Omega and Brenda Wilson co-founded the West End Revitalization Association in 1994; since then, the community group has been a pillar of strength and hope in the Mebane community.
WERA was founded in part to combat the 119-Bypass/Interstate highway project, which was planned to run right through predominantly low-income and minority areas in Alamance County and would have destroyed several neighborhoods as well as a local cemetery and historic church. However, Mr. Wilson, who was born and raised in the area, is careful to point out that the highway project was not the sole reason for the formation of WERA. WERA was formed in response to decades of being denied access to basic infrastructure including but not limited to paved roads and sidewalks, sewage treatment, and safe drinking water.
“When this city built this first sewage treatment plant it was in 1920-21, and you have houses that are only a block or two away… but 80 years later, you have never been able to tap into it… We were put right beside the trash pile, the garbage, and human sewage.” This led the community group to realize that they were fighting an issue bigger than just Environmental Justice. According to Mr. Wilson,“What we were addressing, we did not call it Environmental Justice. We took the slogan of ‘seeking the right to basic amenities’… which is much more comprehensive.” The amenities listed above are covered in local and state taxes. By denying this community the access to that infrastructure, the government was violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Mr. Wilson emphasizes that the Civil Rights Act is not only meant to prevent discrimination based on race, but on other factors such as nation of origin. “It’s not just about people of color, it’s much bigger than that.”
Shortly after WERA became a 501(c) in the fall of 1995, they began to seek grant funds in order to make improvements in their community, such as safe drinking water tap-ons, sewer line collection, and paved residential streets and sidewalks. They became one of the first small community groups to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, and after several years and several more complaints filed, the highway project was postponed and eventually the path of the highway was changed to avoid impacting the West End community.
Today, Mr. Wilson is continuing to work on obtaining grants for new infrastructure, specifically in White Level, which is an area in Alamance county that is predominantly African-American, Latino, and historic indigenous population. Many of these communities have still not gotten sewer lines, even though the county has paid for those lines to be installed in newer predominantly white subdivisions. Maintaining and improving existing infrastructure is also incredibly important. “Infrastructure is like the vessels and arteries in your body – they always have to be maintained in order to have a certain level of public health.”
Mr. Wilson has also served on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council for the EPA to highlight not only the infrastructure issues and disparities in Mebane but also in other regions of the South as well. “We were one of the smallest groups from one of the smallest cities in the country at the table doing testimony and receiving testimony.” Additionally, WERA has given input on environmental justice bills written by former presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker, as well as on new bills relating to how COVID-19 hazardous and medical waste is or is not regulated by the federal government.
Overall, one of the things Mr. Wilson is most proud of are the collaborative partnerships WERA has developed. “A lot of people, when we started filing complaints, saw what we were doing as black against white – that’s not what we’re doing. It’s wrong against right.”
For more information about Mr. Wilson’s work with WERA, you can go to their website at https://www.wera-nc.org/.