ESSENCE Black Girl Magic: Meet The 20-Year-Old Environmentalist Fighting For Her Community

Destiny Watford is on a mission to shut down hazardous trash incinerators that are slowly killing her community. Check out the above video. 

Environmentalists often get a bad rep in the pantheon of activists. Fundamentally, they’re fighting for every living being. But their passion can be pushed aside by a desire to address more, seemingly pressing, injustices of human rights. Destiny Watford knows better.

The former Benjamin Franklin High School student from Curtis Bay, Maryland made it her mission to shut down hazardous trash incinerators that are slowly killing her community. 

“What brought me in was the anger,” she told ESSENCE about the first incinerator she worked to shut down. 

Less than a mile from her high school and home, a local trash incinerator that would burn four thousand tons of trash a day, 240 pounds of mercury and 1000 pounds of lead annually, was approved to be built. Watford found out and went into action. 

“The decisions that affect the land that we live on are made behind closed doors and community members don’t see the light of day until a development is built—or until they’re dying of lung cancer,” said Watford. “When you’ve been living in a matrix, you know in this reality, the injustices that you’re facing or that families face, become normalized and you don’t question it anymore.”

Enraged by news of the incinerator, Watford—winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize winner—gathered a group of students at her school, formed an advocacy group called Free Your Voice, and petitioned residents to stop its construction. In the end it was stopped by an air-quality permit issue, but their presence in the shutdown was overwhelmingly felt.

Recently honored as one of ESSENCE’s “Woke 100” women, Watford is passionate about staying vigilant about issues in her community and beyond. “Being woke equates to when you question things,” she said. “[It’s’ the beginning of recognizing that the things that you thought were normal are not normal. They’re injustice; they are obscene; they should not exist.”

She continues to prevent the building of incinerators that cause one-third of Baltimore’s pollution. 

“When we stand together united with a singular vision, this will not be our community,” she said. “Our community will not be a dumping ground.”

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[MUSIC] My mom has always instilled in me and my brothers and sisters that you should always do the right thing and the right thing isn't always necessarily clear. I remember when I was a little girl. My sister and I would walk to school, I would walk past mountains of coal. [MUSIC] My own neighbor died of lung cancer. Just from Living in Curtis Bay more like they die of lung cancer and respiratory disease and to suffer from asthma. In Curtis Bay we're dealing with cold piers and the nation's largest medical waste incinerator, the city's landfill, animal rendering Plant. In the sea of developments are contributing to the pollution that we have to deal with in the air that you breath. So right here we have a 90 acres of land that was gonna be [UNKNOWN] for the [UNKNOWN] project. Meanwhile, less than a mile away at that beautiful water tower Is our community. [MUSIC] The decisions that effect the land that we live on are made behind closed doors. And community members don't even see the light of day of it until a developments built, or until they're like dying of lung cancer. When you've been living in a matrix. And that sort of reality where the injustices that you're facing or that your family's facing becomes normalized and you don't question it anymore. Being woke equates to beginning to question things, the beginning of Recognizing that the things that you thought were normal are not normal. They're injustice, they're obscene, they should not exist. So An Enemy of the People is a play written by Henrik Ibsen. Literally right after I had saw the play we learned about the plan to build the incinerator. And there are a lot of correlations with the questions that were being posed in the play. Do we want our community to live in poverty but be at least healthy and breathe clean air, or do we want to have resources in our community but have to deal with illness and being sick and breathing in poisonous air every day? [MUSIC] [MUSIC] After seeing the play, that's when I joined For Your Voice. We thought there doesn't need to be a sacrifice. We can have a healthy and developments that don't put our lives at risk. What we found was that the in cinerary was going to be burning 4,000 tons of trash everyday. It was permitted to release 240 pounds of mercury every year and 1,000 pounds of lead. To be less than a mile away from like my high school, from my community where my family lives, where I've grown up, that struck a chord in me I guess. What brought me in was the anger. The response would sometimes be Well, your just kids what do you know? Like you're misinformed. Someone's misinforming. You're being lied to. I'm so sorry that your fragile teenage minds are susceptible to all this false information. That wasn't the case. We recognized through just having conversation with people that there is this What we call a dumping ground mentality, which is basically this idea that things in the community will always be the same, nothing will ever change. This sort of passive acceptance of the way that things are. [MUSIC] And so our push was transitioning towards active resistance, how to inspire people and Make that transition from, "This is the way that things will always be", towards, "What can I do to stop this?" [MUSIC] First and foremost, I miss Barbara, my mom, who instilled with me this sort of, since I was a little girl, this sort of idea that we, as humans and as people, need to Look out for one another, even when the entire world is against you, or is rooting for something that wouldn't benefit you personally, or your family, or the people that you love. [MUSIC] There was so much stacked against us from the law. Are our politicians being in favor of it? Even our schools and the institutions that we love being in support of the projects. So it was a lot, but We decided to take on the challenge, and we were successful. It just shows to me that, when we stand together, united with a singular vision, of this will not be our community. Our community will not be a dumping ground. That speaks to people. One-third of the air pollution in Baltimore comes from the RESCO incinerator. And this is an incinerator that has existed for decades. It is polluting the air. The incinerator, or the company that owns the incinerator, they don't have to face the consequences we do. We already have some of the worst air pollution in the nation. And people are already suffering from the consequences of that. One of the major reasons that we're taking on the Brasco incinerator is because it is very much like the incinerator that we already fought. Like we've been through this. We need to take a stand because this is a matter of our survival and the survival of the people that we love. [MUSIC] There needs to A be like this awareness or understanding of developments that are happening and that can sometimes, especially in a community like Curtis Bay, can be really difficult. Which is why I'm so inspired by the vision that we have, which is going to change fundamentally the way that that works. It puts communities at the forefront. They have control over what happens in their neighborhood. So it isn't something that's just blindsided and that they have to pay the consequences for. It's an active decision that they're making. I guess my wish for the world would be changing the way that we think about development, caring about what happens to land beneath our feet and allowing community members to have a real say in the decision making process of what happens in their neighborhoods. And it's what we're aiming to do here in Baltimore. [MUSIC] [MUSIC]