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Cancer Alley activist Sharon Lavigne to receive Laetare Medal

In May, the nation's best-known Black Catholic activist will receive the highest honor awarded to US Catholics, the latest honor for her advocacy against environmental racism.

(University of Notre Dame)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For the second year in a row, and the third time in the last four years, the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal—the highest honor for American Catholics—will go to an African American.

Sharon Lavigne, the founder and director of RISE St. James, a faith-based environmental nonprofit in southeast Louisiana, will receive the award during the school’s commencement on Sunday, May 15th.

The news was announced yesterday, Laetare Sunday, and was accompanied by a feature video and longform profile.

“Through her tireless activism, Sharon Lavigne has heeded God’s call to advocate for the health of her community and the planet—and to help put an end to environmental degradation which so often disproportionately victimizes communities of color,” said Notre Dame president Fr John I. Jenkins, CSC in a press release.

“In awarding her the Laetare Medal, Notre Dame recognizes her leadership and her courage as a champion of the environment, a voice for the marginalized and a steadfast servant of our creator.”

The medal is only the latest accolade for Lavigne, one of the nation’s best-known green activists. Most notable is her advocacy against “Cancer Alley”, an 85-mile stretch of land in the Bayou State—including Lavigne’s own city of St James—lined with petrochemical factories known to produce cancer-causing byproducts.

The area is predominantly African-American, and Lavigne has been sharply critical of government officials who have consistently granted major contracts to the companies, relaxed regulations, denied health detriments, and attempted to block citizen-led measures to curtail the building of new facilities.

As such, the plants have been the subject of multiple lawsuits and political controversies in recent years—spurred in large part by Lavigne and her team, who with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade have stopped several from being built.

“Why would they put the plant over here? Because they knew that people weren’t going to speak up,” Lavigne said in her own statement on receiving the award.

“And they were right. The people weren’t going to speak up. That’s when God touched me and told me to fight—and that’s what I did.”

Even while engaging in a protracted fight with Formosa Plastics—a Taiwanese company attempting to build on a Black gravesite in St. James—Lavigne, 71, has maintained a robust speaking schedule since 2018, the year she left her job teaching special needs students to found RISE and become a full-time activist.

She has now traveled around the world addressing the issue of environmental racism and climate change—the latter being an issue that also hits home, with Lavigne’s home being destroyed by Hurricane Ida in August.

A few months prior, she was named the North American recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, an international honor tagged with a $200,000 cash prize. In December, she was named to the Forbes 50 Over 50 Impact List, occasioning a trip to Abu Dhabi earlier this month for the inaugural Forbes 30/50 Summit for International Women’s Day.

A devout Catholic, she has also maintained a presence at her home parish, St James Catholic Church in her hometown, and spoke at last year’s Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, a yearly conference organized by the Jesuits. In February, she was honored at their own St Ignatius Loyola Church in New York City as a recipient of the Mary Magdalen Award alongside labor activist Delores Huerta and the late civil rights leader Eleanor Josaitis.

Lavigne will be a featured speaker at the Notre Dame commencement ceremony where she will receive the Laetare Medal, and the event is scheduled to begin that day at 9:30am ET.

Previous winners of the medal include Carla Harris (2021), Dr. Norman Francis (2019), Aaron Neville (2015), and Servant of God Thea Bowman (1990).

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).

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