“If you want to improve your mood, a great place to start is by shifting the narrative.” – Ione Butler, Author Uplifting Stories
As we all hunker down to await the end of this pandemic, connecting with our usual holiday cheer is tough. Quarantine fatigue is getting us down, but the prospect of gathering with friends or family members sparks virus anxiety. There’s unseasonably heavy snow on the East coast, and the hospital beds are full in California. Unemployment is sky high, evictions are on the rise, millions of our neighbors are wondering if they can make it through this year.
That’s why we’re taking a breather from the news and featuring a peek into one of our favorite reads of 2020 – the refreshing new book by Ione Butler, Uplifting Stories. It’s a great reminder of how the stories we hear, the articles we read, the pictures we see, the people we talk to can all affect how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about the world.
The book presents profiles of inspirational individuals, organized into a series of themes like Human Connection and Overcoming Adversity and more, described in a way to offer the reader new perspectives of hope and personal power. As this year has taught us that everything can change in an instant, we are thrilled to bring you a story of one exceptional young woman from the Game-Changers section of the book. Butler explains, “My definition [of a game-changer], for the purposes of this chapter, is ‘a person who is willing to defy the status quo, question the way things are done, and find a better way.'” Read on to meet one of these remarkable people, and get inspired.
DESTINY WATFORD: THE POWER OF DESTINY
“The most polluted place in America.” Not exactly a great endorsement for any community, but in the neighborhood where Destiny Watford grew up, it was the truth. Curtis Bay is about sixty square blocks of low-income homes in South Baltimore, surrounded by one of the busiest industrial waterfronts in America. It’s also one of the dirtiest neighborhoods in the country, with staggering pollution levels. Curtis Bay has been a dumping ground for Maryland since the mid-nineteenth century, when it was established as a quarantine center for ships arriving from overseas.
Like a grotesque environmental Berlin Wall, a fence divides the neighborhood where humans live and breathe from the deadly side, the area given over to huge, gross polluters. But before the factories took over completely, the industrial side was once a thriving community called Fairfield. The community’s residents experienced high rates of birth deformities and lung cancer. Former Fairfield residents would describe riding a bike through the neighborhood and reaching a point where they couldn’t breathe, as if they’d somehow been transported to another planet with an atmosphere of poison gas, not air.
Even more horrific were the constant explosions from the chemical plants that sounded like bombs going off. Some likened living in Fairfield to being in an active combat war zone. “It was awful,” Destiny observed. Sadly, the onslaught of industrialization created such health consequences for its residents that it became too much to bear (and survive), and the last family moved out in the 1990s. When Destiny was sixteen, she discovered a terrifying plan to pump even more pollution, staggering levels of lead and mercury, into the atmosphere of her town. Even more horrifying was that the source of these deadly toxins was going to be built right next to her school!
This discovery led Destiny to take the greatest stand of her young life, challenging the status quo and changing others’ beliefs of what is possible for a teenager to accomplish.
Destiny Watford had a very strict upbringing and spent a lot of her time in solitude, reading. This gave her plenty of time to reflect on what makes something right or wrong, as well as the concepts of justice and integrity. While she is a very different person now than she was then, what connects her to her younger self are her ideals about how the world should be and how people should treat each other. She also had far more trust in institutions when she was younger— and when facts about their motivations came to light and that trust was broken, she felt betrayed. If you were to walk down the street in Curtis Bay back when Destiny was growing up, you’d have noticed a few things.
First, the trucks. They were big, and there were a lot of them. Literally forty to eighty trucks an hour thundered down the small streets of Curtis Bay, their massive weight and earthquake-like rumbling shaking many of the town’s homes so badly, their walls were literally cracking. Most of those poor and forgotten renters and homeowners could not afford to repair the damage, so they had to just sit back and watch as their homes crumbled.
Once you got past the trucks, you’d notice the coal. A lot of coal. It was accepted as normal for children to play in the shadows of mountains of the stuff. “Oh, okay, it’s just a black mountain of coal. Move on,” is how Destiny explains this acceptance.
For years, the coal dust would blow into the homes of Curtis Bay’s residents, covering everything as if they lived near an eternally erupting volcano. People would put their laundry out to dry, and the next day it would be completely covered in coal dust. And the behemoth factories and refineries continue to spout toxic smoke.
Destiny could literally see the poisonous fumes in the air, which often smelled like rotten eggs. It riled her beloved grandmother’s chronic respiratory problems so much that the poor woman had a hard time just catching her breath. Destiny grew up hearing jokes about the lingering chemical stench, accepted as the unalterable fate of the neighborhood. Local politicians weren’t inclined to help, because they needed to protect the corporations whose factories surrounded the community. In high school, Destiny and her friends tried to be philosophical about the pollution: it was just part of the landscape, like the steep hills lined with rundown
row houses and the stark industrial wasteland hugging the bay. “You almost forget that it’s there,” she told me. “You know it’s present; you can see it, smell it, hear it, but it’s something you learn to live with.”
One day, on her way to school, seventeen-year-old Destiny noticed an abandoned medical facility on the banks of the Patapsco River, which opens to form Baltimore’s waterfront. She had walked past the derelict building nearly every day for years, but that day something looked different. On a sunbleached sign on the chain link fence surrounding the property, she could barely make out the words “Energy Answers.” She didn’t think much of it at the time, and kept walking.
Several weeks later, Destiny went on a school trip to the theater to see An Enemy of the People, a play written in 1882 by Henrik Ibsen. It’s the story of a small town that becomes corrupt when greed is allowed to triumph over the health of its citizens. In the play, it’s discovered that the town’s public baths have become dangerously polluted, but shutting them down could lead to economic chaos. Keeping it quiet would not upset the prosperity of the richer citizens, but it would expose more people to the toxins.
Ibsen’s nearly century-and-a-half-old play resonated with Destiny. Its explosive premise eerily echoed her own situation. She also divined Ibsen’s deeper message: that bad things persist because truth has a life cycle, and if not actively promoted, it dies out. She saw, too, that the people in Ibsen’s play had a binary choice: live in poverty but have clean water in the baths, or have money and resources but be poisoned.
Destiny’s social conscience was awakened that day. And, as it turns out, the timing of this awakening was fortuitous. Soon after, she heard about a proposal to allow even more pollution in Curtis Bay. She began to do some research, and discovered an alarming but perhaps unsurprising study published by MIT researchers in 2013, that found that more people died from pollution-linked causes in Baltimore than any other city in America. The study noted that 113 out of every 100,000 Maryland residents were likely to die from long-term exposure to pollution in a given year. And she already knew Curtis Bay took the brunt of that foul credit.
Apparently, it was about to get worse. According to newspaper accounts, Energy Answers Int’l. donated $100,000 to the national Democratic Governors Association, then chaired by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. The check was made out on the same day he announced his intention to sign a bill that would categorize garbage incineration as a renewable energy source, putting it on the same footing as wind or solar providers, a change
that was potentially worth millions to Energy Answers. Despite appearances to the contrary, the Governor denied that his decision was influenced by the company’s donation to the DGA. Energy Answers was planning to build a giant trash incinerator on the site of that abandoned medical facility Destiny walked by every day, and construction was set to soon begin. Alarmed, Destiny did more research, and discovered that the planned incinerator would be the largest ever built on United States soil.
The project’s supporters claimed it would provide power for Destiny’s own high school and create more jobs for locals; based on those promises, the neighborhood did not oppose the incinerator. But like it was in Ibsen’s play, the truth was being concealed from public view. Unless you dug for it. Like Destiny. Heavy metals would be pumped into the atmosphere by that incinerator each year, further condemning the residents of Curtis Bay. And in a sickening twist, because the incinerator was now designated a renewable energy source, state law prohibitions against locating the incinerator near schools was waived. Destiny couldn’t believe what she was reading. She was angry, and she was motivated.
It really infuriated her when she read about Energy Answers’s big donation to the DGA. It was pretty easy for her to connect the dots on who was scratching who’s back. “Being woke means beginning to question things. Recognizing that the things you thought were normal are not normal, they are obscene, they are injustice, they should not exist,” Destiny explains.
She decided enough was enough. Yes, she was just a high school student in a poor neighborhood, but she knew that movements didn’t require money or status so much as belief and tenacity. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. weren’t millionaires with influence or YouTube stars with huge audiences; they were simply brave men who saw injustice and spoke up about it—inspiring others to join them in turn. It was time for Destiny to speak up.
She had always been a good student who knew her facts, but she was also shy. She understood that becoming an activist would require her to get out of her comfort zone and face the public. But because there was so much at stake, she gathered her courage and took action. She reached out to friends and classmates, got them on board, and formed the advocacy group Free Your Voice. They made it their mission to educate the residents of Curtis Bay about the history of pollution in Baltimore. At first the response was predictable—they were just kids, they were misinformed, how could they think they knew more than the government or corporations? They listened politely to the critics but kept going, undaunted, knowing that they were in the right.
Destiny told me about the time she went to speak at a senior citizens center. As Destiny began explaining how dangerous the incinerator would be for the community, an elderly woman interrupted her presentation. “Excuse me, young lady,” she announced. “But we love the incinerator.” The older resident’s statement started a mini revolt with others in the group who all chimed in about how great Energy Answers was, providing jobs and doing things for the community like donating money for a park bench.
Destiny was stunned and couldn’t believe that people were gullible enough to believe Energy Answers’s blatant propaganda, causing them to support something so destructive; it was literally a threat to their lives. Destiny left the meeting in shock, her tail between her legs. When she shared this story with me, she laughed hysterically at how awkward it was and how naive she had been at the time, but it did teach her to be more prepared for future meetings. The next time, she told me, she returned armed with evidence, facts, and information for those who thought this deadly incinerator was a great idea. One thing the locals did know was that for decades, they had been pushed and squeezed out of their communities by industrialization. What could have been valuable waterfront property was defiled and ravaged by big business.
Destiny warned people that Curtis Bay might not survive much longer if they allowed the power brokers to shove them any further. Just because that had been Curtis Bay’s past, she implored them, didn’t mean it had to be the neighborhood’s future. Destiny led her army of activists by example, knocking on doors, telling the story over and over, warning of the dangers, and eventually even convincing older people like her grandmother’s friends to sign petitions against the incinerator.
They managed to get two thousand people in that small community to send testimonials about their health to the Maryland Energy Administration, as well as post them on social media. The movement caught fire, and went viral. Destiny soon captured the attention of local government, and was asked to speak before the Baltimore City Public School board. She had originally only been allocated a couple of minutes to speak but the presentation turned into a twenty-minute “event.” The room was filled with students, teachers, and parents from across the city packed in like sardines. They’d made art, parents and students spoke about why the board should not support the incinerator, and two members of Destiny’s group stood inches away from the board as they performed a song about incineration and what it was like growing up in Curtis Bay. At the end they received a standing ovation from the board.
The response was explosive, channeling the community’s outrage and causing the mayor and the district’s representative in Congress to withdraw their support for the incinerator. Feeling the momentum, Destiny and her group formed the Community Land Trust, an organization designed to give Curtis Bay’s residents the power to protect themselves from such predatory exploitation. Their plan was to go to potential customers of Energy Answers—schools, libraries, even the city—and argue that the company they had hoped would bring them cheap energy was doing so but at a terrible cost. And it wasn’t just going to be damaging to Destiny’s small community, but Baltimore in general and really a large part of Maryland, too. With their new, louder voice they stalled construction by convincing all twenty-two of Energy Answers’s slated customers to back out of their contracts.
But their victory was only temporary. Their campaign had succeeded in scaring off Energy Answers’s potential customers, but despite that blow to its bottom line their enormous adversary was still standing. Even though Energy Answers’s building permits had expired
in December 2015, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), whose job it was to protect citizens from pollution, had not officially acknowledged that the permits had expired. Even after spoiling the deals with all their users, Destiny and her team were shocked to discover that Energy Answers was still planning to go ahead and begin construction in January 2016.
Dismayed but still standing their ground, the group upped their attack by taking video testimonials from those who would be negatively impacted by the poisonous billion dollar incinerator and sent the MDE letters from lawyers, environmentalists, and doctors outlining all the reasons why the facility should not be supported economically, environmentally, and morally, expecting them to uphold the law and stop Energy Answers from building with expired permits. The MDE’s response? Silence.
Yet Destiny and her team were not to be underestimated, understanding full well what those in politics call “optics.” “This was around the time that Freddie Gray was murdered and the riots were happening,” Destiny said. “So there’s this huge, ugly spotlight on Baltimore and how we deal with injustice and it’s not acceptable to the public for a government organization’s response to be silence.” The activists then held a rally of over 200 people to deliver their sunflower petitions (the sign of their campaign because the sunflower absorbs toxins) to the reception desk of the MDE asking them to uphold the law. The response? This time the MDE locked the doors and ignored the protestors. The underhanded move really riled the residents of Curtis Bay. They channeled their fury and created such a public relations ruckus they finally managed to get a delegation of nine into a meeting with Ben Grumbles, the Secretary of the Environment. They blindsided Grumbles by staging a sit-in resulting in seven of them being arrested for civil obedience. “People sacrificed their freedom for this movement. It was a very clear message that we were not going away.” Brilliantly grasping the power of persistence, Destiny continued, “We were just constantly bombarding MDE every day after that.”
Finally in March of 2016, the MDE upheld the law and announced that due to “lack of continuous construction” the building permit for the Energy Answers’s incinerator was “invalid.” It was the coup de grâce Destiny had been praying for. The titan had toppled. “The incinerator was defeated and I remember screaming and being really excited. It was
really awesome.” Destiny and her friends had gone up against an industrial giant and had come away triumphant. But there was one more honor Destiny never expected. Every year, the Goldman Environmental Foundation awards a prize to one grassroots environmental activist from each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands & Island Nations, North America, and South & Central America. The prize is often referred to as the “Green Nobel,” and the 2016 North American recipient had never even heard of it when she received the announcement at her home in Curtis Bay, Maryland. “At first, I thought somebody was pulling my leg,” she says, smiling.
Destiny gratefully accepted the award, but in her characteristically humble manner credited the achievement to all the people who had fought alongside her—virtually her entire community. The fight for a just cause often begins with one voice, and in this case, it was Destiny’s. At first, the odds seemed stacked against her, but she felt she had no other choice.
She won her fight, and the world—and particularly Curtis Bay—is a better place because of her. Destiny graduated from college with a degree in journalism. She believes her life’s work is to make sure voices that matter get heard.
About the Author:
Ione Butler is an actress, writer, podcast host, and the founder of Uplifting Content, a digital platform with a mission to uplift and empower people to make a positive impact. She was born and raised in West London by her English mother and Bahaman father. After training at The Brit School of Performing Arts and Rose Bruford College, she worked in film, hosted Google’s The Ingress Report, and eventually settled in Los Angeles to write her first book, Uplifting Stories which was published this year.
Uplifting Stories can be purchased here.
- Publisher: Tiller Press (September 22, 2020)
- Length: 272 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982138233