Voices United: A HERC Rally Recap

HERC rally in downtown Minneapolis

Beti Y. Solomon, Sierra Club Outreach Intern

My job as an outreach intern this past summer with the Sierra Club usually entailed speaking to people—quite a few people in fact. Some were quite understanding of our cause, enthralled by it even. Others saw our clipboards and immediately become hesitant before even hearing what we had to say.

When given the chance to speak, my spiel went something like this: “I’m asking you to sign in favor of protecting our neighborhoods, moving to zero waste, and shutting down the toxic Hennepin Energy Recovery Center trash burner.” Many times, this is all they needed to hear before immediately asking to sign.

Other times, it wasn’t so easy. Because most people don’t take the time to listen. It’s this misunderstanding and dismissal that we are fighting as we work to unify people across Hennepin County to shut down the HERC.

For over 30 years HERC has been continuously polluting the predominantly black and indigenous neighborhood of North Minneapolis and surrounding neighborhoods. The pollution has been associated with asthma, dyslexia, autism, and complications with nursing and pregnant mothers.

And so, our team, alongside the HERC Zero Burn Coalition—which is led by the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table, and consists of impacted community members, waste experts, non-profits, labor unions, businesses, and grassroots organizations like the Sierra Club—set out to collect petitions.

I’m proud to say that after weeks of gathering signatures and attending events this summer, our amazing team collected over 1,000 signatures. And that was just the beginning.

When I had initially heard of a rally being held for the HERC shutdown I was beyond eager to hear what caring members of our community had to say.

On the day of the rally, I pushed through the doors of the Government Center doors to attend my very first political forum. Seeing my worn-out lime green Crocs below me on the lustrous marble tile gave me pause, but not for long. The moment I entered the gathering room, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.

I saw banners with names I’d mostly seen on screens. The Minnesota Environmental Justice Table and the Sierra Club were familiar beacons. As I entered further, signs, shirts, and posters continued to light the room, making me wish I had worn my green shirt so as not to look so bland.
I was eager to hear the speakers and they did not disappoint. Loretta Akpala, a resident physician, attested to the many respiratory cases she had seen during her time working in North Minneapolis. It was heartbreaking and unfair, she said, that the county had been allowing such health adversity to persist.

Another speaker, Marco Fields, gave me goosebumps with his electrifying testimony, stating, “It is an injustice to me that people who look like my boys are forced to take the biggest risks.” Further attesting to the racial grievance of this issue, as if mechanical ineptitude wasn’t enough reason to shut down the aging facility.
Upon conclusion of the forum, many remaining environmentalists and supporters gathered outside and chanted songs of demand and unity…
“We are the griot”
“The mighty mighty griot!”
Griot is derived from the West African term meaning historian, storyteller, or one that bears truth. With this chant, we hoped our village would be a little more willing to listen.

Beti Yonnas is a recent graduate of St. Thomas University with a degree in Public Health. She was a member of the Sierra Club’s summer intern outreach team.

Sierra Club friends at the HERC rally in downtown Minneapolis