*Save Bassick High*

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Saving Bassick High! 

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Saving Bassick High means Choosing Life

A personal narrative from Bassick’s 2016 Salutatorian

This is about so much more than one school, but I'll start there. Bridgeport’s Bassick High School, my alma mater, is being rebuilt. Originally constructed in 1929 with additions made in 1968, it certainly is due to be built anew. Trust me. But where? That is the $129 million dollar question! First thought was to reconstruct the school where it currently stands. Makes sense, that’s simple enough but some folks weren’t too keen on having Bassick students attend Harding High during construction and others wanted more room for sports’ fields. More on why that well-intentioned priority is somewhat misplaced later. The second proposed location was not too far down the street at 1575 State Street with plans to replace the old Harvey Hubbell property. This fell through as the intersection was speedy and unsafe for an influx of distracted student pedestrians. Perhaps this could have worked if the design included a Safer Streets project to make the intersection pedestrian and bicycle friendly. Instead, we reach the proposed location in question. On the South End of Bridgeport, at 115 Broad Street, an old University of Bridgeport (UB) building was demolished to make way for a new Bassick High School. To move forward with this plan would be to move backward, acting in alignment with the legacy of environmental racism. We could instead move toward an equitable, climate just future by making decisions that reflect a commitment to protecting life.

I learned about Bassick back in February when Maisa Tisdale flagged this proposed location as problematic for three main reasons. 1) The new high school would be built in a FEMA designated Special Flood Hazard Area AE; 2) neither of the two standard environmental impact assessments were conducted, these being a City Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and a State Environmental Impact Evaluation (EIE) (Note: I was told these were not necessary due to an MOU streamlining the floodplain certification process and a loophole for constructing on previously developed land. However, the designs for Bassick extend well beyond the old UB building in size and functionality and a streamlined process in an overburdened community is not ideal.); and 3) there was no public hearing for South End residents or Bassick students, their parents, teachers, or staff. The community has been completely shut out of these potentially shady dealings and I’m very curious to know if the construction of Bassick High was wrapped up in the Kosta Diamantis scandal.

What I find particularly disrespectful is that Bridgeport’s Harbor Station 5 (hereafter PSEG) and Bridgeport Energy LLC (Cogentrix), two fossil fuel gas plants and continuous sources of air pollution, are within walking and breathing distance of this proposed Bassick High location. While I've heard rumors of the PSEG gas plant being decommissioned soon, the PSEG Harbor Station #3 coal plant only shut down last May after 53 years of polluting children’s lungs, and the full scale of remediation required to heal those 60 acres of Earth remains as unclear as its future. Unless the Metropolitan Council of Government spends their allotted 400k to design an epic, nature-based remediation and coastal resilience project to restore the Earth and harbor into a sustainable green space—the route I highly recommend—then Bassick attendees and the overburdened South End will likely face yet another source of pollution constructed as an exaggerated promise of economic development. Either way, we are limited only by the boundaries of our collective imagination and courage to challenge the status quo.

Bassick would also be walking distance from at least two hydrogen fuel cells burdening Seaside Village and the University of Bridgeport, despite ample community opposition. No matter how much NuPower LLC pays to promote their technology as “clean” sustainable energy, hydrogen fuel cells are produced by fossil gas, release greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful pollutants, and have a notable risk of exploding, adding injury to insult. Is it a coincidence that all NuPower technologies are located in CT’s EJ communities of Bridgeport, Stamford, Hartford, New Haven, Norwalk, and Danbury? I think not. Unironically, the Environmental Task Force, created as part of PSEG’s Community Environmental Benefit Agreement, just allocated 165,000$ to NuPower Thermal Bridgeport, LLC. What would you call building experimental hydrogen fuel cells in communities of color and claiming it's ‘clean energy’ despite the use of fossil fuels?... It's giving environmental racism with a dash of greenwash.

To really bring this to a head, Resilient Bridgeport, the major infrastructure project designed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to protect those living in the eastern area of the South End is delayed indefinitely with no clear timeline for progress. Resilient Bridgeport was even referenced to support building Bassick in this flood zone. This logic is flawed since Resilient Bridgeport was not designed to account for the environmental impacts of a massive high school (e.g sewage, increased impervious coverage, street closures). Moreover, without the proper environmental impact study/assessment. Let’s not mince words, this is a textbook case of environmental racism…but it doesn’t have to be. Suppose instead we considered the value of all life before making every economic, technological, or infrastructural decisions. In doing so, we would remember that we too are nature, we are animals. From that mindset, we recognize our pivotal role in maintaining balance in our shared ecosystem.

This IS personal

Bridgeport was my home and as a Bassick head, I still teem with Lion Pride. I graduated Salutatorian* in 2016 before making my way to UConn Storrs. At UConn, I transformed into the scholar-activist I am today. This was not solely the function of organizing UCCO events, marches, and rallies around campus. That transformation was a slow burn that started as a precocious and painstakingly outspoken child with a habit of minding grown folks’ business; an outsider with weird hair as the only Black girl or person in most of my elementary and middle school classes; to an angry yet optimistic teenager volunteering with buildOn around my high school, city, and abroad in hopes of making a positive impact across communities. My life in Bridgeport introduced me to more truths of the world. My experiences at Bassick High, as compared to my experiences at Trumbull's Hillcrest Middle School and other predominantly white areas in New Jersey, taught me about systemic racism.

At Bassick, I was captain of the track team. Our coach, a notably old man, appointed me the role because I had ‘moxie’... and could sprint fast. He did all he could to make do with the very little we had. He measured distances to run indoors, around the school and city and MacGyver’ed field equipment due to a lack of track field. Senior year, I had to quit due to chronic shin splints worsened by running on concrete. I understand the desire to give high schoolers adequate sports facilities which seems to be a primary argument for this South End/UB location. I can easily recall the twinges of insecurity and shame that filled our bodies as we approached the seemingly unattainable facilities at wealthier schools for meets and away-games. I felt that in the fall for volleyball season and in the spring for track and field. Even with that experience, I could never justify building a school in an air polluted, climate vulnerable, high risk flood zone for the sake of sports. That is not a tradeoff other communities face, so why should our majority Hispanic, Black, Asian, mixed-race, and first gen community? Frankly, it feels like a prioritization of sports as a primary method for ‘making it out’ the hood. Still, even as a grim investment in young bodies rather than their minds, the constant exposure to air pollution would compromise their physical health. Sports fields are not worth the hit to public health by way of air pollution and risk of severe flood and climate disaster. While I'm sure some students wouldn’t mind missing school for ‘flood days’ this is not the standard of education they, or their teachers, deserve. We can and must #BuildBassickBetter.

While enrolled at Bassick, I simultaneously attended the Bridgeport Regional Science and Technology Education Center (aka BRASTEC or Aqua for short). At Aqua–located within walking and breathing distance of CT’s largest incinerator, Wheelabrator Bridgeport–I learned a good deal of analytical chemistry, oceanography, and environmental science, but even more about environmental racism. To place an incinerator, the emissions from which are associated with increased rates of diseases like lung cancer and asthma, and heart disease, beside the P.T Barnum apartment complex then build multiple schools nearby is environmental racism. More importantly, it reflects a series of choices made on behalf of constituents by leaders who were supposed to protect them. Thankfully today we have folks at PT Partners conducting outreach and air quality monitoring to improve the quality of life for members of their community! Similarly, Groundworks Bridgeport works to empower residents and sustainably regenerate the natural environment through air quality monitoring, tree planting and more! The work they do to keep Bridgeport healthy gives me hope!

Seaside Sounds for Environmental Justice

I fell in love with Seaside Park at the same time I fell in love with my high school sweetheart. Born and raised in the South End of Bridgeport, with the chronic asthma to prove it, she lived in Marina Village until hurricane damage from superstorms like Sandy drove everyone out. Then, she moved into an Atlantic Street apartment that accepted her mom’s Section 8 voucher. Little did we know, this was right down the street from the (now decommissioned) PSEG Harbor Station #3 Coal Plant then and the PSEG Harbor Station #5 gas plant. The UB field and Bassick construction site in question was a block away, just around the corner. In the summer, we spend much of our free time together at Seaside Park. It's a beautiful place for L walks and long talks. A lovely picnic spot for summer dates and a place to run around with our high school friends playing tag like carefree kids. Eventually, I began going alone, communing with the trees and listening deeply to the waves crash as I pondered major life transitions, like going away for college. Seaside saw me through some unspeakable hard times, saving me from myself at my lowest points. Meditative walks along the coast helped me make tough choices as I was simultaneously humbled and inspired by the powerful waves. The unyielding support I received from the trees encouraged me to stand tall and go out on a limb. They held me as I struggled through the heartbreaking conversation to end my relationship with my high school sweetheart years later. While we remain good friends, she’s not as fond of the park as I am, she never was.

I love Seaside Park more than I can communicate through this article. I’m unsure of how to make y’all understand that my connection to nature drives my capacity for action. When I put it into words, I sound more like a hippie tree-hugger than a scholar-activist for environmental justice. But two truths can exist at once. I love trees because no person has ever held me the way they do and climbing them makes me feel like I'm back in Jamaica on a mission for the perfect mango or the ripest guineps. I also have a tremendous appreciation for the way trees produce oxygen, clean the air, provide shade from the scorching sun, AND provide food and shelter for countless species! Moreover, research shows that increased vegetation helps weaken coastal flooding and wave action during superstorms. I’ve been told that Seaside Park protected the South End neighborhood from suffering even more devastating damage from Hurricane Sandy by attenuating its wave force. The least we could do is return the favor by nourishing and protecting the park as it does for us.

That reciprocity is the unspoken contract we’re bound to as interdependent species sharing an ecosystem. That reciprocity, coupled with my unbridled anger at the sight of PSEG plants and the Wheelabrator in the distance, is why I organized Seaside Sounds for Environmental Justice. Fed up with the stigmatization of Seaside for its pollution while the culprits evade accountability, I took action to raise awareness of these injustices, but more importantly, to grow appreciation for the park and facilitate connection to life at large. While organizing the inaugural festival, I had the privilege of connecting with Maisa Tisdale who founded the Mary & Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community to preserve the Freeman Houses as relics of Little Liberia, but also to protect and revitalize the natural, cultural, and built environment of Bridgeport’s South End neighborhood. Maisa was a lead stakeholder for designing Resilient Bridgeport, serves as an appointed member of CEEJAC, DEEP’s Connecticut Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Council as established by Governor Lamont's Executive Order No. 21-3, and now she advocates to Save Bassick High.

The following is an excerpt from my essay “Seaside Liberation'' published in Connecticunt Magazine Issue #6 to share the beautiful history of Little Liberia as told by Maisa:

The South End of Bridgeport was once known as Ethiope before being dubbed Little Liberia circa 1821. Liberia means ‘land of freedom’– aptly named, not only was Little Liberia an Underground Railroad destination, but also a prosperous seafaring community of free African and Native Americans (e.g Paugussett tribe) who lived off the land and advocated for human rights, inviting like-minded people of color to join them. According to Shinnecock oral tradition, the Long Island Sound provided food for the ‘garden community’ and night time canoe crossings on the Underground Railroad. Little Liberia held Bridgeport’s first free lending library, a school for colored children, businesses, fraternal organizations, and churches, as well as a renowned seaside resort hotel for wealthy Black patrons, as well as the stunning Seaside Park. Their seamen whaled, sailed Caribbean packet vessels, harvested oysters, and allegedly fought pirates! When they returned to Bridgeport Harbor, these seamen brought their earnings home where many women owned and/or maintained family businesses and property….

I tell the story of Little Liberia because I believe that when we know what was, we can reimagine our future. Seaside Park sits in the heart of Little Liberia, making it a beacon of hope for environmental justice, despite its current afflictions. This is why I’m organizing Seaside Sounds for Environmental Justice. To share this history is to share the beautiful cultural significance of Bridgeport in the historic arc towards Liberation. To share this history is to share the truth of what our community faces today, but also what it has to offer. I believe this is paramount to moving us toward a brighter, more just future but more importantly, I believe in our ability to make environmental justice a reality.

What does it mean for this history to not be taught in public schools? What does it mean for that distinguished history of culture and liberation to be reduced to coal ash, noxious gas, and violent floods? Our ability to plan the future with integrity relies on our ability to honor the truth of our past and make new connections that sustain us today. Seaside Sounds Club exists to maintain the connections made at the first festival and unite environmentalists across the state with the shared vision of a brighter, healthier, life-affirming future for all.

Being a Public Servant

If you have time, check out my interview with Untold: A CT Mirror Podcast or Tearing Down Walls or read my Save the Sound highlight, during which I reference my recent role in state government as a CT Governor’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Advisor (aka Governor’s IIJA Fellow) stationed in the Office of the Commissioner at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Before accepting the position, I sought reassurance that I could do the type of meaningful community-led environmental justice work that excites me. I communicated my priorities, even specifying the desire to address Resilient Bridgeport and Bassick High School. I later highlighted other community issues like public bus drivers’ needs and remediating abandoned factories into housing to alleviate homelessness as discussed by nonprofits like Sierra Club CT, Renew New England, NAG, Sunrise Connecticut, Connecticut Climate Crisis Mobilization, and others. Each time I was appeased by false promises of support and counterfeit encouragement. As weeks passed, my hope and excitement began to fade. My disillusionment solidified the day I was actively dissuaded from presenting the aforementioned topics as agenda items in an infrastructure meeting with Governor Lamont and several key stakeholders across state agencies. Mind you, these meetings were meant to focus on infrastructure related developments and concerns impacting the everyday lives of constituents. After venting to an old college buddy about how disappointed in myself I was for not speaking up, his only advice on how to move forward was to write it out.

The next day, I received the heartbreaking news that a dear friend of mine had taken her life. Mourning her death, I began reflecting on the genuine connection I had with her. She was someone who lived out loud, fearlessly taking up space while ensuring that everyone else in the room felt seen and heard. They were a first-gen Jamaican quietly nursing hidden traumas while boldly building community in hopes of healing the world through practical and academic social work and throwing dope parties. Since their passing, many have likened her smile to sunlight. She was radiant. She helped me embrace the fact that I, like everyone else on this planet, am worthy of love and living a fulfilling life. Flaws and all, they affirmed me and ways of showing up in the world. Sitting with the grief prompted me to reflect on my life and how I want to show up in the world. Two weeks later, I resigned.

Perhaps I did not stay long enough to learn how to “navigate the system” but to have been repeatedly told that Bassick was someone else's problem to deal with and advised not to “embarrass myself” by raising the issue with the Governor “who doesn’t have the time to worry about just one school”, that was enough for me know I was meant to continue my work elsewhere. I believe there are many who began a career in government as a clear path toward public service, aspiring to change the system from the inside and help make the world a better place. Even with the purest intentions, intentions I shared upon entry, the culture of maintaining bureaucracy over everything is incredibly pervasive. Add into the equation job security, promises of upward mobility, political power plays, and having a family to feed, conforming becomes the safest choice. It's a very understandable choice. Nobody wants to lose a stable gig, especially not in this economy. But what is the true cost of this culture? There is always a tradeoff. Not necessarily between good and evil, but definitely between courage and comfort. Shrinking into a quieter, subservient version of oneself to become more palatable and/or manageable will only ever make you a better bureaucrat, not a better public servant.

The EPA states that “...[environmental justice] will be achieved when everyone enjoys: The same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and Equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, [play], and work.” Remember, environmental justice requires challenging the systems which have perpetuated environmental racism for decades. Notice when you are clinging to tradition because it is familiar yet neither functional nor fair. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house and the master’s tools are currently being used to justify putting generations of Bridgeport teens and teachers in harm's way. Not to mention the unknown harm this will cause to the natural ecosystem, including Seaside Park and the Long Island Sound. Again, unknown due to the lack of city and state environmental impact assessments and public comment. I won’t pretend that I know every nuanced detail of this case, especially since many details have been withheld from the public, but I believe much more can be done to better protect Bassick High. The generations of students who will attend Bassick, navigating life paths altered by the future of climate change, are worth all the time and effort it takes to find an ideal, environmentally just location.

We Can Make a Better Choice

All is not said and done. The final verdict has not been made. There is still time to stop this. Just very little. This is a critical time in the world where literally every decision made has major implications for the climate crisis and who will survive it. If the state wants to lead by example as a greener government then do that. Invest in that. Make the climate, environment justice, and health equity executive orders and legislation more than fancy declaration. We have Governor Lamont’s Executive Order No.3 and No.21-3, Connecticut’s Environmental Justice Statute (CGS § 22a-20a), Connecticut Environmental Policy Act (CEPA), Public Act No. 21-35 Declaring Racism a Public Health Crisis, and Public Act No. 21-115 An Act Concerning Climate Change Adaptation to work from, just to name a few!

We not only have the responsibility but opportunity to shift the trajectory of our planet’s health and the health of all living beings sharing it. Given all that we do and don’t know about today’s climate crisis, one thing is certain: everything we do from here on out is either saving our planet or aiding in its destruction. The choices “we” make can no longer be made based on what is easy, convenient, or familiar. That is the gravity of the issue. Not to be dramatic but it’s really life or death. We have everything we need to make life-affirming climate solutions. Let's make our actions match our intention. Let’s choose life. Let’s Save Bassick High.

Two Songs to Ponder On

Mercy mercy me by Marvin Gaye:

Overthinking It by Willow:

Thanks for reading(: