“You have to grow like an oak. You may not get there as fast but you last longer.”
– Omega Wilson, West End Revitalization Association
The roots of environmental justice run deep in the families of Omega and Brenda Wilson, founders of the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) in Alamance County, N.C. When Brenda was young, in the 1950s and ’60s, her grandfather was a block captain in North Philadelphia.
“We took care of that block we lived on, cleaned it, painted the sidewalk, put out flower pots, and planted trees,” Brenda said. “We wanted to let other parts of North Philly see that they could do the exact same thing we did. We learned how to take care of what we have and to help others.”
When Omega and Brenda decided to put down roots in Omega’s predominantly Black hometown of Mebane, they found a lack of proper sewers, unpaved roads, and similar infrastructure problems that neighbors said the city wouldn’t remediate. Then in 1994, the Wilsons discovered that a new, four-lane highway was going to be built right through their house. Not just through their house, of course. The highway would have cut through their neighborhood, churches with cornerstones laid right after the Civil War, and a cemetery filled with both enslaved and freed people and Native Americans. All of this would have to make way for the new road.
Omega and Brenda chose to fight back, forming the West End Revitalization Association (WERA). By filing a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, they held off that construction until 2016. When the N.C. Department of Transportation began building the highway, they followed the path WERA recommended — around their community instead of through it.
Here are three things that the Wilsons have learned in their fight for environmental justice:
The Wilsons, along with friends and neighbors, tried to get the City of Mebane and NCDOT officials to pay attention to their concerns for four years. Eventually, someone suggested filing a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, which held up funding the highway project until civil rights violations were mitigated.
“We approached the city on several occasions,” Omega recalled. “We tried to go to town meetings, we went down to the state legislature. They wouldn’t talk to us. They kind of shooed us out of the way. Others thought we should just have been quiet and gone and accepted the idea that the highway was coming through. But we couldn’t accept that because they were going to dig up the cemetery.”
The highway the Wilsons challenged just opened in May 2022, almost 30 years after it was first proposed. Still, Omega and Brenda fight on for their community. They’re getting dead-end roads opened, sewer lines installed for over 100 houses, and a greenway planned to unite Black and white communities divided by previous infrastructure barriers.
“So many of our friends and neighbors have passed away and did not get to see this level of progress,” Omega said. “Now the mayor, who was a city councilman at the time, said it was one of the best things that had ever happened to [him], that [our plan] was just common sense and that they should have listened to us 20 years ago.”
The Wilsons and WERA are dedicated to maintaining sustainable and historic Black communities through environmental protection, preservation, stabilization, and planned development. They share their environmental justice experience with people and organizations across the country like CleanAIRE NC.
The young people they counsel wonder how the Wilsons have been at this for so long (they both turned 73 in 2023). “One of the analogies my father would use, my grandfather would use is that you have to grow like an oak. You don’t grow like a pine,” Omega explained. “Pines snap in the winter and in the wind and storms. Oak trees grow longer and slower and they’re sturdier. You may not get there as fast but you last longer.”
And the Wilsons still aren’t done.
They are currently members of the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum, consulting with Congress on policy issues. They have advised the administrations of both President Obama and President Biden. They’re working on the disposal of medical waste following the COVID-19 pandemic, which (as is typical) tends to operate in predominantly Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities with little regulation. Recently, they worked with fellow NC BREATHE panelist Dr. Arlinda Ellison, of the Alamance County Health Department, to create the first county assessment of health disparities of people of color.
“Governor Roy Cooper saw our work and said he wanted this to be incorporated as a model for all health assessments for every county in the state of North Carolina,” Omega said.
Omega also has been invited to join fellow NC BREATHE panelists Ellison and Virginia Guidry to work on Gov. Cooper’s clean energy and environmental justice measures from Executive Order no. 246, which directed all state-level cabinet agencies to research and disseminate information about climate change and its impact on community health, specifically within communities of color.
“That’s where you fall out of that oak tree,” Omega said, laughing. “You have to hold on to the oak when something like that happens!”