YES Center Chester’s Women Change Makers: Zulene Mayfield

Chester’s Zulene Mayfield fondly recalls a quiet life three-plus decades ago, as a new homeowner on the city’s west end, a short driving distance from family members. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary — until word spread among neighbors of a massive trash incinerator under construction behind a fence, just feet away from her block. The Westinghouse (now known as the Covanta) trash incinerator (and successful and unsuccessful efforts to build other, similar polluting facilities) soon altered Zulene’s neighborhood and all of Chester city, in what is one of the more egregious examples of environmental racism.

Zulene Mayfield

The incinerator changed Zulene, as well. More precisely, Zulene was infuriated by the sheer fact that the powers-that-be (governmental, corporate) could blatantly choose to rob Chester residents of the most basic elements of a quality life — the right to breathe clean air and not be subjected to elevated risks for health problems, such as asthma and cancer. Zulene did not choose to be a community problem solver. The problem — the transformation of the Chester waterfront into a “waste magnet” — imposed itself on her, her neighbors, and the larger community. In the face of wrongdoing and the abuse of power, Zulene found herself with little choice but to take on the fight against the largest trash incinerator in the United States. Motivated by her clear sense of right and wrong, her fight continues.

Zulene first shared with us a brief overview of the problems that trash incineration creates for Chester city and how its continued operation is a major obstacle to resident’s aspirations and their vision of an alternative, greener future for the city.

In Part Two of her story, Zulene takes us back to the late 1980s, when neighbors’ concerns over the construction of the incinerator led to the formation of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, or CRCQL. Today, CRCQL — under Zulene’s leadership — remains incredibly active, broadening its tactics to include education campaigns, assembling data on the consequences of incineration, working with local college campuses, and convincing suburban communities (that send their trash to Covanta) they too have a stake and responsibility in fighting for environmental justice.

Although it’s not beluga whales and spotted owls and bald eagles, our environment deserves to be protected and saved too. I think we should have something that’s called an Endangered Humans Act … because we are endangered in Chester by the pollution that I think is the number one health hazard to the residents of Chester as a whole.

Zulene Mayfield quoted in Delaware County Times. “March planned for April 24 to protest environment issues in Chester.” April 18, 2021.

There is no shortage of information about Zulene Mayfield. A quick Google search reveals numerous news articles,features,radio and podcast interviews, documentaries and short films, and law review and social science articles — all focused on her efforts as an environmental justice pioneer, organizer, and fighter. In the final part of Zulene’s story, we asked her to speak first-hand as to what motivates her, what challenges her, how she manages self-care and the importance of her connections with family. Zulene is an advocate for the betterment of Chester. But that advocacy comes with personal hurdles and exhaustion, as well as dogged determination to fight on behalf of herself, her family and friends, and the community at large.

A lot of my family is still based out of Chester. A lot of my friends are in Chester. So I feel as though I have an actual duty to make sure that they are safe. What good are we if we can run away and we can escape a problem, but everything we love, we leave them in a deadly atmosphere.

Zulene Mayfield, June 24, 2022

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