Erica Burman ’05: Putting a Passion for Social Justice into Action

Aaron Dalton '94
Since graduating from Shipley, Erica has worked in event production, fundraising, healthcare, and most recently as Marketing Manager for the Delaware County Historical Society. Through her work at the Historical Society, Erica has become an activist in the environmental justice movement.

Q: What is environmental justice all about?

Erica: Environmental justice is the equal and fair right for all people to a clean and healthy environment. It's also the movement to fight environmental racism, which is the disproportionate impact of air pollution on low-income minority communities that are often targeted as destinations for industrial polluting facilities. 

Q: How did you become active in the environmental justice movement? 

Erica: My dad’s side of the family lived in Chester, Pennsylvania for more than 100 years. In fact, we had a family pharmacy business in the city there for over 50 years. 

In 2018, I started working for the Delaware County Historical Society, which is based in Chester. Many people don’t realize, but Chester was the original landing place of William Penn, which makes it the birthplace of Pennsylvania. Chester was a thriving city in the early 20th century before systemic racism and corrupt politics transformed the city into a dumping ground for the region.

While working at the Historical Society, I found out that Chester is home to the nation’s largest trash incinerator. More than 80% of the trash produced in Delaware County is sent to Chester to be incinerated, but most of the 3,500 tons of trash burned daily at the incinerator actually comes from other places like New York City, Philadelphia, and New Jersey.

That’s when I connected with a group called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL), which is leading environmental justice efforts to fight trash incineration and other sources of pollution in Chester.

Q: Why is trash incineration in Chester an environmental justice issue?

Erica: Trash incinerators produce massive amounts of air pollution - greenhouse gases, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, particulate matter, hydrochloric acid, volatile organic compounds, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals. These pollutants have been linked to a variety of health problems.

In Chester, where the population is almost 70% African American and over 30% of people live in poverty, the rates of childhood asthma are five times higher than the national average. Chester residents also face higher rates of lung cancer and ovarian cancer than other Delaware County residents. 

Q: So is the goal to stop pollution in Chester from this incinerator?

Erica: The goal is to get the Chester incinerator shut down. CRCQL and our allies are urging the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority not to renew its contract with Covanta, the company that operates the Chester incinerator. 

We believe it would be much healthier for people and the environment in Delaware County to move away from incineration and dispose of trash in landfills instead. Ultimately, we need to reduce the amount of trash we create by adopting Zero Waste practices

In fact, we have been networking with a number of Delaware County municipalities on Zero Waste initiatives. This year, five municipalities including Media and Upper Darby have passed Zero Waste resolutions calling to end the county’s trash incineration. It’s encouraging to have leaders step up and say they want to commit to Zero Waste.

Q: What can the Shipley community do to get involved in the environmental justice movement?

Erica: Delaware County residents can visit CRCQL’s website and sign a petition to ‘ban the burn’ by transitioning from incineration to landfilling and Zero Waste. 

Wherever you live, you can educate yourself about Zero Waste principles and ask your local leaders how your trash is being managed. What does your recycling program look like? Can you get composting? For example, Media Borough just launched a free borough-wide composting program, which is really exciting. 

Q: How do you think that Shipley prepared you to be an environmental justice activist?

Erica: I definitely had a passion for social justice from a young age. When I was a student at Shipley, I was a member of a student group called Students United for Racial Equality (SURE). I made some of my closest friends through that group.

I often think about how the Shipley motto “Courage for the Deed; Grace for the Doing” applies when  facing really upsetting and deeply ingrained social issues. You have to be courageous enough to step up and want to do something about it, but you also have to be graceful in the way you go about it and be able to educate other people. 

Q: How do your environmental activities extend beyond your work with CRCQL?

Erica: Four years ago, I started working at an organic vegetable and flower farm in Newtown Square called Urban Roots Farm. It’s really fun! I often work their table at the Bryn Mawr Farmers Market on Saturday mornings right around the corner from Shipley. 

I see my work in environmental justice and farming as connected, because air and soil health are key for human survival. Communities like Chester not only face disproportionate burdens from pollution, but they are often food deserts, which exacerbates the health problems they face. I’d like to apply my knowledge in Chester City to work with others on converting abandoned lots into green educational spaces that teach youth how to grow food and restore soil health.

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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.