MEA Honors Recipients of the 2020 Bill Iwen Environmental Justice Award
Event Celebrates Rafael Smith of Milwaukee and Philomena Kebec of Ashland
Madison, WI—Rafael Smith of Milwaukee and Philomena Kebec of Ashland have been recognized by MEA for their important contributions to Wisconsin’s environmental justice movement. Both Rafael and Philomena received the 2020 Bill Iwen Environmental Justice Award during an online celebration hosted by Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) on October 14th. Event attendees were joined by special guests, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes and environmental activist and author Winona LaDuke.
“We are so pleased to honor these two outstanding community leaders,” said MEA Executive Director Tony Wilkin Gibart. “They are leading by example and bringing about positive change in their communities by advocating for the rights of all people—regardless of race, income or zip code—to live in a clean and healthy environment.”
Rafael Smith is Climate and Equity Director at Citizen Action of Wisconsin where he focuses on the way climate change disproportionately impacts people of color on the north side of Milwaukee. Rafael is also a member of the Milwaukee City-County Task Force on Climate and Economic Equity.
Philomena Kebec is an attorney and policy analyst with Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) where she focuses on protection and implementation of reserved hunting, fishing and gathering rights. Philomena is a member of the Ashland County Board of Supervisors and an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Previous to her work with GLIFWC, she was a staff attorney with the Bad River Band during the yearslong battle to protect the Penokees from open pit mining.
Lieutenant Governor Barnes presented the award to Rafael Smith. He said, “I’ve known Rafael for a few years now. I’ve watched him work tirelessly for justice, as an organizer and a leader. Rafael’s organizing is motivated by his own experiences with injustice, and that’s part of why he’s such an effective advocate. People like Rafael will be the ones who lead us to a more just, equitable and sustainable world.”
During his remarks, Lieutenant Governor Barnes also highlighted the way that the current pandemic has exposed longstanding racial and economic injustices in Wisconsin. He emphasized that, “…while COVID-19 has changed the way that all of us live our lives and do our work, it hasn’t changed the need for us to fight for equity and sustainability, or the need for us to protect our environment. In fact, it’s only made all of these issues more of a priority as we continue to see how poor environmental conditions can contribute to the disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 in certain communities.”
Rafael Smith said after accepting the award, “I do [this work] out of a deep love and passion for my community. Whatever I am, I’m a product of Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood here on Milwaukee’s north side. I am the second oldest of seven to a single mother who I watched walk to work every day just to make it to a bus stop by seven o’clock every morning with other working class black folks. And that inspired me to do the work I do today.”
Rafael also thanked Citizen Action of Wisconsin and talked about his work to form an organizing cooperative to build power on the north side of Milwaukee and to address issues around climate and environmental justice. “It’s a space that for a long time has left out black and brown people of color,” he said, “and it’s just great to have the opportunity to build power around those issues.”
Winona LaDuke introduced Philomena Kebec by noting that, “…ever since Philomena has been out of college, she has been on the front lines of the legal battles of our tribes in the Northern Country to protect our treaty rights and to protect our water. She has worked tirelessly for our communities, with great love and with great attention to all of the details of our culture and our way of life.”
In accepting her award, Philomena Kebec said, “I came home to Bad River about nine years ago, and that was because of the Penokee mine fight that we were all dealing with. One of my first meetings [as an attorney] at Bad River was with attorneys from Midwest Environmental Advocates. They’re with us. They’ve been with us all the way.” She went on to add, “When I came home, I finally felt like I belonged because, wherever I go in this community, there are people who are strong advocates, and they speak for Ma’iingan (Ojibwe for wolf), and they speak for the water, and they speak for the land, and they speak for the future.”
A photo of Philomena Kebec is available here.
A photo of Rafael Smith is available here.
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