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(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)

[A personal message shared to community members and SDCEA cohorts at their Biennial General Meeting]

Good Morning,

For those of you I have not yet met, my name is Lesley Chen-Young, and I am a third year student at Duke University in North Carolina. Through my school, I was blessed with the opportunity to live and learn for the past two months in Wentworth, most of which has occurred in the company of many here today. Prior to arriving, I researched the area extensively. With a background as an environmental science major, with a concentration in energy economics, I couldn’t wait to learn about the highly industrialized and still residential South Durban area from the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance.

What I neglected to realize, however, was that beyond policy, beyond technology, beyond urban planning and every other field of study or class I have taken, is people. People have always been, will always be, the motivation and the means. This is what I’ve learned at SDCEA.

The work of locally grown, still locally based, yet internationally recognized organizations is priceless.

As I corresponded with loved one’s back home, everyone was eager to hear how my anticipated work assignment was going. The first thing I told them was how this humble office felt like the mayor’s office. I had been warned about an office of about 5 employees, but on my first day, at least 30 people were in and out of that office. Over the following 8-weeks, I would begin to understand how SDCEA is a hub for the community, a true collaborating alliance.

I used to believe that my hometown was plagued with two evils – the first was the obsession with economic growth and development, and the second was the idea of temporary fixes. I didn’t realize that South Africa would host eerily similar problems, but one week into my internship, this became ever clear. My generation, as a product of past generations, is wholly vulnerable to the rapidly deteriorating state of the environment. This directly threatens the health of our own bodies, albeit our ecosystems, economic markets, and promise of future prosperity.

All of this is to say, that my experience working here at SDCEA has been extremely transformative. From witnessing work geared towards youth, educators, community members, and leaders, I can say with full confidence that the work of this organization is not only necessary, but it is shockingly robust. In my hometown, we would need about four well-run organizations to complete the work SDCEA does for the South Durban community.

And yet there is so much more to do. With the lurking possibility of the new port, Clairwood Racecourse, and nuclear energy developments, I know the work is far from being done to ensure that profits and political power don’t come before people. For this reason, I leave Wentworth in a few days with a heavy heart. But from the tireless efforts I’ve seen from every staff member, intern, foot soldier, neighborhood alliance, and friendly face in the office, I know that the spirit of the people, however marginalized and ignored, can never be silenced.

I congratulate SDCEA on another two years of amazing work, and I am so humbled to have witnessed two months of it. Thank you for welcoming me and teaching me so much more than I could have expected!