocking in Chester

Two days ago    No, it starts long before that.

Just thirty minutes from our house in West Philly, the City of Chester is home to the largest trash incineration plant in the country, operated by a corporation called Covanta.  The plant brings in waste from Philadelphia, New York, and other distant cities, while only 1.5% of its capacity comes from the City of Chester.  However, the primarily African American community living directly fence-line to the plant experiences 100% of the worst health and environmental impacts due to air and water pollution generated by the incinerator.  For decades, community members have been organizing to speak up for the health and livelihood of their neighbors, yet Covanta has plans to increase the capacity of the plant and continue dumping deadly soot and air pollution into the community.

A few weeks ago, a friend of ours sent information about an important vote happening in Chester on a proposed railway to transport 20-30 years of trash to be burned in Chester’s incinerator. We (Maypop) were unable to mobilize fast enough to go to the meeting, but due to very agile organizing, community members were able to postpone the vote another month. Fastforward to two days ago. We were contacted to lend support door-knocking and flyering to turnout a meeting on July 9th.

But our personal histories with Chester extend farther back. Having all attended Swarthmore College, the environmental and economic justice struggles in Chester loom large in Maypop’s development of an environmental justice consciousness and our desire to honor community and frontline leadership. The narrative and legacy of work in Chester has also shaped a healthy skepticism for institutional attempts to “help” communities by co-opting their struggles as “community partnerships” in public relations, or by extracting community knowledge and hardship for academic gain. Study and work in Chester (especially in the Chester Community Garden project) gave many of us our first experience of the utter importance of community resistance and resilience work, and a glimpse of the complicated nature of organizing in a community not your own–striving for community empowerment and self-sufficiency amidst the contradiction and tension within communities.

All of this is to say, when an opportunity to support local Chester work presented itself, I felt an immediate responsibility to engage. After sending out a last-minute email to Maypop, the Young People’s Just Transition Project, and trusted friends, we hatched a plan to drive down the next day. Today, Jess and I jumped on I-95 on our way to the house of a community member, Carole.

As we pulled up to the curb, a young woman pops out of her car–Sam, a Grinnell student and intern for Energy Justice Network. She hands us flyers and consults an older woman who has emerged from the house: “Carole!” the woman introduces herself as she gives Sam directions. “Just go down right next to the plant–right past the school, you’ll remember it when you get there.” So we jump into Sam’s car and go, getting a 5-minute crash course on Covanta’s plan to ship NYC trash by rail to store on-site and fill Chester’s incinerator to capacity.

If either of us were skeptical about skimping on training, though, we soon learned that canvassing the neighborhood was the most complete crash course we could get. As we approached the plant’s smoke stack on the horizon, the smell penetrated the car–sometimes  garbage, sometimes smoke, sometimes sewage, or a harsh, unknown chemical scent that left a residual burning sensation in our throats. We drove down a side street and all of a sudden we were at the foot of the incinerator–in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The first community member we talked to told us about the incinerators health effects: her neighbor’s daughter was diagnosed with lung disease, forcing the family to move away to protect her health. The next neighbor showed us sores on his arms from sleeping with the window open. Another spoke of her asthma, the noise at night (when the plant revs up operations, flying under the radar of regulators), and the added fumes of diesel floating from the jet fuel production plant a few miles in the other direction. For over two hours we talked to people who are sick and tired. Sick, and very tired of the way things operate in their town. 

Sam and Jess are fearless. Armed with a few flyers and plans for the next city planning commision meeting, we went door to door in a row, talking to people who were walking down the street, washing their cars, bringing their kids to the ice cream truck. No rap, no clipboard, no training–just plain and simple, “Can you make it out to this meeting? You are needed in order to stop this.”

After doing a half-dozen streets, we drive back to Carole’s house. She invites us in for juice and water–”Burns your throat and your skin being out there, doesn’t it?” We sit on her coach as she recounts stories from the decades-long struggle here. It’s like too many movies, too many articles on environmental racism, too many communities across the country. Carole has been a community organizer for over 30 years–a community organizer in the old sense, a member of the community who goes out and talks to her neighbors and makes things happen. She’s the ward leader, and most everyone we could talk to in the neighborhood knows her, Sam says. “You ever seen that documentary about Chester, ‘Laid to Waste’?” She asks. “That was filmed right here in my living room. This very spot.”

I feel like I learned more about the major players, organizations, and internal debates and tensions in the Chester saga, in 20 minutes, than I had in 4 years of living with Chester as my college’s “community partner.” In the same way, I feel that I learned more about the heart and soul of door-to-door organizing in 2 hours of talking to neighbors than I had in a series of canvassing workshops and tutorials.

The city commission planning meeting is in two weeks, July 9th, and the community outrage is just heating up. Carole was surprised Jess and I weren’t staying for the community meeting that happened later that night. “I’ll see you again real soon though, right?” That’s part of what happens when supporting a community–you can’t do it just once. People get into your heart and they stick there. And there’s always, always more to be done. And that’s why we’ll come back, just as many times and for as long as they open their doors to us.


~Dinah DeWald

Thanks to edits and contributions from Jess Grady-Benson


UPDATE: last Wednesday, we were able to attend the meeting of Chester’s city planning commission. The meeting was  a stunning victory for the people of Chester, at least one hundred of which showed up to the meeting to speak their mind. Here is an update of the event from the perspective of an organizer with Energy Justice Network:

“For those of you who missed it, Wednesday’s Chester Planning Commission meeting was amazing.  With about 100 people turned out, standing-room-only, we packed the place and made a strong impact.  We also had 100 people email the local officials leading up to the meeting.

We demanded that the Chester Planning Commission recommend that City Council vote “NO” on Covanta’s NYC trash-by-train proposal.  See for background info and a copy of our presentation.

The second best part was the silence when the Planning Commission chair asked for a second on the proposal to ask Covanta to expand their capacity and add pollution controls (how about just the pollution controls??).

The BEST part was when the chair then moved that they recommend a “NO” vote and asked “all in favor, say aye” …and the entire room responded in chorus with “AYE.”  Beautiful and empowering.

City Council is next.  That’s the real vote.  We’ll have to crank up the pressure even higher for that one… We can do it! “