Stories of Local Leaders

Fighting for the People: Living Room Leadership with Roxanne Groff

By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Roxanne Groff, a formidable activist with 20 years of experience as an elected official in Athens County, Ohio, shared her experience for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series. 
Originally from Toledo, Groff made her way to Athens, Ohio for college in 1967 where her activism began. There, she began protesting the Vietnam War and recognized many things needed to change. From that moment on, Groff states, she “couldn’t stop” because there was always something new to fight.
“Anger pushes people to do a lot of pretty effective things.”
After protesting a coal mine that would threaten local water and air, Groff thought of how much she could do as a politician. Humorously, what motivated Groff to go to board meetings was the need for her road to be fixed. Eventually, a trustee asked Groff why she did not run for a seat on the board. In a turn of events, she ran and defeated the trustee in 1979, beginning her political career at 29 years old.
“If you really care how things work you’re going to find out, and I did.”
Her active involvement in the political arena, including the State Trustee Association, led to her position on the Board of County Commissioners. This was a means into state legislative work. She served 3 terms and then ran for Township Trustee which led to almost 20 years in office. As a result of her work in politics she, to this day, can get in contact with members of the government. She stresses the importance of not adapting yourself or the issues you are fighting for. Because of her refusal to conform, many current members of the government remember her as someone who always stood up and was passionate about what she believed in. 
“You fight for everything that comes up that is going to protect the people.”
Groff stresses the importance of direct action. Putting decision makers into uncomfortable situations forces them to think. Although, sitting face-to-face with anyone is difficult during COVID-19. That being said, Groff will keep fighting.
“There’s too much to do…I don’t have any reason to stop.”

Stories of Local Leaders

Warehouse Development Is Trouble for Jurupa Valley: Living Room Leadership with Esther Portillo of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice

By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Esther Portillo, Interim Executive Director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) in Jurupa Valley, CA, shared her experience as an activist for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series. Portillo has organized and empowered communities of color across the nation and now is leading CCAEJ’s grassroots efforts to bring environmental justice to the Inland Empire.
CCAEJ works to improve the social and natural environment by expanding indigenous leadership, organizing communities through the use of campaigns, and creating a framework of community power for safer, healthier, toxic free places to live, work, learn and play.
Portillo began organizing in the early 2000s after graduating college. The history of racism and the demographic shift of where she grew up influenced her interest. Because affordable housing was no longer viable in places like Los Angeles, there was a displacement of people of color who moved to the Inland Empire, a region in Southern California.
“It’s definitely an environmental racism issue as well.”
Currently, CCAEJ is fighting against land use and warehouse development. The warehouse industry has been effective in rezoning previous residential areas and making them industrial zones. The industrial warehouse complex in the Inland Empire spans 500 million square feet and 20 million square feet are added every year, making it the largest warehouse district in the world. Additionally, air quality has worsened as a result of the use of warehouse diesel trucks. Diesel releases harmful particulate matter into the air, reducing air quality. Because of the growth of the industrial complex in the Inland Empire, Portillo stated the area is becoming like an “inland port.”
The effects of pollution in the Inland Empire can be seen through slow lung growth in children and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Portillo said, “Community members have literally passed away from the impacts of all this pollution.” She called it a sort of state of emergency.
“It is like a life and death situation for folks.”
Portillo explains that the way to be most effective is to “organize the folks that are directly affected by these policies.” These people are usually women of color, and it is necessary for community members to develop the policies they want. Litigation, change of land use strategy and planning, and community organizing are essential for enacting change in the Inland Empire.

Stories of Local Leaders

Raising Hope: Living Room Leadership with Rebecca Jim of Local Environmental Action Demanded

By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Rebecca Jim, Founder and Executive Director of Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) Agency, Inc, shared her experience as an activist for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series. Jim shared about her community’s fight for environmental justice of the Tar Creek area, one of the largest and most polluted Superfund sites in the United States.
LEAD works to raise environmental concerns in Northeast Oklahoma, take action against environmental hazards that harm the community, conduct workshops and seminars, and strengthen efforts by partnerships in Oklahoma and the nation.
Jim is a member of the Cherokee Nation. Many native tribes were forced to move into land located in Northeastern Oklahoma in Ottawa County. The land was then discovered to be rich in lead and zinc, consequently, leading to the mining and extraction of the area beginning around the early 1900’s. Her environmental work began when, as a school counselor, she became aware of her students’ concerns for their environment. Although the area is no longer in production, what remains has dangerous consequences for the community. Debris and rubble is contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and zinc. 
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is in charge of issuing mining leases and suggested that tribal land owners use the waste as a resource and form of income. In effect, poisonous residue was transported throughout the county and used for gravel, asphalt, foundations, driveways, roads, etc. In 1994, it was discovered that 35 percent of children living on the site had high concentrations of lead in their blood. This led the EPA to sample soil in high-access areas (HAA) and discover high concentrations of heavy metals. The EPA began excavations to clean up HAAs and even residential properties. The cleanup continues to this day.
 “It is a legacy that I really wouldn’t have wished on anyone.”
The site has struggled with funding. With the help of CHEJ, LEAD has been fighting for the reauthorization of the Superfund. Jim stated that they are a “broke Superfund” and are “at the will of Congress” for any financing. Jim believes money and science can solve the site’s problems.
Funding is not the only financial issue. The BIA allowed mining leases for individuals to mine on tribal lands, but later dealt those individuals incompetent to deal with their wealth, therefore, many never received their earnings.
“The more you look at our site, the deeper the environmental injustice is.”
Still, Jim has hope for justice. If the creek is able to get cleaned up, they can clean the rest of the site.
“What we’re hoping to do is give hope…we can make this place a safer place to live.”

Homepage News Archive

Cuomo Pushes to Weaken Ban on Toxic Foam Burning

A bill to stop the burning of toxic foam has become a flashpoint between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and its sponsors, as the governor’s office pushes to retain the authority to greenlight the practice in the future.
Residents of Cohoes, a small city in Albany County, learned in February that a hazardous waste incinerator owned by Norlite LLC, an industrial materials manufacturer, had been burning shipments of toxic firefighting foam. In response to public concern about the health risks and national press attention, a bill banning the incineration of the foam in Cohoes passed the Senate and Assembly unanimously in June.
Lawmakers and advocates familiar with the negotiations said Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed “chapter amendments” – a short bill amending an already-passed bill – turning the permanent ban on burning toxic firefighting foam into a moratorium, which could be lifted at the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s discretion.
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Photo Credit: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit