By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern

Penny Newman, Founder of Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) was born and raised in California. Her parents taught her from a young age that you need to be involved if you want your community to be a good place to raise children. In fact, Newman’s mother was the first female mayor of Perris, CA. As a young woman, Newman was extremely shy, but she did not let that get in her way when she learned of what was happening in her community. She became an activist by accident, like many of the great activists of today. 

After getting married she moved to Glen Avon, CA. It was not until her children began school that she became aware of the Stringfellow Acid Pits. When she became president of the PTA, a woman asked her to cancel the speaker for the meeting one night so that she could speak about the Stringfellow site. Newman asked if she could schedule her for another day, but the woman said no, it was an emergency. That was her first significant encounter about the toxic site. She began questioning what the site was which led her to call the Water Board who assured her that it was nothing to worry about. 

The Stringfellow site is 17 acres of pits used as a cheap way for industry to dispose of waste. There were over 400 chemicals scrambled and mixed together at the site. Around 1978, there were many heavy rains in Southern California. Teachers at the nearby school were told to keep students in the classroom because the pits were starting to fill and flood. The teachers were also instructed to keep silent about the issue, but they were rightfully worried and started spreading the information provided to them. 

Kids had bloody noses, rashes, dizziness, headaches, and Newman’s son even had seizures. Her family spent more time at the hospital than at home. Doctors had no idea what the cause for all the health problems was. 

Newman told her son, “I promise you that I will do everything in my power to make this stop…I’m not going to let this happen to any other child ever again.” “That kept me going.”

Penny was invited to a meeting where concerned residents talked about what was happening and what actions should be taken. Members of the community believed that if they were able to gather facts about the chemicals in the pits and their effects on health, then agencies would better understand their issues and provide aid. They soon came to realize that the decision makers of agencies that could help were already aware of the facts. It was a turning point for her. She said she now knew we lived in a cruel world of money and politics.

“The hardest thing to get over is that you would have people in positions that are supposed to be doing these things and they weren’t. They were choosing not to do it…deny the problem existed.” 

The early organizing group of Glen Avon was Concerned Neighbors in Action. It was made up of other moms in the area, about 20 to 25 families. None of them were professional organizers, but they put their heads together to try to figure out what to do. They even received help from Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda.  

Chemicals from the site were overflowing, vaporizing, and leaching. The community’s initial approach was to dig up waste and truck it to a safe hazardous waste site. They then came to the conclusion that they could not put their problems onto other communities fighting for a clean environment as well. After radiation was discovered at Stringfellow, Glen Avon then became taboo, said Newman. No one from the outside wanted to visit and consequently businesses struggled.

They had to switch their plan of action. One of the main methods they used was the media. By telling people’s personal stories and keeping the public updated on their every move, they received lots of support and generated outrage toward what was happening in the community. For each demand or thing they wanted they targeted the person that could give them that. Newman said they had to plan strategically by conducting protests, using gimmicks, getting coverage, outlining demands, and giving a timeline. In one of her acts, Newman attended a fundraiser she knew the Governor of California, at the time, was going to be at. As he made his way down the crowd she took ahold of his hand and said “we need to talk” without letting go as he tried to pull away. The media loved this interaction. The Governor later had another engagement in Newman’s area that was picketed by over 150 people asking the Governor to meet with them. After this, Newman heard that the Governor told his team to do whatever they needed to do to get the concerned neighbors off his back. 

Residents were awarded a $17 million special fund which allowed everyone to hook on a private well into a municipal water system. That was not enough though. They continued to build leadership and come up with policy so that these battles did not have to be fought at every toxic site. 

“We wanted to make sure the people affected by the problem were the ones defining what the solutions would be.” 

Newman’s transformation from a shy young woman to a leader that has spoken to hundreds of thousands of people was all as a result of her and her family suffering from the harm of a toxic site. She said, “We had a right to live in a safe community.”

“It was out of necessity. It was really a survival thing. Either we step forward and took it on now, or we’d be dealing with it down the road…It would continue to pollute our families.”