You would need hours to describe the Steve Wing story and what he has done to make a better world in his life. Over the last several years we have been presenting the John O. Blackburn Award to a number of activists who have been important in the social justice movement. The award is named for the former chancellor of Duke University who had also been chair of the economics department and who, after retirement, created a second career becoming a renewable energy expert. He came to us and spent the last five years of his life putting in huge amounts of volunteer time to help us as our technical advisor at NC WARN. He was a perfectly courageous academic who was willing to come out from behind the ivory towers and speak about policy issues. He was a humanitarian and truly led a life of service, just like Steve Wing. These are two of my favorite people – John Blackburn and Steve Wing.
Many of you know Steve as a foremost expert on radiation health effects and on the damage to people living near hog farms. He corrected the record on the Three-Mile Island disaster. He led the team at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1999 who published a correction of earlier industry-fueled claims that nobody was harmed by Three-Mile Island, nobody died, nobody even was hurt. Later they claimed there wasn’t even that much radiation that came out. But Steve corrected the record and he was attacked quite heavily by the nuclear industry for doing so.
Steve, along with being a top-of-the-field epidemiologist, is a wonderful human being. He’s a wonderful friend and father and a wonderful musician, too. I first met Steve in 1996 when he came out and helped speak out forcefully against allowing North Carolina to become a nuclear waste dumping ground. I think I recognize a few people in the audience who were probably there that day. He was really impressive then. We got to know each other and became friends from the very beginning, but one of the strongest lessons I got from Steve Wing was a question: when you’re dealing with noxious facilities and other impacts on community, who gets to decide?
In a fair world, in a socially just world, we would have better decision-making by far than what our society has developed. Steve is one in particular who made that a key theme of his career to really talk about the question of who gets to decide. Steve has stood up to the nuclear power industry time and time again on behalf of workers and communities. He has stood up to the hog industry in a major way and their corporate abuse of the people of this state and others. He’s done so for years. He stood up to pressure that came from within the university structure and he has stood up against the corporatizing of the university itself. More importantly, Steve has done this by standing with communities and with people and workers and families and for their healthy homes and safety and for fairness. Again, who gets to decide whether the hog industry continues to harm their neighbors?
We have a number of items from Steve at ncwarn.org. One of the more recent and more poignant, I think, is a presentation he did for us at the Friday Center a couple years ago about the Fukushima disaster. Steve went over to Fukushima and spent time and got to know people. Steve knows as well as anyone what the fallout impacts can be in communities that have had nuclear disasters occur, but Steve surprised a number of people and took what could be seen as a potentially controversial position when he courageously said that, yes, we have fallout problems and statistically we know that a number of people are going to be harmed here, but he stood up on behalf of the people in the communities and their connection to their ancestral homes and their culture and their reluctance to be required or even asked to move away from their roots. That was a position that I found really courageous and really epitomized the humanity of Steve Wing. Steve sent a message for today and I’ll just read it. He said:
I am honored by NC WARN’s award. It’s not about me; it’s about all of us working together. It has been a privilege to work with NC WARN over a long time on nuclear waste, fossil fuels, municipal waste and many other threats to our survival.
Many of you also know Steve as a cofounder and a long-time anchor of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and he was the primary author of a climate position paper by the EJ Network that was put out about a year or so ago. I wanted to read a brief excerpt from that:
We are not fighting for a new order that reduces greenhouse emissions but leaves other injustices in place. NCEJN especially opposes reducing greenhouse gases in ways that magnify existing environmental injustices…We recognize that environmental injustice itself is a driving force behind climate change: by polluting low-income communities instead of their own, the wealthy have less incentive to reduce pollution.
In the long struggle for a more just society, there is no one better to have on your side than Steve Wing.
For Steve, we need to keep learning how to work together amid enormous challenges. We have to exercise our courage, we have to demand justice on every single front and we have to stay at it.
The inscription on the award we are going to be taking to Steve is:
Honoring Dr. Steve Wing with the John O. Blackburn award to reflect his years of strong and persistent dedication to environmental, worker and community justice.
Steve has pointed out the way for us — the way of respect, integrity and courage. Our job is to build on the lessons from Steve Wing.