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Activist Whose Mom Got Sick in 'Cancer Alley' Fights for 'Healthy Environments' for All

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Featured DEL Speaker: Dr. Nataki Osborne Jelks

When Na’Taki Osborne Jelks’ mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she immediately began to “connect the dots” — and knew what could have caused it.

For years, her family spent time living near a chemical plant on the northern end of what’s known as “Cancer Alley.” She would see flares burning and smoke billowing along the 85-mile corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which was filled with more than 150 petrochemical companies and became a cluster of cancer patients. Osborne — who went on to study chemistry and engineering major at Spelman College — began to conduct her own research, she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “The air and the water always smelled bad because of what these companies were pumping out of their smokestacks,” says Jelks, 46, whose mother, thankfully, is now cancer-free. “After her diagnosis I began to connect the dots to what we may have been exposed to there.”

“I was hurt, disheartened, angry and ultimately became determined to make a difference with my own life for communities,” says Jelks. “Although we can’t say with any certainty that what we may have been exposed to in Cancer Alley was the cause for her diagnosis,” she says, “just the fact that the possibility existed for my mother and for so many others gave me the impetus to get involved to pursue solutions to environmental injustices — through science, education, grassroots organizing and advocacy.”

In between her duties as an assistant professor in the environmental and health sciences program at Atlanta’s Spelman College, Jelks can often be found with local youth scouring area streams and creeks for trash. She also helped create the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, an organization that has fought to protect the community watershed in one of the district’s oldest black neighborhoods. For decades, raw, untreated sewage has routinely overflowed into these creeks and streams that empty into the Chattahoochee River before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

“My deep-seated passion,” says Jelks, “is to do everything I can to ensure that all communities — no matter what their race, ethnicity, gender, education-level or socioeconomic status is — have access to clean, healthy environments. It drives everything I do.”

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