In 2013, Destiny Watford could never have imagined that she’d someday receive one of the world’s largest and most prestigious awards for environmental activism. Then 17, Watford was a high-school student living in Curtis Bay, a highly industrialized waterfront area south of Baltimore.
When she learned of plans to build the country’s largest trash-burning incinerator in her neighborhood, Watford took action. She co-founded Free Your Voice, an activist group composed of fellow students (now part of United Workers, a human rights organization).
With the help of other students and neighbors, Free Your Voice kept the incinerator out of Curtis Bay. Now a 21-year-old rising senior at Towson University, Watford is the recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest award honoring grassroots environmental activists. The $175,000 award, presented in April, is given to one person per continent. In May, Time magazine recognized Watford as a Next Generation Leader.
The Towson University English and mass communication major has no plans to slow down, although she took time to respond to a few questions from TU’s Gay Pinder.
WhenEnergy Answers International announced plans to build the trash-burning incinerator in Curtis Bay, what made you decide to fight?
Free Your Voice fought the incinerator because our families live here, our friends. We go to school here. We love the community. The incinerator would have burned 4,000 tons of trash every day. It was permitted to release 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead every year. Curtis Bay residents are more likely to die of lung cancer, respiratory disease, and to suffer from asthma. Stopping the incinerator was a matter of survival.
What surprised you most about the community’s response to your work?
The most shocking moment I experienced was the pushback. The incinerator would have provided 1,300 temporary construction jobs and created 200 permanent jobs. It was also deemed a renewable energy site. Residents in favor of the incinerator were few, but they did exist.
When you began your campaign, could you have imagined that your work would have attracted so much attention?
Absolutely not. Funny story: When we started our fight to stop the incinerator, we didn’t expect to win. Of course we wanted to, and we tried as hard as we possibly could to make sure that the incinerator would not be built, but we were expecting to lose. We thought, “We’re just a bunch of teenagers—what can we do?” But we thought that if we did fail, we could use our failure as evidence that the system is not working. We knew that there had to be a shift in vision and perspective to create real change, and to our surprise, we didn’t have to fail to do that. By winning, we showed our community, city, and the world that we have potential to create the kind of difference that changes the game completely.
How did you react to winning the Goldman Environmental Prize?
I was shocked and honored. The Goldman Prize is a huge award that highlights and connects our struggle with injustices across the globe. The important thing to point out is that I (on behalf of Free Your Voice and the Curtis Bay community) did not win the prize because the Goldman Prize Foundation people are nice. We won because Curtis Bay faces major, deeply rooted injustices that we have only just begun to unravel.
Time magazine said you are a Next Generation Leader. What does that mean to you?
It’s an honor I wish I could share with the all of the leaders in the Free Your Voice group and community.
This current model of development is failing us and our city. Free Your Voice and United Workers will concentrate our efforts on fair development. We are pushing for community land trusts. We recognized early on in the campaign that it wouldn’t be enough to just stop the incinerator. The incinerator was not the first development of its kind, and it will not be the last. We must change the way that development happens in our city. We can bring positive alternatives, community-owned alternatives to Curtis Bay, reshaping it from a “dumping ground” to a model for the right path forward.
How do you balance your activism with your TU course work and other aspects of your life?
It’s hard. I’m still trying to figure it out. My family and friends are very supportive of the work that I do. They understand that it’s important and demanding.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself?
I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to really struggle through our campaign and grapple with the injustices that we live with. In the end, they have helped shape me and other leaders in the group.