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Homegrown singer uses her fame to fight for environmental justice

Singer and environmental activist Dawn Richard stands in front of Cornerstone Chemical Company in Waggaman, Louisiana on Wednesday, February 28, 2024. Her parents live between this plant and multiple landfills in Westwego.
Minh Ha
Verite News
Singer and environmental activist Dawn Richard stands in front of Cornerstone Chemical Company in Waggaman, Louisiana on Wednesday, February 28, 2024. Her parents live between this plant and multiple landfills in Westwego.

This story was originally published by Verite News.

On an overcast day in late February, singer Dawn Richard, formerly a member of the platinum-selling pop group Danity Kane, rode around St. James Parish with activists from Rise St. James — an environmental justice group that fights the expansion of petrochemical plants. As the group counted the facilities in the heavily industrial parish, Richard noticed an odor.

“Ooo, that asphalt [smell] is crazy,” Richard said. “So that’s back-to-back sulfur, asphalt and ammonia — like what?”

Prominent environmental justice activist Sharon Lavigne was at the wheel that day, with her daughter Shamell in the back seat. Richard, representing the Hip Hop Caucus, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works on climate justice around the United States, was in the front passenger seat.

The landscape is dotted with quaint single-family homes and dominated by industrial structures — towering chimneys spewing emissions, massive circular storage tanks holding oil and gas and mazes of pipes of varying lengths and widths.

Lavigne drove Richard past several sprawling industrial campuses operated by international petrochemical companies, including the Mosaic Company, Formosa Plastics and Koch Industries. Richard was captivated and vexed by how many facilities are near Lavigne’s home — there are 11 in the parish that release chemicals so dangerous they have to report their emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the agency’s Toxic Release Inventory.

The parish’s 4th and 5th council districts, which are predominantly Black, have among the highest cancer risk from toxic air pollution in the United States, according to the EPA. Within a two-week period earlier in the month, Lavigne found out that two of her neighbors had cancer and one died of the disease, she told Verite News in mid-February. She’s said in the past that she’s known 30 people who’ve died from cancer in her parish.

“This is an epidemic,” Richard said about the health effects caused by the pollution from heavy industry.

“It’s in all the Black areas, too,” Lavigne responded.

Environmental justice activist Sharon Lavigne of Rise St. James (left) talks with singer Dawn Richard (right) about pollution in St. James Parish on Wednesday, February 28, 2024.
Minh Ha
Verite News
Environmental justice activist Sharon Lavigne of Rise St. James (left) talks with singer Dawn Richard (right) about pollution in St. James Parish on Wednesday, February 28, 2024.

Richard, who grew up in New Orleans, contacted Rise St. James after becoming concerned about the air quality near her parents’ home in Westwego, where they’ve lived between landfills and a petrochemical plant since 2021. She wanted to better understand how industrial facilities affect the public health of the communities where they’re located, she said.

Long before she took on the mantle of environmental and climate justice, she was a burgeoning pop star as a member of the girl group Danity Kane and had her initial rise to notoriety documented on MTV’s “Making the Band 3.” But now she wants to use what she learns to inform her work as the artist relations director with the Hip Hop Caucus to inspire others to make art that captures how environmental racism and climate change are destroying Black communities across the U.S.

“We want to have climate conversations where we get … people who create Black stories and get them in rooms to talk about things we don’t talk [enough] about,” she said.

‘It was like a bomb fell onto that whole area’

Richard’s desire to get involved in activism stems from her love for the New Orleans area and watching the city — including her home and family — experience multiple climate and environmental traumas.

In August 2005, she was at a crossroads. She was a finalist on MTV’s “Making the Band 3,” where she was competing to be selected for a band that would eventually sign to hip-hop mogul Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Records under the name Danity Kane. Richard and the other competitors got to the final round in early August of that year and were sent home for a few weeks before returning to film the season finale.

During that hiatus, Hurricane Katrina inundated the Lower 9th Ward, where she grew up, and destroyed not only her parents’ home there and mother’s dance studio in Gentilly, but many family members’ houses. She was living in her car in the immediate aftermath of the storm and only had the clothes as she packed before evacuating the city.

“[Katrina] happened and he hadn’t even picked the band yet,” Richard said. “So I had to come back to the show busted.”

But she came back to New York, where the show was filming, and was chosen for the band. She said she’s “never had a normal life” since that time, less because she was a newly minted pop star and more because her entire family and community was transformed by Hurricane Katrina.

“I never saw my family have Thanksgiving together again,” she said. “My parents had mental health issues because of this. They’d built their whole lives here and didn’t know what to do.”

Eventually her parents moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where Richard’s brother Frank Jr. lived, for ten years after Hurricane Katrina before moving back to New Orleans. But when they came back home to the Lower Ninth Ward, they found it was a shell of what it was when they lived there before Katrina with no clear signs that it would return to what it once was.

“It was like a bomb fell onto that whole area,” Frank told Verite News. “It was really bad …. We didn’t want to live there.”

After seeing the state of the Lower Ninth Ward, Richard’s parents moved to Metairie, where they rented a house for four years. But they wanted to own a piece of land they could pass down through the family, Frank said. That desire led them to Westwego, where Richard bought them a house in 2021. They liked Metairie, Frank said, but chose to buy in Westwego because they could afford a more modern house and more land there. Richard hadn’t visited the house before she bought it, but her parents did.

"They were sold this picture of a beautiful house and beautiful land,” Richard said. But when she first visited them, she noticed the air outside the house smelled odd, like sulfur or fertilizer, she said. She mentioned it to her parents, but they were hesitant to acknowledge that they smelled it too.

“I was like, ‘What is this?’ but my mom and dad were like ‘Look at our house and how pretty it is,’” she said.

Then people started getting sick. Her mom had sinus infections “every other week” five or six months after moving into the new house. Her father recently had a stroke and, while rehabbing from it, caught a viral infection in March. Richard, who lives at the Westwego house when she’s staying in Louisiana, also started having sinus infections, as did a friend who came to visit for Mardi Gras in February and stayed at the house. And Richard and her parents started getting stubborn dark circles under her eyes, or “black eyes,” as Richard described them.

They don’t know exactly where these health issues came from, but they suspect it has something to do with pollution. Research finds that air pollution increases people’s susceptibility to sinus infections and viral infections and, by worsening allergies like rhinitis, can cause dark circles to appear.

Health problems they’ve experienced in their new home have resulted in multiple hospital visits for Richard’s parents, including two within a month’s time — one for Frank’s viral infection in March and one for Debbie, her mom, a few weeks later for a sinus infection. And they aren’t the only ones in their community getting sick.

“My dad has conversations with the neighbors and they’re saying that they’re sick, they have asthma, they’re in the hospital or they’re not feeling good,” Richard said. “And you can start to see a trend happening.”

Telling climate stories

The day before the tour of St. James Parish, Richard was at Baldwin & Co bookstore in New Orleans., scouting locations for a Hip Hop Caucus event she’s planning to coincide with this year’s Essence Festival.

She’s hoping to bring together artists of all kinds — “muralists, illustrators, screenwriters, playwrights,” she said — to have a conversation about how to incorporate the realities of climate change into their work.

“I think one way to seek change when it comes to how we’re dealing with climate change is to tell climate stories,” she said while sitting in the courtyard of the Marigny-based coffee shop and bookstore.

Richard’s experiences being impacted by climate change and pollution culminated in her taking action by joining the Hip Hop Caucus in 2022. In that role, she works with and recruits artists to become more involved in the organization’s various pro-democracy, civil and human rights and economic, climate and environmental justice campaigns.

Minh Ha
Verite News
Singer Dawn Richard (furthest left), Shamell Lavigne (middle) and Sharon Lavigne (right) walk through a cemetery in St. James, Louisiana where many St. James residents are buried on Wednesday, February 28, 2024.

She said wanted to work with the Hip Hop Caucus because of the organizing, cultural and philanthropic work that the organization has done in New Orleans and around climate change since Katrina. And she’s not the only one in her family fighting against environmental injustice. Her father Frank has been active in his community’s home owner association, pushing his neighbors to have more conversations about how polluting facilities in their neighborhoods could be impacting their health.

Still, both parties acknowledge that there is a lot of work to be done to protect people’s environmental health and help them avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Frank said it’s been hard to get neighbors to take action to curb air pollution in Westwego. And Richard said more creative people need to get involved to raise awareness of climate and environmental injustice, which she hopes to accomplish during Essence Fest.

“I want action. And the only way for us to do that is to educate…our people,” she said. “I want people to walk away more informed than when they came in and with some types of solutions to apply to their lives to [improve] the situation.”