by Kenia French, CHEJ Communications Intern

As a college student studying environmental science, I find myself constantly inundated with terrifying news about my future. The world’s collapsing if we don’t make sweeping change to the structures of our lives by 2030? Great. We’re posed to lose an obscene amount of Earth’s biodiversity in this century? Fun. The ice caps in Greenland are melting at unprecedented rates after July 2019 went on record as the hottest month ever recorded? Amazing.

It can be really hard to stay motivated in a field where every fight feels like an uphill battle. However, working at CHEJ this past summer opened my eyes to environmental justice, and with that an entirely new perspective on motivation, uphill battles and the impending end of modern society as we know it.

It’s not that the issues we confront at CHEJ are any easier for the soul to process. Charlie Powell and the people of Northern Birmingham have watched friends and family die and have faced every single roadblock imaginable advocating for the right to live in a community that wouldn’t poison them. The people of Minden, West Virginia have suffered for 30 years in a PCB-contaminated town, and only now is the government beginning to take action that may help their situation change. 

Spending my summer working at CHEJ, I was struck everyday by how the work we were doing was having a real, tangible impact on people’s lives. Even more striking is that everything CHEJ has achieved and has helped others to achieve is through grassroots community action.

According to CHEJ, community action is the way: overall, the big institutions that govern our country like stability and not doing work. Even if emission standards exist that are meant to protect communities from toxic pollution and hazardous waste, it doesn’t at all mean that people are actually enforcing these standards. Community action, then, is the way forward in our democracy, a way to get your voice heard and get the law enforcers to pay attention to you and fix your situation in order to shut you up.

CHEJ’s community action philosophy is different from any other that I’ve ever come across, and is defined by two main principles. First, community action must run on a community based approach: in order to be successful, you have to go into a community and understand what their specific issues are and what they want to achieve through community action.

CHEJ’s approach to community action has nuance that I had never considered before. This nuance is that in order for community action to be successful, communities themselves have to be willing to do the legwork and fight for their rights. Lois Gibbs is a realist: she will offer her services to any community that needs help. However, if a community isn’t willing to do the work she knows is necessary to be successful, she’s honest and straightforward and doesn’t waste her time and resources trying to convince them to organize because there are others who would benefit more from her time.

This mindset, that especially when it comes to the environment, time is valuable and should not be wasted, is my biggest takeaway from the summer. It’s what makes CHEJ so effective, because if a bureaucracy is trying to waste Lois’s time, she won’t just sit down and take it, she’ll think of a creative, out of the box solution to get what she wants. More often than not, her solutions work: she’s helped countless communities across the United States to get out of toxic situations.

While Lois and CHEJ’s story is unique, the lessons I’ve learned here have given me a new understanding of how to make things happen in the environmental world. I’ve learned that community action is a powerful tool, but that it’s only going to work if the people involved genuinely want to do the work necessary to see success. If they don’t, don’t waste time trying to convince them of something: move onto a different solution.

I’ve found these lessons immensely comforting as we round the corner into our action deadline for the climate. Yes, it’s an uphill battle, and yes, we need to make revolutionary change to our lifestyles, and no it’s probably not something that can be achieved in a mere decade.

However, we also can’t be afraid to think outside of the box and think of new approaches to the environmental challenges we face, and we can’t be afraid to stray from a conventional approach to change. If people aren’t hearing us, maybe we shouldn’t just yell louder, but we should change the way the message is being delivered.