Backyard Talk

Environmental Health: A Social Movement Whose Time Has Come

Guest Blog by Kate Davies

In 1965, when I was 8 years old, my mother was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was given less than a year to live. By some miracle she survived, only to be diagnosed with breast cancer some 20 years later. She survived this too, but in 1995 she developed a rare T cell lymphoma. She died in 2007, after fighting these three different types of cancer for over forty years.

My mother’s illnesses influenced me profoundly. As a child, I wanted to become a doctor so I could make her better, but as the physicians failed to cure her, I became more interested in how cancer could be prevented. To find out more, I decided to study biochemistry. After completing a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate, I became convinced that toxic chemicals and radiation played a role in this life-threatening disease. This realization led me to join the environmental health movement.

I suspect that most people join this social movement because, like me, they know someone with an environmentally-related disease or because they live in a community affected by pollution.  This shouldn’t be a surprise.  Social activism is often a result of direct, personal experience.  Although scientific and economic information is important, living with or witnessing an environmental health problem firsthand can inspire activism in a way that facts and figures alone don’t.

The leaders of the U.S. environmental health movement are well aware of this. For the past 35 years, they have intentionally drawn attention to the health effects of toxic chemicals and other environmental hazards. By highlighting the effects of pollution on living, breathing people, they are putting a human face on the issues. Whether it’s a cancer survivor talking about how she copes with daily life or a mom talking about her child’s learning disabilities, the stories of real people dealing with real illnesses make environmental issues much more tangible and immediate.

This is the environmental health movement’s unique strategy. Unlike most environmentalists, who emphasize the natural world, the environmental health movement shines a spotlight on human health and well-being. This may sound like a subtle difference, but it affects how issues are framed and communicated to the public.  More importantly, it makes a huge difference in how the public understands them.

Shining a spotlight on human health has made the environmental health movement successful.  Working mostly at the state and local levels, activists have organized countless communities to protest abandoned toxic waste dumps, oppose new hazardous facilities, raise awareness about local disease clusters and draw attention to environmental injustice. The movement has also won numerous legislative victories. Over 900 toxics policies were proposed or enacted in the U.S. between 1990 and 2009, and between 2003 and 2011, 18 states passed 71 chemical safety laws..

The environmental health movement was born in 1978, just two years before I joined it. As supporters of CHEJ will know, in that year, Lois Gibbs first raised the alarm about the health effects of toxic chemicals leaking from an abandoned waste dump in Love Canal, New York. Organizing her neighbors to demand action, she fought the government and won.

Since then, the environmental health movement has spread across the U.S. and around the globe. Today, about 10,000 environmental health organizations and people are listed on WISER, a worldwide social networking website for sustainability. Almost 4,500 members in about 80 countries and all 50 states form the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. There are now environmental health groups in every major city and state in the U.S.

But despite its success and widespread public support, very little has been written about this social movement. There are many books on the environmental movement, the environmental justice movement and the science of environmental health, but only a handful on the environmental health movement.

My new book, The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement, is an attempt to remedy this situation and give it the recognition it so richly deserves.  In the book, I describe the historical and cultural origins of the U.S. environmental health movement and analyze the organizations and strategies that comprise it today. By examining what has made this movement successful, the book provides insights into what social movements can do to advance positive social change.

Those of us who are part of the environmental health movement do this work because we are called to do it. For us, there is simply no other choice. As the poet Adrienne Rich wrote:

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”

Kate Davies, MA, DPhil, is the author of a new book called The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement. She is core faculty in the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University Seattle and clinical associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. She has been active on environmental health for 35 years in the U.S., Canada and other countries.

Backyard Talk

Celebrating 20 Years of Environmental Justice at EPA

I had the good fortunate to attend a reception celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the establishment of the USEPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) last week in Washington, D.C. This event celebrated the accomplishments of the Environmental Justice movement and recognized the work of many of the pioneers in the movement over the past 20 years. Lisa Garcia, Associate Assistant Administrator for EPA’s OEJ opened the evening’s events that included presentations by Charles Lee, former director of the OEJ and Vernice Miller-Travis, long time environmental justice advocate. Charles Lee looked back at the significance of his seminar report Toxic Waste and Race in the United States published in 1987. Key recommendations in this report included urging the EPA to establish an Office of Hazardous  Wastes and Racial and Ethnic Affairs which became the Office of Environmental Justice in 1992; urging the President to issue an Executive Order on Environmental Justice mandating federal agencies to consider the impact of current policies and regulations on racial and ethnic communities which Bill Clinton did in 1994; and further urging EPA to establish a National Advisory Council on Racial and Ethnic Concerns which became the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council in 1993. Vernice Miller-Travis spoke of other seminal reports and moments in the Environmental Justice Movement including the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and the formation of the Principles of Environmental Justice.

Environmental Justice Pioneer Awards were given to former EPA Administrator Lisa Perez Jackson and to Dr. Clarice Gaylord, the first director of the EPA Office of Environmental Justice. Also honored was Dr. Mildred McClain for her spirit and lifelong commitment to Environmental Justice. The most moving moment of the evening came when past heroes and sheroes (their word) of the Environmental Justice movement were recognized and honored. The individual images of sixteen leaders who had passed away in recent years were shown on a large screen in a moving video tribute. Virtually every one of these individuals were people I and others at CHEJ had known and worked with before. By the time the video tribute was over, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. It was very moving.

The newly appointed director of the Office of Environmental Justice, Matthew Tejada was also introduced that night. Matt was the former director of the  Air Alliance Houston. Music and refreshments were served to close out the evening as several hundred environmental justice activists and supporters shared memories and hopes for the futures. The theme for the evening seemed to be that much has been accomplished but much more still needs to be done, like all struggles for justice.

EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice has launched a 20th Anniversary Video Series that features government officials, non-profit leaders, academics and students who share inspiring and educational stories about the lessons they have learned while working on environmental justice. Click here to view the full list of blog posts and videos in this series.

Backyard Talk

Grassroots Environmental Groups Are The 98%

The environmental movement has spent the last five years trying to protect laws and regulation we have and stop the roll back efforts, while also moving new regulations and policies. However, we are failing. For example, millions of dollars were invested in Climate Change legislation and we failed to move any agenda forward. One reason, according to surveys and polling, is that the American people didn’t know what to do to make a difference (beyond changing their light bulbs) or didn’t see how the issues they cared about connected to climate change. A recent report, published by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy, provides some insights of why the average person might have had problems connecting the dots.

The report says, “The movement hasn’t won any “significant policy changes at the federal level in the United States since the 1980s” because funders have favored top-down elite strategies and have neglected to support a robust grassroots infrastructure. Environmental funders spent a whopping $10 billion between 2000 and 2009 but achieved relatively little because they failed to underwrite grassroots groups that are essential for any large-scale change.” Without resources to hold meeting that bring leaders together at the local level, provide training for media opportunities, learn how to develop a strategic plan or provide resources to join other organizations efforts, local organizations cannot sustain themselves nor move beyond the issue that brought them together.

Interestingly, according to the IRS filings, while less and less money is being provided to grassroots effort, grassroots environmental groups are emerging at more than twice the rate of other non profits sector.

More than half of all environmental grants and donations are given to 2% of all environmental groups all with budgets over $5 million. This 2% of really large groups receives more than 50% of all grants! This leaves 98% of environmental groups with less than half the available funds.

This is a serious problem. In movements throughout history, the core of leadership came from a nucleus of directly impacted or oppressed communities while also engaging a much broader range of justice-seeking supporters. In other words, successful movements for social change — anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, and civil rights — have always been inspired, energized, and led by those most directly affected. Yet these are the very groups within the environmental movement that are starved for funds.

As the highly-successful right wing in the U.S. can tell you, social movements grow large and powerful only when they are served by a deep infrastructure of organizations offering technical assistance and know-how. Local groups need to be able to find each other, share strategies, develop leadership, communicate their message, identify allies, and gain a wide range of skills. Such an infrastructure requires sustained funding and without it no movement can succeed.

Clearly, CHEJ is not a funder but is an essential part of the infrastructure. In the report NCRP strongly supports infrastructure using CHEJ as one example. “CHEJ provides everything from technical assistance on local advocacy campaigns to small capacity building grants. By nurturing emerging groups and providing ongoing feedback and coaching for more seasoned organizations, while convening meetings and alliances for all groups to connect and work together, CHEJ helps till the soil and spread the nutrients in which grassroots organizing and movement building thrive.”

To create real systemic change somehow we need to figure out how to communicate with those distributing funds that there needs to be a balance. Yes the large groups are very important but in they are only as powerful as the base they represent and can advocate at the local level. All politics, all change are local. It’s not an issue of supporting  either the large groups or the grassroots groups. It is critical to support both with balanced or none of us succeed. My question to the network is how do we communicate this message? Ideas anyone?