Dancers rouse audiences to fight environmental racism

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Ananya Chatterjea is looking for a response. When her dance company performs at the Southern Theater this week, Ananya hopes their show, Daak: Call to Action, will, in fact, motivate its audience to take action.

Ananya Dance Theatre, a community of women artists of color who focus on building community and creating social change through the dialogue of dance, intends to address local concerns as well as global issues. The issue in question, environmental racism, includes uprooting people from their homes, says Ananya, as well as capricious enforcement of environmental rules and regulations that negatively impact minority communities.

Congressman Keith Ellison suggests that our first response might be awareness. On the heels of our raised consciousness, Ellison says we need to “support the Superfund taxes to clean up these toxic waste dumps.”

Ellison is a founder of Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota, which “advocates for fair treatment and meaningful involvement of communities of color and low-income communities in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulation, and policies for the purpose of eliminating minority health disparities.”

Earth-consciousness isn’t something new or spawned from recent debate on global warming. Dr. Robert Bullard, professor of sociology and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, states in a July/August 2007 article for The Crisis, “Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis in 1968 on an environmental and economic justice mission for Black garbage workers on strike,” reminding us that racial inequalities in environmental issues go back decades, and probably centuries.

However, current thinking points more toward environmental inequalities stemming from factors other than race alone. ScienceDaily (June 9, 2008) reports on a study conducted by Assistant Professor Liam Downey, University of Colorado at Boulder. Downey found that “although the average black or Hispanic resident of a major U.S. city lives in a more polluted part of town than the average white person, the levels of inequality vary widely between cities and defy simple explanation.”

Ellison concurs: “I think some companies that are polluters think, ‘Which communities will the easiest for us to dump waste in and get away with it?'” He continues with a list of other factors that play into which location or community falls victim to environmental pollution: “Which communities have the least economic and political power? Which communities are the most isolated? Which communities have the fewer friends in high places?

“I don’t think it’s a matter of people [or companies] intentionally trying to poison low-income [people] or communities of color,” Ellison says.

While Daak: Call to Action focuses especially on the people of West Bengal, India and Mexico, Ananya, the artistic director of Ananya Dance Theater, realizes that environmental racism occurs throughout the world. Her work, which addresses the diasporas of communities abroad, also touches, if only tangentially, on issues right here in Minnesota.

Of particular concern to Ananya, the director of graduate studies in the dance department at the University of Minnesota, are the communities of Leech Lake and the Lower Sioux Reservation.

This dance attempts to “figuratively rewrite history with the idea that the only way to move on and make good, make better, is to address what’s happened in the past,” says Erinn Leibhard, the dance company’s public relations coordinator. Land rights violations both here and worldwide are the crux of Ananya’s message.

Leibhard suggests that on the surface an audience member might not recognize the message; however, because Ananya’s dance troupe is one of the largest in the Twin Cities, this unique quality allows her to present her message more forcefully.

“I don’t think there’s any solid indication that will tell you what the performance is about,” says Liebhard. “It’s all pretty much metaphoric, as is most dance.” But through the movement of a large group of dancers –in this case, nearly 20 individuals –the idea of displacement, that is, land rights violations, can emerge.

Since dance is such a malleable art form, says Leibhard, “Everybody will walk away with a little bit different of a feeling and idea.” But because of dance’s visceral nature, the resulting impact –that of rousing the audience to take action, to make a difference in the world –becomes an attainable goal to Ananya.

Ananya Dance Theatre performs Daak: Call to Action June 12-14 at 8 pm and June 15 at 7 pm (with post-show discussions June 13 and 14) at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls. For reservations, call Southern Box Office at 612-340-1725.

Susan Budig welcomes reader responses to tomandsusan@juno.com.