Backyard Talk

The Importance of Civic Engagement and Grassroots Politics

By: Sharon Franklin
On September 18, 2018 CHEJ conducted a training conference call on The Importance of Civic Engagement, One question from the call included What happens if the people of this nation ignore their civic responsibilities and don’t help make important decisions?
Answer: Only a hand full of gerrymandered voters end up deciding who represents us and the majority of the voices of voters are not heard.  That is Why Civic and Political Participation and Engagement are important because it allows all peoples voices and positions to be heard, to enable all of us to fight for justice and equality on a more level playing field.
The discussion of Civic Engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference.  It means getting involved and promoting both the political and non-political processes.
Several but not all examples of civic engagement include:

  1. Public education campaigns regarding a local policy or issue that do NOT promote a specific voter action,
  2. Hosting House parties and potlucks events to build strong community connections, such as the national action Peoples Action Institute’s “Families Belong Together” event sponsored over the weekend of August 4-5, where local community leaders hosted forty-eight community cookouts — most of which were in rural areas and small towns,
  3. Educating legislators on your issues,
  4. Participate in Nonpartisan voter education,
  5. Educating About and Influencing Regulations (not legislation), and
  6. Encouragement of both Voter Participation and Registration.

As Noted in a recent article by Samantha Madison in the Observer-Dispatch, Utica, New York, What exactly is grassroots politics?
Alan Rosenblatt, Professor at George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management states candidates love to claim that they’re grassroots and they often wear the designation as a badge of honor, but most aren’t exactly right about the definition.
Rosenblatt further states, “In its purest form, grassroots campaigns are organized from the bottom up with average people rallying around a cause or issue” and “A grassroots campaign is about people.” “As far as a candidate goes, if they’re claiming their campaign is a grassroots campaign, then for sure the proportion of small donors to large donors is a measure of that.  I would say that you don’t necessarily (need to have no) corporate donors, but the more people donating small dollar amounts, the more authentic the claim that it’s grassroots.
 Additionally, it is important to realize that nonprofits may conduct a broad range of voter education activities, as long as they are nonpartisan and do not to support or oppose a candidate.
For more information about nonprofit voting visit:

News Archive

CHEJ Small Grants Program

Did you know that CHEJ has a Small Grants Program that prioritizes grassroots groups working on environmental health, and justice issues? The grants program supports projects that help groups move towards their goals by building leadership, increasing capacity and/or training and education.
The program is designed to especially reach people from low wealth communities and communities of color who are impacted by environmental harms.
A small grant makes a big difference in grassroots communities fighting for their lives. CHEJ is proud to be able to offer these resources to local neighborhood groups who otherwise would have a more difficult time moving a solution to the problem forward. We have seen group do amazing things with a little funding.  Citizens have rented buses to take community members on toxic tours of their area.  Groups have rented billboards to help get their message across.  What a great “in your face” approach.  Groups have held Human Rights Tribunals that went on to be presented at the National Human Rights Tribunal held this last May.
“CHEJ’s support to Black Belt Citizens (BBC) was very timely and made a HUGE impact from day one. The CHEJ grant was BBC’s first grant (in 2016) to support their environmental justice work. The grant allowed BBC to strengthen the work they were doing. In 2017, the CHEJ grant increased community programming and created our Community Health Network. BBC is able to fight today and tomorrow because of groups like CHEJ.”  Adam Johnson, Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Environmental Justice. Sept. 2018
Grant activities can include board development, membership outreach, and fundraising efforts. Project activities could also include meetings to develop an organizing/strategic plan, training leaders to go door-to-door, events, educational activities which are directly connected to your strategic plan. No strategic plan, give us a call, we can help. Think outside of the box, we love to see projects that are creative, effective and strategic.
CHEJ focuses on community-based organizations aiming to have local, state and regional impact as the core of the health and environmental justice movement. CHEJ believes that no social change on behalf of the exploited comes without strong community-based organizations.
CHEJ believes that improving the environmental health outcomes for grassroots communities and laying the groundwork to establish environmental health organizing must be a priority.  Jackie Young from Texas Health and Environment Alliance an awardee has this to say about our program, “CHEJ Small Grants program has helped our group continue our critical role as watch dogs for the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund Site. There is so much behind the scenes work that goes into successfully work with the Superfund process and CHEJ understands this and financially supports this important work.” Sept. 2018
To this end, we look for proposals with projects that train and assist local people to work toward attaining justice, to become empowered to protect their communities from environmental threats and build strong locally controlled organizations. For example:
Skill-building sessions that cover such topics as developing organizational structure, building broad based coalitions, raising money, working with the media, strategic planning, motivating volunteers. Events that facilitate networking and coalition building. Workshops to educate communities about specific local polluting facilities or proposed facilities and develop strategies for reducing or eliminating the environmental threat.
With the CHEJ Small Grants program, we have been given the tools and knowledge to successfully organize, strategize, and plan events. We have the capability to present our issues to local and state government officials. This would not have happened without this Small Grants program. Our community is grateful we will be able to use what we have learned in so many ways. Thank you CHEJ!!!
We unfortunately cannot support proposals from
Organizations with an annual budget over $1 Million, Individuals, National organizations,
Organizations outside of the United States, National campaigns, except local/statewide group-specific efforts that may fit in to such a campaign, Legal work or lobbying

Backyard Talk

Grassroots Green Hero: Rev. Charles Utley

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Reverend Charles Utley in his Office, Augusta, Georgia (Photo by Rev. Utley).
Reverend Charles Utley in his Office, Augusta, Georgia (Photo by Rev. Utley).

Reverend Charles Utley, born in Waynesboro, GA, is the Associate Director and Environmental Justice Campaign Director at BREDL (Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League). He spent all of his childhood and young adult life in the Hyde Park Community, set next to a toxic waste site in an industrial area of Augusta, GA. When he left for Vietnam in 1966, his parents started organizing their community to improve their neighborhood with The Hyde and Aragon Park Improvement Committee, the oldest organized community according to IRS records. They fought for public water and sewer systems, paved streets and streetlights, spearheaded by Mary L. Utley, Charles Utley‘s mother.

‘It would be years later after all of these necessary things were achieved and my parents were deceased, I succeeded my mother’s role as community president. It was in the mid-1970. We found out that there was contamination in our community from a wood treatment plant (Southern Wood Piedmont Company). From this point on we were faced with cleaning up our community’, Utley writes in our interview.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted many studies in the area that resulted in seeking ways to get the community relocated. After approximately 25 years of community organizing, the Hyde Park Community is now finally being relocated. Reverend Utley helped organizing his community around this very topic.
Any movement has to deal with setbacks from time to time. The Hyde Park Community around Rev. Utley had to fight with constant disagreements of the commissioner concerning the severity of the contamination – even though it had been proven to be contaminated by Brownfield Projects by the EPA. Officials refused to take action for over 30 years. The community had not been notified about any environmental issues in their homes, so they decided to do their own investigation.

‘The local officials did very little in our fight to provide assistance with our efforts; however, the community was able to receive two Brownfields Pilot projects without the assistance of the city of Augusta. Additional assistance came from EPA and ATSDR (Agency of Toxic Substance and Disease Registrar) who provided us with a health study that was conducted by our local health department.
The city engineering department needed a place for a retention pond for water runoff and to assist the residents by using Hyde Park for the project’.

Since the community did not receive any help from the city and has been exposed to contamination for decades, there are many community members who are sick, mainly with cancer related issues and respiratory problems. Even 40 years after Utley took over as community president, issues are found among Hyde Park residents.

‘Our fight is a continuous fight because we have not reached full fruition. There are many residents who have not been compensated for their property who are homeowners. Therefore, the community has not given up but has continued to fight until all of our rights as citizens are received, which also includes long term health care’.

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Charles Utley talks about what he says is the unfair treatment he has received from the city regarding the purchase of his Hyde Park properties during a news conference in September. Utley was a major player in a decades-long fight to clean up contamination from area industries at the site. (MICHAEL HOLAHAN/THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE)
Charles Utley talks about what he says is the unfair treatment he has received from the city regarding the purchase of his Hyde Park properties during a news conference in September. Utley was a major player in a decades-long fight to clean up contamination from area industries at the site. (MICHAEL HOLAHAN/THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE, 09/13/16)

Media coverage was one of the primary ways the community was able to get their story out to the public. The response to the community has been one of the things that caused the relocation to take place. They have received help from local and regional organizations for their plight, which includes the book Polluted Promises by Dr. Melissa Checker, and two documentaries.
Charles Utley is the Associate Director and Environmental Justice Campaign Director at BREDL. He says that BREDL has been a supporter for his community from the beginning of their struggle. They provided assistance with their staff, community programs and workshops. They are involved until the whole community has received the justice it deserves.
For people who want to help their community, he recommends staying focused on the major issue(s) and to understand that if you do nothing, then nothing will be done for your cause. Therefore, each individual in the community must be committed to the cause. The Hyde Park Community needed assistance in getting the word out to other organizations, to tell them that the struggle is not over and that their assistance is still needed. They sent letters to The Richmond County Commissions and Mayor Harry Davis, urging that the issues still needed to be addressed. But the fight goes on as homeowners have yet to receive the just compensation that was promised by officials.

At the end of our interview, Rev. Utley said that the vision that his parents had for the Hyde Park Community was what formed his organizing ground. Community organizing has taught him that success may not come immediately but that being persistent in your work will pay off eventually.

‘Above all, you must put your trust in Jesus Christ’.

Look up BREDL at and see if there is a Chapter in your area. Get the help you and your community deserve with organizations like BREDL and CHEJ!


Backyard Talk Homepage

Grassroots Green Hero: Susie Quinn

We have not lost, until we quit.
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Susie Quinn from Torch Can Do, at a group rally last November. The group assembled in summer 2015 to respond to an injection well and frack-waste-handling operation in Torch, Ohio. In the first three quarters of 2015, injection wells in Torch and surrounding Athens County took more fracking wastewater than wells in any other county in Ohio, nearly 3.2 million barrels of fracking waste, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
Interview by Erin Allegro
Q: When did you first notice that the community’s homes, water and air were at risk due to toxics from horizontal hydraulic fracking?
A: On Christmas Eve 2013 I noticed trucks up at the K&H site unloading, and I thought, ‘who works on Christmas Eve? Something strange is going on.’
When the Athens County Fracking Action Network & Appalachia Resist blockaded the entrance to K&H the following February, they brought attention to the fact that there was something there and it was not good.
Last July, (2015), we attended an informational meeting at the library about the toxic frackwaste that K&H Partners LLC was storing and injecting into the ground.  I was just shocked.  You wouldn’t think that anyone would sneak something toxic and possibly radioactive into your rural neighborhood, but they did.  Good neighbors in Torch told us about these meetings.
We had heard before we moved here, that everyone on this end of Torch minds their own business, but if you need help they are the first to come lend a hand.  That has proven to be true over the last 20 years. But because of the threat to our air, water and homes, we have gotten to know many good people throughout Torch and beyond.   
Q: What were some physical symptoms or events experienced by community members?
A: We’ve had a couple incidents. One foggy Friday morning, about 10:30, I walked outside and smelled an odor like chlorine bleach, very strong. I called Ohio EPA that morning and got an answering machine, so instead of leaving my home with the chlorine odor I stayed home and waited on their call. I turned off the air-conditioner and kept the dog inside.  Then we called the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Oil and Gas Division. When the inspector came out, he smelled something as soon as he got out of his truck.  He didn’t give a straight answer about what the odor was or from where it was coming. The Ohio EPA didn’t get back to me until about 5 p.m. Even though I had remained inside, the ends of my hair smelled like chlorine by that time and we had been breathing it all day. OEPA said that they would send someone on Monday to reach out to K&H. The odor was gone the next morning.
On another evening my son came in and said, “Mom! It smells like a chemical factory out there.” Sure enough the fumes were in the air so I called a neighbor and she said she smelled it too. It was almost like a cloud that moved through Torch.
I called Phyllis who lives on the opposite side of town to see if she noticed a chemical-like odor. She said that she wasn’t smelling anything or seeing anything. She said she would come over and see what I was talking about.  By the time she got here the cloud had moved and there was nothing to see nor smell. On her drive home via the four lane, she started to smell something odd. When she got home the cloud had made it to her house.  In the meantime, my husband was driving home from work. He notice a strong odor even with all the windows closed and saw a low-lying cloud that looked like fog, or maybe someone burning something. The wind shifted and the odor was strong in our yard again. I decided to move inside and stop breathing in the fumes. My husband and a few other neighbors have COPD. They have to be careful what they breathe regularly and we would really like to have clean air. We don’t have any way to identify what chemicals are in the air and we’d really like to know for our safety.
Q: What did the city do to notify people of the problems with the chemicals from fracking? What solutions or precautions were advised?
A: They did not advise any solutions. We called the EPA and the health department, but when we met with Chief [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Rick] Simmers from Ohio Department of Natural Resources Oil and Gas Division, he told us to call the local fire chief. Chief Simmers wants us to call our fire chief every time we smell a chemical-like odor? Our volunteer fire department does not have the equipment to tell what is causing the odor.
Q: Did you grow up in Appalachia?
A: This area is home for us. I grew up on the river and it was a great place to grow up. We played in the river because we believed it was safe. Our home was down the river from a large factory. My parents had told me at various times to stay out of the water. I remember seeing dead fish on the banks and I thought, ‘OK I don’t think I’m going to go wading in that.’ Other times it was not as obvious why my parents said not to go in the water. My father had times when he couldn’t fish because there was too much mercury in the water and then there was the fishkill.  Maple trees in our yard kept us cool and the sand pile beneath it kept us busy. The woods were fun to explore. As adults, we love and appreciate the lush green foliage in summer.
Q: How has this particular issue affected you or your family?
A: There’s differences in how we view fracking and the injected waste. My husband sees it as a job creator and I see it differently. What good is it once there is no clean water to drink? My husband has been very supportive of my involvement, but there’s always going to be interesting debates that raise the blood pressure. Some of the retired people are very concerned because the water has been compromised before by a factory that said it wouldn’t lead to anything harmful. We found out then that big companies do lie.
Q: How has media coverage and help of outside organizations changed the response to the issue?
A: The Athens News, WTAP, Athens Messenger, and The Parkersburg News & Sentinel  have been very good to us. They have covered the different protests, community meetings, and have kept up with the topic.
      The response has grown thanks to the news keeping up with us and great mentors like ACFAN and the CHEJ.  They have helped us learn and raised our awareness that there is a problem. We hope that folks check out what an injection well is and what goes in it. I believe that if we can raise people’s awareness and get that information to them then they will see why we are concerned and hopefully get involved.
Q: What do you want other citizens to know as they move forward in their communities with similar issues with their local environment?
A: They are not alone and if someone offers to help, take them up on their offer. We would like to connect with other injection well groups. There is strength in numbers!
Learn more about this and other work by the grassroots heroes on the front lines of the Green Movement who work with CHEJ by reading our blog and other content on our website. [/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Backyard Talk

Grassroots Activism Makes the Difference in New York

Right before Christmas, the Washington Post ran an interesting article you may have missed. It laid out the conundrum of two states coming to very different conclusions about fracking within its boundaries. Both states, New York and Maryland, had moratoriums in place and were evaluating pretty much the same technical and scientific information, yet they came to very different conclusions.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo chose to ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in New York State. Fracking is the process of injecting a chemical/water mixture under extreme pressure deep into the earth in order to “fracture” rock and release natural gas (or oil). Cuomo’s decision followed a report from the New York Department of Health that found “significant public health risks” associated with fracking including concerns about water contamination and air pollution. In a press statement, the state health commissioner stated that there was “insufficient scientific evidence to affirm the safety of fracking.”

On the other hand, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley decided to allow fracking go forward in the western part of the state. This decision was based on a joint report from  the Maryland Departments of the Environment and Natural Resources, which concluded that with adequate regulation, “the risks of Marcellus Shale development can be managed to an acceptable level.” Both reports acknowledged that there are risks from fracking, due primarily to groundwater and air contamination, but also that there is a great deal that is not known about the extent of these risks, or the long term effects.

The articles concludes “that these two decisions on fracking, while draped in scientific language, were — in fact — probably not really scientific decisions at all.” Thank you Washington Post for pointing out what grassroots activists have known for years – that most decisions about environmental risks are based on political, economic and other factors, and not on available science, no matter what anyone tells you.

The article goes on to attribute the different decisions to four factors – politics, who did the studies for each state, the amount of land affected and the use of the precautionary principle by one state (NY) and not the other. All these factors liked came into play, but there‘s another factor not mentioned that likely played an even larger role, and that is the role of grassroots activism. In New York, grassroots activists were overwhelmingly opposed to fracking and this position was repeatedly made known to Cuomo and other state decision-makers. Since being elected in 2010 Cuomo could not go anywhere in the state without seeing signs asking him to ban fracking. This message was delivered time after time by numerous groups in New York as well as by celebrities, scientists and others.

The lesson here isn’t that reasonable agencies and state governors came to different decisions based on different evidence and information. It’s that the grassroots activism in New York made a huge difference and helped convince Cuomo and other decision makers in the state that there was enough known about the risks posed by fracking not to move forward and that the unknown risks were too serious to ignore.