Sharon Lavigne, the founder and director of the ecojustice nonprofit RISE St. James, has been awarded the Alfredo Sirkis Memorial Green Ring Award by former vice president Al Gore and the Climate Reality Project.
The honor was presented during the inaugural iteration of “Power Up: A Climate Reality Training on Advocacy” in Houston, Texas on Friday, October 28.
Founded by Gore following his catapult to environmental fame with the 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Climate Reality Project bestows the Green Ring Award on exemplary environmental leaders as the organization’s highest honor. The award was renamed in honor of Brazilian eco-activist and journalist Alfredo Sirkis in 2020, following his death in a car accident.
Lavigne is the second notable Catholic recipient of the award in recent years, following the Filipino religious brother Jaazeal Jakosalem, OAR in 2016.
“Sharon is a model of what it means to be a Climate Reality Leader,” said Phyllis Cuttino, president, and CEO of The Climate Reality Project.
“[She] has been a vital voice in her community and across the country, pushing back against the powerful petrochemical industry and protecting the health and wellbeing of her neighbors.”
The 72-year-old retired schoolteacher has been an outspoken opponent of governmental and corporate mismanagement in what is known as “Cancer Alley”, a stretch of predominantly Black civil parishes in Louisiana lined with petrochemical factories producing manifestly carcinogenic fumes.
A Black Catholic, she founded RISE as a faith-based nonprofit in 2018 to combat the construction of new chemical plants in and around her native St. James Parish. Its efforts have resulted in the halting of a number of new projects in the area, including in September when a district judge ruled in favor of RISE and other plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit against the Taiwanese firm Formosa Plastics.
The new honor for Lavigne from Climate Reality Project is one of several awards received by the activist in the past year-plus, including the internationally-recognized Goldman Environmental Prize and the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal. She was also named in 2021 to Forbes’ “50 Over 50” list.
Lavigne has also partnered with Louisiana activists in a number of high-profile public protests in the South and elsewhere, including last month in Washington, DC. On October 25, advocates called on President Joe Biden to meet with Lavigne and declare a state of emergency in Cancer Alley.
“As a fellow devout Catholic and grandparent, I am making a personal plea to you, President Biden. Please save us,” she said following a traditional “second line” funeral march to the White House, with participants carrying memorials to victims of the pollution in Louisiana.
“Declare a climate emergency, halt the petrochemical build-out in the Gulf South, and help our children and grandchildren to live long, healthy lives.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).