As I was cleaning out my drawer I found an old photo from Love Canal that reminded me of an extraordinary relationship that kept all Love Canal families working together. It was a picture of Sarah, from the Love Canal Renters Association with me at the 20th Anniversary celebration of Love Canal. The Love Canal community was made up of 240 rental apartments (called Griffin Manor) and 800 individual homes.  The rental units were designed for families with four to five children and were subsidized by the government.

After the first evacuation in 1978 of the two rows of homes that encircle the canal, the rest of the neighborhood was declared safe. On one side were individual homes and on the other side was Griffon Manor. As we began to organize to expand the evacuation area one of the core leaders from Griffin Manor and I held a meeting with our neighbors at Griffon Manor to explore what to do. We agreed that the more families involved the more power we would have. The state recognized that potential power as well and the afternoon before our meeting a state representative working on relocation approached me with a warning. He said, “Those people are dangerous. Look at the rap sheet on just one of the residents. You will get attacked if you go there. Cancel the meeting.”

My experience was quite different as I knew a few of the families whose children attended school with mine. They seemed like nice families to me. So, despite the warning a friend and I went to the meeting and talked about what we knew of the actions taking place and encouraged residents to join together to fight for our health and children. It was a great meeting, not threatening at all.

As we moved forward together the state began an active campaign to keep us apart. For example, news releases would talk in detail about what they were doing for the homeowners and never would mention the Griffon Manor families.  Sarah the leader of the Griffon Manor residents would tell me stories about how the state was telling her neighbors to separate from the larger group because the homeowners don’t really care about them.

The friction was mounting and nourished weekly by the state personnel. Sarah and I decided we needed to do something to keep people together. We met and decided that we would continue to work together but with parallel groups. Sarah and I would meet often and coordinate the two group’s activities but would not let the state or even our own members know this was happening for fear they would continue to interfere with our collaborations. It wasn’t ideal, but we thought there weren’t many other options as you can only focus on so many fights at a time.  Sarah and I representing the Homeowners’ Association told the state that we demanded a seat at the table for the Griffin Manor families and recognition of the Concerned Renters as an individual entity. The state agreed.

Why am I telling this story now? Because as I listen to the political comments from presidential candidates it so reminds me of the unfair and untrue characteristics of families in Griffin Manor, by state representatives.   The state’s objective was to divide and conquer, in order to do as little as possible for ordinary people, victims of the man made disaster. This is the case today as well in some of this political rhetoric.

Because the Homeowners Association didn’t allow ourselves to be pitted against the Renters Association everyone won relocation with associated financial assistance. It’s a lesson that others can learn from. Don’t let the powers divide us base on color, class or religion. We are stronger together and working together we can obtain equal rights and benefits.