Season 2, Episode 2: “Uncovering” – Maggie Wang reflects on silence, noise pollution, disability, and empty climate promises. Jasmine Hardy reports on the environmental racism poisoning Oakland public schools.


Storyteller Maggie Wang reflects on silence, noise pollution, disability, and empty climate promises. Then, storyteller Jasmine Hardy reports on the environmental racism poisoning Oakland public schools.

About the Storytellers: Maggie Wang is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. Her recent writing appears in Harvard Review, Poetry Wales, and bath magg. She is a Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic, a Barbican Young Poet, and the reviews editor at SUSPECT, the journal of NYC-based literary nonprofit Singapore Unbound. Her debut poetry pamphlet, The Sun on the Tip of a Snail's Shell, was published by Hazel Press in September 2022.

Jasmine Hardy is a writer, adventurer, and overall curious person. She graduated from Howard University in 2019; since then she has traveled the world, taught English in South Korea, and continued to pursue her passion for storytelling through words and audio. Her work mostly focuses on race and culture and can be seen in a number of publications, including The Bold Italic, The Tempest, and Essence magazine. You can also find her work and some of her creative writing on her website, and follow her on Instagram @ jasminexhardy and Twitter @ jasminehardy__.

Inherited is a production of YR Media and Critical Frequency. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @inheritedpod. You can reach us at inheritedpod@gmail.com.

Episode Transcript

Georgia: Welcome back to Inherited. It’s me, Georgia. I’m standing in my backyard, listening. 

The insects are really loud tonight. But I love how they hum. Now, it’s time for us all – me, and the bugs, and you – to listen to a story together. Here’s The Remains of Silence, by storyteller Maggie Wang. 

[jackhammering, beeping, street noise growing to a deafening crescendo]

Maggie: The first time I noticed noise pollution was during a hike along the Appalachian trail. Coming down from the mountain, I suddenly realized that some of the only things I could hear were the birds, and the wind in the trees, and occasionally a bee or another insect flying past, or a creek tumbling over the rocks. 

[cars whizzing by] 

But as I kept going, after a while, I noticed a new sound: cars passing on the highway. We were miles away from it, but you could hear the tires screeching and the engines turning. And I realized that I had escaped that sound only at the top of the mountain. And I felt a profound sadness at coming down, and leaving, and going back to the loudness of my other life.

[train pulling into station, muffled announcement in British accent]

Train Announcer: Ione Fine is a psychologist whose research focuses on human visual processing and the effects of long term visual deprivation. 

Ione Fine: So the movement of the air vibrates this membrane, the vibration of the membrane bends these little cells that kind of wave back and forwards. You could imagine kind of like little tiny grasses being pushed back and forth by the waves, if you wanted to kind of be imaginative about it. And those little cells moving back and forth send these electrical signals to the brain. 

[zapping noises]

Ione Fine: And the brain interprets these electrical signals and essentially makes a guess about what happened in the world, what sound event happened in the world, to produce that particular collection of electrical signals.

Ione Fine: What we're seeing in teenagers and young adults is we see people who are 30 who essentially have the hearing of 60 year olds. So what they've got is kind of prematurely aged hearing. And so, and that’s what makes us confident that we're gonna see this epidemic in later life. 

[voices talking electronically, imperceptibly.] 

Maggie: Because I’m visually impaired, I rely on my hearing to navigate the world. Sometimes I think I can hear really well. I can differentiate the types of vehicles on a road, and I can hear faint noises in the distance. But in a loud room it's sometimes hard for me to separate one voice from another, and I often find myself asking people to repeat themselves when they talk. 

[voices grow and burble over one another]

Train Announcer: Kurt Fristrup spent many years working in the natural sounds and night skies division at the United States National park service. 

Kurt Fristrup: Noise has two costs. One is the cost of an animal or a person hearing the sound and reacting to that sound in some adverse way, either an animal feeling that it might signify a threat or a person feeling a bit irritated or annoyed by the sound.

[birds twitter]

Maggie: The second cost of noise may be even more profound, which is that loud noises block out our ability to hear other, more subtle sounds.

[jackhammer slowly overrides it]

Maggie: What things am I not hearing that I should be hearing? I mean not just in conversation, where I question my ability to listen actively, but also in my everyday life. 

Right now, the building next to my apartment is a power plant. And it's pretty quiet inside, but when I go outside, I'm flooded with the noise of turbines. I don't know what, if anything, can endure that—the birds or deer or whatever used to live here. 

Train Announcer:  Eric Leonardson is a composer and a pioneer in a field of acoustic ecology, which he defines simply as the art of listening. 

Eric Leonardson: If you think back, why did musicians find it necessary or attractive to amplify their instruments? Was it because the other sounds around them were too loud and they—people couldn't hear their instruments well enough? Amplification would enable them to be heard over the—the noise, you might say, but what happens? It just doesn't make you louder. It transforms the kind of music you make. Because it just doesn't get louder, it affects the space, and it affects people's bodies differently.

[climate politicians begin to talk over one another – until Greta Thunberg says bla bla bla]

Maggie: The first time I managed to escape noise pollution in England was at Blenheim Palace, the estate of the Dukes of Marlborough, one of Britain’s best-known aristocratic families. The estate consists of 2000 acres of parkland and a further 10,000 acres of land, much of which is rented out to individual tenants. 

[sounds of footprints]

Maggie: The palace and the park around it are grand, but I was constantly reminded of how they exemplify an unequal and exploitative tradition of property ownership. As I wandered around, it became clear to me that control over space was crucial to the preservation of undisturbed natural sound, and that access to this undisturbed natural sound was similarly precarious and exclusionary.

Train Announcer: Joan Casey is an environmental epidemiologist who studies the relationship between socioeconomic status and environmental quality. 

Joan Casey: The quietest communities were actually communities with a median income around $50,000 a year. I think that these really high-income communities are often located in desirable downtown areas that have sources of noise pollution around them. But those same higher income groups live in homes that are really noise proof, have triple-paned windows…

Maggie: The whole time on the estate I worried that something would break the silence—another person approaching, a vehicle, an airplane. Eventually, an airplane did break the silence, proving that even in the idyllic English countryside, on this immense estate, natural sound, unadulterated by the whirring and whining of manmade machines, was rare, and transient. 

Maggie: In her book on the role of music in the criminal justice system, the musicologist Lily Hirsch points out that sound is often used to claim space and control territory. By playing certain unwanted sounds, people can exclude others from spaces that would normally be open and public. Yet, there are ways to resist the weaponization of sound.

[voice says “you have the right to remain silent.” It repeats, overlapping.]

Train Announcer: Kurt Fristrup spent many years working in the natural sounds and night skies division at the United States National park service. 

Kurt Fristrup: It turns out that the quality of the soundscape affects how people rate the scenery in natural parks. In a really beautiful soundscape, people rate the scenery as spectacular. If you start injecting noise into that soundscape, the ratings of scenic quality go down. Vision is not completely isolated from hearing, or from smell, or from touch. These things are linked together. And presumably, if a national park really smelled bad, people would judge the scenery poorly.

Maggie: Just as some sounds have the ability to harm, and to disrupt our experience of the world around us, other types of sound have the potential to heal.  

Kurt Fristrup: People who are stressed, or are ill, or recovering from surgery, actually recover more quickly in the presence of natural sounds than they do in an otherwise silent environment.

Maggie: Removing artificial noise will allow us to reap the benefits of natural sound and alleviate the effects of climate change.

Fristrup: Once you remove the source or make it quieter, you get an immediate improvement in environmental conditions. And we know that both light and noise have substantial effects on wildlife and on human experience. Noise and light give you opportunities to relatively inexpensively and relatively quickly improve environmental conditions for a wide range of organisms. And in the context of seemingly inexorable problems like climate change, noise and light management may offer us some of the most effective tools in long term improvement in ecological resilience. 

Maggie: Fristrup means this in a literal sense, but it’s true in a metaphorical sense as well. If we let the turbines rest, shut off our car engines, and sit down, listen to one another and to the natural sounds around us, maybe that first step will open the door to even more monumental change.

[Crescendo of street noises begins again, escalating. Then a window slams shut and it stops, sharply. Birdsong.]  

Georgia: Maggie Wang is a writer, a poet, and a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. Her debut poetry pamphlet, The Sun on the Tip of a Snail's Shell, was published by Hazel Press in September 2022. 

Up next, we’ve got a story about another invisible, yet deadly force. You’ll learn what it is… after the break. 

[midroll break] 

Georgia: Ok. We’re gonna dive right in. This next piece is called Oakland’s Invisible War, and it’s brought to you by storyteller Jasmine Hardy. 

Jasmine: Contaminated water, polluted air, food deserts. All dangerous symptoms of a gravely ill planet. But, like most deadly disasters in the U.S, certain communities are hit first, and unfortunately, the hardest.

CLIP: [Newscaster, “Is what happened in Flint, is that environmental racism, in your opinion? Absolutely. ]

Jasmine: Environmental racism. It’s an issue that everyone’s witnessed, even if they weren’t always able to put a name to it. Perhaps the most publicized example of environmental racism in America is the Flint water crisis.

CLIP: [Newscaster, “It’s a public health crisis of massive proportions. Lead, in the water supply in Flint, Michigan. People breaking out in rashes, losing hair.”] 

CLIP: [Obama, “Our children should not have to be worried about the water that they’re drinking in American cities.”]

Jasmine: But chemical contamination isn’t just an issue in Flint. It’s a barrier that minority communities all over the U.S have been facing for decades. 

Let me take you to a city over two thousand miles from Flint, Michigan. Oakland, California. My hometown. 

Here, in Oakland, injustice is nothing new. And neither is the activism that inevitably follows. While ending the open violence against Black and brown bodies has been a priority for many young people, minority students here in Oakland are also joining the fight against a more covert attack on their lives. This is a fight for environmental justice. 

Sheila Matias: Hi, my name is Sheila Matias, I am a Frontline Catalyst leader. 

Sheila (podcast excerpt): Environmental racism, canaries in the coal mines. Black and Brown youth living on the frontlines. The Western value system builds on extraction and wealth, Indigenous people focus on Mother Nature and environmental health… [untranslated Spanish] If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. We are building a better tomorrow. Next generations can become the best generations because our decisions affect the next 7 generations. 

Jasmine: 12-year old Sheila Matias attends United for Success Academy, a middle school located in the Fruitvale district. Fruitvale is an area I know well. Not only did my father teach in this district for nearly a decade, but Sheila’s school also happens to only be about two and half miles from my old high school. 

The difference is that my old school sits on top of a hill and is located in a predominantly white neighborhood called the Oakland Hills. With newer homes that no longer use lead paint, the Oakland Hills are largely unaffected by lead contamination. Less than a 5 minute drive away in the Fruitvale district, the population is predominantly Hispanic and Black. 

In a 2012 study, Fruitvale led the city when it came to the number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood. While the issue has improved since then, the environmental disparities between communities of color and white communities feels unfair to young students like Sheila.

Sheila: I feel offended that they’re not taking a chance to help us, that we’re a different skin color. I identify myself as an Indigenous person. And I feel – I just feel offended that they don’t care about our lives. 

Jasmine: Sheila is just one of many youth leaders in the climate justice program, Frontline Catalysts. After learning about the hazardous pollution that disproportionately affects people of color, Sheila and several other students in the program tested the soil at their school, as well as the soil in their own homes. 

Sheila: And we talked about lead and they said there’s this lead contamination in soil since a long time ago and nobody has done nothing about it, so what if we do a scientific experiment, you know, learn more about it. We got samples of the soil that people collected from their homes. I collected soil from my home.

Jasmine: What they found were lead levels of up to 997 parts per million, or ppm, at their school and up to 728 ppm in their homes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, soil lead levels of 400ppm or higher are dangerous for children.

A few weeks after lead was detected in the soil outside their home, Sheila’s family tested her baby sister and found elevated levels in her blood.

Sheila: I was confused. I was disappointed. And I was like okay why does she have this or, we take care of her, but why don’t people realize that this is harming for kids? 

Jasmine: Lead poisoning in children has been known to impact learning and brain development, and in more serious cases, it can lead to seizures or death. Children under 6 years old are the most vulnerable. Sheila’s sister is only 2. The result of her little sister’s blood test was the catalyst for her fighting even harder for environmental justice, and encouraging her peers to join the fight.

Sheila: That’s when I really thought to myself, ‘Well, if this is affecting my sister, I wonder how it affected other people’s siblings, and so since we started to do the town hall, I decided we had to do something about it and speak for the people, and even though I was shy or scared, I had to do it for those families, those kids, and for my sister. 

Jasmine: The town hall you just heard Sheila mention was organized by United for Success Academy students and held earlier this year. They presented their findings, spread awareness about lead in the community, and encouraged the audience to test their own soil. They also wrote a list of demands, titled “Fruitvale Bill of Rights”. The demands were simple–clean air, clean water, clean play areas. Essentially, a clean environment. And for Sheila, this is only the beginning.

Sheila: Any programs or organizations out there, let’s get together, let’s get our voices together, and save our future and the seven generations. 

Jasmine: On the opposite side of the city to the Fruitvale District is West Oakland. Historically, it’s a primarily Black neighborhood, although recent gentrification is changing that. As I mentioned earlier, a 2012 study found Fruitvale to be the area with the highest percent of children with elevated lead levels, with 7.57 percent. Well, let’s just say West Oakland wasn’t too far behind, with a percentage of 7.11 percent

It’s another part of the city that I’m pretty familiar with. I remember playing with my cousins at my grandma’s house on 16th street and walking to the corner store to get snacks to eat at the park. It’s also an area bound by freeways and surrounded by heavy industry, and so is filled with toxic pollutants. Yet, as a child, I had no idea my family and I were breathing in poison every time we walked out the door. Luckily, young minority students are making efforts to inform our communities and equipping us with the tools needed to help make a change.

Kiah Killens: So, the first week, we just went around West Oakland, probably for like a whole hour we just went around each block and dug up soil. 

Jasmine: You just heard the voice of Kiah Killens, a student activist currently doing environmental justice work with East Bay Academy for Young Scientists, or EBAYS for short. EBAYS does this kind of work all over the Bay Area, but currently Kiah and the program are focused on West Oakland.

Kiah: Some people came outside and we told them what we were doing and it was a lot of support, which was great because sometimes people are looking at you like ‘Why the hell are you digging in my yard or who are y’all anyway?’ You know? But, it’s like, they were happy, like thank you guys for actually investing into us; thank you guys for doing something that’s informative to the community where we can actually get insight into what’s going on because we live here, we don’t know about lead levels. 

Jasmine: Here’s a quick history lesson about West Oakland. In the early 20th century, West Oakland was zoned for heavy industry. Then, during the Great Migration, Black Americans were forced into seclusion in this polluted area of Oakland, due to racist policies such as redlining and zoning. My own family was a part of that migration, traveling all the way from Louisiana and then being sequestered into West Oakland. 100 years later, this community is still suffering from the aftermath of discriminatory systems and policies.

Kiah: I feel like if you grew up in Oakland in a first generation family..I grew up in a two parent household, but my parents were very young when they had us, so we were raised with them. So everybody goes through that period where they live in the hood or low income so I feel like those are primary areas where it’s horrible air quality, you’re probably next to a freeway, you’re in a food desert, you know? You probably got some exposure to mold or some type of contamination like that, so it’s like, I know somewhere in my childhood experience, I’ve been exposed to, you know, hazards like that because of, unfortunately, where I had to grow up. 

Kiah: You don’t think about that as a kid. You think the way you live is the same way everyone else lives. You don’t know that living next to a freeway can literally take 10 years off your life, just living next to the freeway, you know? So, just imagine everything else that goes into play–your tap water, everything you know. It’s just a lose-lose, it’s kind of like, how do you escape it? You know, until you’re aware of it, how do you escape it?

Jasmine: Unfortunately, the path to change is that much more difficult when you’re in the dark. At one school, in particular, the community has been denied information for over a decade when it comes to chemical contamination. In the heart of West Oakland, lies McClymond’s high school, also known as Mack. If you’re from Oakland, you probably know someone who’s gone here. I have family who are alumni and it’s another school my dad taught at. I even have a cousin who attends the school currently. Mack has been in the public eye a few times in the past—namely, for winning back to back state championships in football. In early 2020, right before COVID hit, Mack’s name was included in news reports for a far less joyful reason. A cancer-causing chemical called TCE was found in the groundwater. Shortly after, the school was shut down and students were displaced in neighboring schools. 

Isaiah Smiley: And I found out from a notification that our school was getting shut down because of groundwater. It was kind of funny at first, because all my teammates, we all thought our heads were hurting because we were hitting each other in practice, you know. So it was kind of funny thinking our heads were hurting because of that when it was actually because when the water evaporated, the chemicals and all that. We inhale it and it gets into our systems and messes up our heads, so finding that out was crazy. Really found it out through an email. 

Jasmine: That was Isaiah Smiley. He just graduated from Mack in 2022. He actually transferred there in 2020, drawn to the school because of its impressive engineering program, as well as the top-tier football team. So, when he heard the news that his studies and athletic season would be interrupted because of a contamination scare, he was shocked to say the least. But, as Isaiah quickly learned, this wasn’t the first time Mack had issues with chemical contamination.

Isaiah: Honestly, the first time I heard about it was in football practice. There was this water fountain that nobody wanted to drink out of and I was wondering why. And they were talking about lead, people were making jokes, I was wondering why the showers weren’t working. And all my teammates, especially the upperclassmen were just making jokes about the lead in the water that they had previously, how no one drinks it, no one uses it.

Jasmine: Back in 2008, students tested the area surrounding the school for lead and found unsafe levels. Then, in 2016, the district did their own test, discovering .034 ppm of lead in the boys locker room showers, .0097 ppm in a water fountain behind the bleachers, and .0074 ppm in the girls locker room water fountain. The EPA has determined that the safe level of lead in water is zero.

Jasmine: In minority communities, schools often have far less resources compared to schools in white neighborhoods. Concerns over lead on the playground or chemicals in the locker room showers is yet another barrier Black and brown students are forced to overcome while simply trying to learn. As Kiah said earlier, simply living in our own skin often feels like a lose-lose situation. The entire world is going to war for the safety of this planet. But young, minority students like Sheila, Kiah, and Isaiah are all at the frontlines, whether it was their choice or not. As a young Black student in Oakland, I was also on the frontlines of this war, even though I had no clue it existed. Years later, my voice joins theirs. We are the voices of the next seven generations, and though we are often the same ones that are purposely silenced, with each day, we grow louder and louder and louder. 

CLIP: [Frontline Catalysts activists chant “Si se puede! Si se puede! Si se puede! Si se puede!”]


Georgia: Jasmine Hardy is a writer, adventurer, and overall curious person. Her work can be found in The Bold Italic, The Tempest, and Essence magazine. You can learn more about Jasmine on her website, jasmine dash hardy dot com.  

Inherited is brought to you by YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation. We’re distributed by Critical Frequency, a women-run podcast network founded by journalists. 

The Remains of Silence featured the reporting, writing, hosting, and some sound design from storyteller Maggie Wang.

Oakland’s Invisible War featured the reporting, writing, and hosting of storyteller Jasmine Hardy. 

Our co-creators and senior producers are Jules Bradley, who sound designed the first segment you heard today, and Georgia Wright, who sound designed the second. Our Executive Producer is Amy Westervelt, and our sound engineer is James Riley. Our Director of Podcasting is Ray Archie, and our interns are Ichtaca Lira and Chaitanya Dendekar. 

Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR: Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, Noah Holt, Jacob Armenta, Chaz Whitley, Michael Diaz, and Sean Luciano Galarza. 

Music direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler. 

Additional music by Eric Leonardson. 

Art for this episode created by YR’s Ariam Michael. Art direction by Brigido Bautista and Marjerrie Masicat.  Special thanks to Nicola Dones, Susan Pham, Kevin Cuff, Annette Miller, Colleen Sutherland, Arjun Krishnan, Talia Augustidius, Rebecca Martin, and Kyra Kyles. 

If you like our show, please throw us a rating or maybe even a review on the Apple Podcast app. It honestly helps us so much. You can also follow us on Instagram and Twitter @inheritedpod. 

If you want to learn more about our show and this season’s cohort of storytellers, head to our website at yr.media/inherited. See ya next week!

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