Our Story

Update From Lois Gibbs, CHEJ Founder

Exciting news. CHEJ  has brought into our team a new leader for the next leg of our collective journey to win justice.

Let me introduce you to Laura Barrett.

More than a quarter century! That’s how many years our new CHEJ Executive Director, Laura Barrett, has as a community organizer. We are lucky to have her on board.

Laura has been the executive director or campaign director for several impressive national, state and local organizations, including MoPIRG, Center for Community Change and Housing Comes First.  For the last ten years, she has headed campaigns for the Gamaliel Network while simultaneously heading the Transportation Equity Network (TEN).  TEN won billions of dollars in public transportation funding, expanded civil rights protections for low income communities and persuaded US Transportation Secretary to set up a new “Local Hire” program that will put thousands of people of color and women to work.

I am so thrilled to have Laura heading up our team at CHEJ.  I will be moving into a different role as lead trainer of CHEJ’s Leadership Training Academy. A few years ago, Laura went through a transition with the founding director of another group. So she is familiar with the issues that come up with a transfer in leadership.  We are both prepared to be challenged and to move CHEJ to new achievements and heights!

This spring, it’s CHEJ’s 35th anniversary!  Laura and the CHEJ board want to get started on new initiatives that will honor our impressive portfolio of work (winning the Superfund, helping to start the environmental justice movement, saving thousands of children from exposure to toxic substances, and recently, working with coalitions to pass anti-fracking policies in NY, PA, OH) AND move us into new areas that more holistically address children’s health, racial equity and sustainable communities.

Our Beginnings:

In 1978 near Niagara Falls, New York, Lois Gibbs was struggling to raise a family that included two children suffering from a variety of rare illnesses.  As Lois soon realized, they weren’t the only ones: nearly every family in the now-infamous Love Canal neighborhood was facing its own medical nightmare.  Something was very wrong.

Lois soon discovered that her home and those of her neighbors sat beside 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals.  This shocking finding spurred Lois to lead her neighbors in a struggle to protect their families from the hazardous waste in their own backyards.  Through this experience, Lois realized that no local, state, or national organization existed to provide communities with the strategic advice, guidance, and technical assistance necessary to win such a battle.

On their own, Lois and her neighbors developed strategies to educate and organize their community, assess the impact of the toxic waste on their health, and challenge corporate and government disposal policies. After a three-year fight, Lois’ leadership led to the relocation of 833 Love Canal households.

To ensure that no other community would have to face a toxic health threat alone, Lois founded the Center for Health, Environment & Justice in 1981 (then called the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste).  The core of CHEJ’s mission has always been to prevent harm to human health by providing technical and organizing support to individuals and communities facing a toxic hazard.

People who discover environmental contamination in their neighborhoods are often given a mere month or two in which to articulate their concerns and organize their communities.  In a short time, they must respond to “experts” who have prepared intricate technical plans for well-financed government agencies and corporations.  CHEJ’s Science and Technical Assistance Program debunks the technical aspects of chemical exposures and translates them into language that is easy to understand and can be used to win.

These same contaminated communities must also create, often out of nothing, a well-organized volunteer group to take on the polluter. CHEJ’s Organizing and Information Services Program helps communities identify volunteer leaders, form organizations and networks, develop basic skills, and expand their community base.  Guidance with this step-by-step process can be remarkably empowering in the fight for community safety.

Today, CHEJ continues to harness the power of grassroots organizing to help communities protect their health from toxic hazards.  On average, CHEJ receives about 1,500 requests for assistance each year.  Over the past 32 years, CHEJ’s work has touched over 35,000 individuals and groups.

On a national and international level, CHEJ’s campaign work focusing on preventing harm, promoting children’s health, and protecting consumers from hazardous products has only strengthened the impact of these local victories.  Moms and dads, farmers and inner city residents, professionals and blue collar workers alike have all been faced with an environmental health threat at one time—and all are welcome to call our offices.   At CHEJ, we believe that everyone has the right to a clean and healthy environment.  Together, we can create one powerful voice in favor of protecting our health and the environment and promoting economic justice.