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The Trailblazer 

Lake Charles native Jerome Ringo doesn't believe in closed doors -- and he doesn't think environmentalists should, either.

It's fitting that Jerome Ringo, a dedicated Boy Scout in his youth, has made trailblazing his life's work.

Sometimes he has forged a path into places where his presence is unexpected, such as his long rise through the predominantly white environmental movement to his newest position, chairman of the National Wildlife Federation. Occasionally, he has forced his way into zones where he was positively unwelcome.

Ringo, a lifelong resident of Lake Charles, got a brutal first lesson in the difficulties of being a pioneer when he was 12 years old. His father was on the committee planning for the integration of the Lake Charles public high schools -- an integration that resulted from a federal order. In retaliation for the family's advocacy, the Ku Klux Klan paid a house call.

"My family was awakened at about 3 a.m. by shouting outside," Ringo recalls, "and we got on all fours and crawled to the window. And there was a 13-and-a-half-foot cross burning in our front yard."

Not that the intimidation had much effect on the family's resolve. That fall, Ringo became the first African American at the middle school, while his older brother integrated the high school and his younger brother integrated the elementary school.

Clearly, Ringo doesn't believe in closed doors. As a teenager, he was the first African-American ranger at the nation's largest Boy Scout camp in Cimmaron, N.M. In 1998, he was the only African-American delegate at the Global Warming Treaty negotiations in Kyoto. Now, with his election in April to chairman of the National Wildlife Federation, Ringo has become the first African American to hold a top leadership position at a national environmental group.

He has two principal goals for his two-year tenure at the nation's largest environmental organization (with 4.5 million members). First, he hopes to bring more minorities into the National Wildlife Federation and into the environmental movement as a whole, creating "a new face for the conservation movement that will look more like America," he says.

To advance that cause, the organization engages minority students in elementary, middle and high schools with hands-on environmental education programs in their own city neighborhoods, using projects such as habitat restoration and water monitoring. A number of internship and college outreach programs try to give minorities on college campuses and students at historically black universities a passion for environmental stewardship. The National Wildlife Foundation also gives crash courses on environmental issues to the interns of groups like The African American Caucus Foundation and 100 Black Men of America, in an attempt to build networks between young activists who can find common cause.

Ringo's second goal is to convey to both Louisianans and Americans as a whole the urgency of global warming, and its potential to significantly change our way of life in the near future. "I've been to Alaska, I've seen firsthand the glaciers melting," Ringo says. "I've been to Canada to see the great Canadian flyway. It's not getting cold enough there now so the ducks aren't flying south to Louisiana, and it's having an adverse effect on our economy. We're supposed to be the sportsman's paradise!"

Global warming will also exacerbate the existing problem of Louisiana's eroding coastal wetlands, says Ringo, as a rise in sea levels could accelerate the land's disappearance. "We've already got one acre disappearing every 32 minutes," he says. The situation should be viewed as a national security issue, he says, because the eroding wetlands are leaving pipelines exposed that transport oil and natural gas from offshore drilling platforms to refineries on the coast. As the marshland disintegrates, the pipelines are left in open water, and are vulnerable to sabotage. "Global warming is the priority issue, and should be the priority of every major conservation organization," says Ringo.

Ringo's involvement in the environmental movement started out on a much smaller scale, with some volunteer work in his spare time for the Calcasieu League for Environmental Action Now (CLEAN), an affiliate of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. His first undertaking, in 1991, was a habitat restoration project that planted cypress trees in the marshes of southwest Louisiana. As he got more involved with the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, Ringo was shocked to realize that he was the only African American in the 20,000-member organization.

Part of the problem, Ringo decided, was that the group spent little energy on the issues that most directly affected African Americans in the region. His job for Westlake Petrochemicals frequently brought him through the towns of Louisiana's chemical corridor, and Ringo couldn't ignore the suffering he saw in predominantly poor African-American communities.

"The everyday lifestyle of people living under the shadows of industry is vastly different than that of average Americans," says Ringo, pointing to high rates of cancer and respiratory ailments in areas with a heavy industrial presence. The residents' ever-present fear of a catastrophic accident takes a psychological toll as well. "You've got procedures like 'Shelter in Place,' which is designed for people to respond to the releases of toxic gases and chemicals. Community members know they're at risk every day," he says.

Although he was working within the petrochemical industry, Ringo began organizing community members in heavily industrial towns such as Mossville, a town just west of Lake Charles. He worked with the group Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN), informing residents about the potentially harmful health effects of emissions from nearby facilities, how to get their concerns across in public hearings, and how to lobby public officials for tighter regulations on pollution.

Ringo went on to work with community groups throughout Louisiana's chemical corridor and the Mississippi Delta region, all while punching the clock at Westlake Petrochemicals. While his employer never directly told Ringo to cut out his extracurricular activities, he believes his outspoken advocacy for these "fenceline" communities may have had something to do with what happened next: he was transferred to Malaysia. When he returned to the United States in 1994, the company offered him an early retirement package, and he found himself a free agent at the age of 39. He used his new free time to dive deeper into the campaigns of fenceline communities, and soon joined the board of the National Wildlife Federation.

Most African Americans who have taken a role in Louisiana's environmental movement were brought in through similar experiences on the fenceline, whether as the residential neighbors of industry or as organizers. "The environmental justice movement has been strong in Louisiana because Louisiana has cancer alley," says Ringo, using the oft-repeated epithet for the chemical corridor along the Mississippi River. "This is ground zero -- this is where the amount of toxic chemicals discharged is out the roof. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted is out the roof. The amount of cancer is out the roof."

Yet despite the strides that have been made out of necessity, Ringo says minorities in Louisiana are still not as involved as they should be, given the disproportionate burden that falls upon poor communities of color. "Poor people have a different list of priorities, poor people are more concerned about next month's rent, and keeping their kids off drugs," he says. "That has to change. I tell people, what good is next month's rent if you're dying of cancer?"

In the 1990s, environmental justice campaigns picked up momentum and garnered media attention throughout the country. The big national groups began to recognize that they had limited support for environmental causes by appealing mainly to middle class white voters, and began pushing for broader, more diverse memberships.

As they set out to change the stereotype of an environmentalist -- think of an earnest white college student in hiking boots and a fleece -- they also attempted to change the popular definition of environmental issues. The environment isn't merely the pristine wildernesses and wild rivers that need protection, many leaders said, it's also the polluted towns and dirty creeks that people are forced to live with every day.

Expanding the scope of the environmental movement enables organizations to connect to untapped sectors of society, says Ringo, and to the people who have been forgotten since the movement began. "In the 1930s, the sportsmen who joined the first conservation organizations were those who fished to hang the fish on the wall," he says. "Those people who fished to put the fish on the plate didn't join clubs."

Ringo believes that over the past 10 years the national groups have made great strides in embracing environmental justice campaigns that they initially shied away from. Yet bringing minorities into the movement is only half of the struggle, says Dorceta Taylor, program director of the Minority Environmental Leadership Development Initiative at the University of Michigan.

"We're doing a great job of developing community leaders and grassroots movements, and bringing a lot of new people into the movement," says Taylor. "The people who we're losing are the thousands of (minority) college students going through environmental science classes and engineering programs and forestry programs. They really are falling through the cracks."

These students are well prepared for professional jobs in environmental organizations, says Taylor. However, they lack role models and mentors to advise them on careers in the environmental field. Without a link to the informal network of colleagues, students don't hear about upcoming conferences or get introduced to the right people. Taylor thinks of this as "a pipeline problem."

In late August, environmentalists from around the nation will converge on the University of Michigan for a National Summit on Diversity in the Environmental Field. Taylor, who is organizing the conference, hopes it will nudge the environmental movement from acknowledging the problem to planning a campaign to increase diversity in both membership and leadership.

To show minority students that their role models are already out there, Taylor is putting together a book of 81 profiles of minority leaders who hold jobs in academia, private firms, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Featured prominently is Jerome Ringo.

Knowing that he's blazing a trail for the next generation to follow is one of the great satisfactions of the job, says Ringo. "Being chairman is more than fulfilling a position, for me, it's fulfilling my destiny," he says. "It's an opportunity to be a pioneer for minorities, to show young people that, regardless of the challenges in life, you just have to persevere and you'll find that nothing is impossible."


CORRECTIONS

In our Aug. 2 edition, we incorrectly stated in a "Brickbat" that former New Orleans attorney Nicholas Estiverne admitted in a Criminal Court plea to stealing an elderly client's life savings. Estiverne actually pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of theft, which under Louisiana law involves an amount less than $100. Under the terms of Estiverne's plea, he was placed on probation and must pay restitution in an amount to be determined in a separate civil lawsuit. Gambit Weekly apologizes for the error.

Additionally, in our Swizzle bar listings last week, we published the wrong contact information for the Hookah Cafe; the cafe is located at 500 Frenchmen St. (943-1101; www.hookah-cafe.com).

Finally, in last week's Film Listings, we incorrectly reported that the film Broken Flowers was scheduled to open Friday, Aug. 12. The film is scheduled to open Friday, Aug. 19.

Gambit Weekly regrets these errors.

click to enlarge New National Wildlife Federation head Jerome Ringo says - he wants to help create "a new face for the conservation - movement that will look more like America." - NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION
  • National Wildlife Federation
  • New National Wildlife Federation head Jerome Ringo says he wants to help create "a new face for the conservation movement that will look more like America."
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