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Marybeth Gasman

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Paul Quinn College Students Proclaim "I Am Not Trash"

Posted: 10/14/11 03:21 PM ET

In 1968, roughly 1300 sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee marched to protest their civil rights and right to organize. While they marched, they wore striking, large signs that said "I AM A MAN" The Memphis workers are the inspiration for the current protest movement at Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas.

Upset with the city of Dallas's decision to expand a landfill in the Highland Hills/Paul Quinn College neighborhood, the students at the small, historically Black institution are pushing back and trying to educate the larger Dallas community. Students can't understand why the city is willing to expand the community landfill, yet no one will provide the same community with a grocery store. Paul Quinn College and its students are located in a food desert - so much so that the president of the institution, Michael Sorrell, turned an old football field into an organic urban farm in an effort to feed the local community (and teach the students entrepreneurial skills). Since the farm was established 18 months ago, it has produced over 3000 pounds of food, with 10% of that food being donated to needy families living in Highland Hills. Sorrell wants to use the farm as the foundation for a neighborhood grocery store.

In the activist tradition of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), over 80 students at Paul Quinn demonstrated outside city hall against the expansion of the landfill on September 21, 2011. And then on September 28, 2011, frustrated with the potential decision of the City Council, the Paul Quinn students, faculty, and staff members protested once again. This time they marched outside city hall until the City Council meeting began. The protestors stood up at the start of the meeting and remained standing for two hours until the meeting ended. While standing, the Paul Quinn students and staff wore "I AM NOT TRASH" t-shirts, harkening back to the historic "I AM A MAN" protest in Memphis. The Paul Quinn contingent came to the meeting to request that the city set up a citizen-led task force to consider the landfill issue. Yet, despite their efforts, and the bluntness of the t-shirts, the City Council voted 8-7 against the idea of a task force. Paul Quinn College's battle for access to fresh food and distance from trash continues.

It seems unconscionable for a city to abandon its citizens in certain areas of the city in terms of nutrition and health. Instead of foisting an expanded landfill on the poor areas of the city, Dallas should commit to empowering these residents economically and providing them with nutrition. Doing the right thing for people benefits the city as a whole by making it stronger and healthier.