Backyard Talk

When the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

By: Zack Schiffer, Organizing Intern
It has been one week since I began my community organizing internship with CHEJ.
Many pride CHEJ on its ability to organize ordinary citizens and lead them towards
accomplishing extraordinary things, but until spending a week with this dynamic team, I did not truly appreciate the level of dedication and energy that underlies this organization. On my
second day, I attended a virtual meeting where environmental activist Pam Kingfisher spoke
about organizing against a poultry feeding operation in Delaware County, Oklahoma. In many
ways, Kingfisher became emblematic of what this organization is all about: helping ordinary
citizens accomplish extraordinary things. As my time at CHEJ progressed, this mantra became
even more readily apparent to me.
In our current capacity, CHEJ has devoted itself towards a citizen’s campaign in Dallas,
Texas. In a small community known as Highland Hills, the Lane plating metal factory, which
closed its doors in 2015, left behind large amounts of poorly-contained chemical waste.
Overtime, these chemicals, some of which include cyanide, lead, and mercury, have leaked into
the soil and groundwater for the surrounding community to ingest. After hearing about this
serious problem (and how recently it came into fruition), I immediately realized this pressing
level of injustice. Many on CHEJ have experience working within the scope of injustices like
Lane plating, but for me, it was my first exposure to a complete disregard and wanton disrespect for members in a community. As we mobilized the community around this issue, my
preconceived notions of what a people-centered campaign would look like were quickly
disbanded. Although I often cynically envisioned a slow roll of back-and-forth communication
and free rider issues, our first town hall with Highland Hills community led CHEJ staff to sweep in like seasoned pros. From conveying information about the chemicals affecting Highland Hills residents to providing community members with a viable call-to-action, the Lane plating campaign had legs before it even started.
My tenure at CHEJ has been short thus far, but during the early stages of my internship, I
have come to fully appreciate the level of commitment underlying each and every member on
our dynamic team. These people care, and so do I. Allowing issues like Lane plating to hide in
plain sight is simply unacceptable, and after exposure to successful organizers like Pam
Kingfisher, I appreciate the power of helping the ordinary become extraordinary The future for
my internship looks bright, and with organizers like CHEJ at the helm of action, so does the
future for environmental justice in Highland Hills.