Backyard Talk

Please Stop Screaming – Let’s Listen To One Another

Recently, I’ve been discussing presidential politics, as all of us have. Even if you try to avoid the conversations and the different opinions, they are everywhere on the news, in the paper, among your colleagues and friends. Such conversations are important, and often even helpful, to educate people on issues.  Hands down educated voters are best.
Lately, I’ve really been listening to what is being said about various candidates.  Listening to how the message, words are conveyed. Clearly, our country is more polarized than I’ve ever seen in my decades of voting. Unfortunately, most of these conversations have become rude, insulting, and/or dismissive. We are screaming at each other, criticizing or dismissing entire segments of society, and not hearing one another’s views.
I was in a meeting and someone said out loud, with no hesitation, that the Christian Coalition is a huge problem and working against us. A visibly angry young mother from Texas explained that she belonged to the Christian Coalition and doesn’t believe the Coalition supports poisoning school children with toxic chemicals. “People like you are the problem, not people like me.”
In another meeting, someone accused the workers of being the barrier to moving an issue forward, saying therefore, we needed to organize around the workers instead including them in our fight.
I’ve heard people use the words stupid, ignorant or other nasty descriptions of a candidate or a person who supports a different candidate. This is not limited to a single political party and it’s turning off people on all sides.
It’s time to stop the fever pitched screams and begin talking and listening to each other. When we listen and we share, it is amazing what can happen. Let me share a story.
CHEJ was invited to help an organization stop an incinerator in New York. The group we were working with expressed disappointment about how apathetic people in their community are. One member of the core leadership told me, “In this community people are self-focused, lazy and not too bright. I can not understand why they want to allow all this pollution.” I suggested that everyone may not care about health and inquired if she had asked people what they care about? She answered, “No, because this is the most important and frightening thing that’s happen now.”
Yikes, another scream, and narrow focus to the problems of winning real, deep seeded justice. What if you stopped yelling and trying to prove your point, and listened instead?
We were in a bar and I decided that instead of explaining the importance of listening and having a conversation to connect with people, I’d demonstrate the importance.  I got up and moved to sit next to a worker who was having a beer. He was watching the football game on TV and when I caught his attention, I asked what he thought about the plan for the new incinerator.
He replied, “I don’t care.” Showing him the flyer the group published, I followed up with, “What about cancer and other diseases that this flyer says may increase because of pollution?”
“Lady I don’t care . . . I’m watching the game” he replied a bit annoyed.
Waiting for a commercial break, I ask, “What do you care about? What bothers you?” He thought for a moment and said, “potholes.” He explained, he’s an independent trucker and the potholes cause all sorts of damage to his truck which he must pay out-of-his own pocket to repair. Secondly, he added, that traffic signal from hell on the corner. “There is no left turn light and so it takes forever, sometimes two cycles, for me to turn that corner.”
When the next commercial came around I suggested that what he cares about and what the group cares about are the same – – disruption of a beautiful rural community. There will be over 200 trucks driving down that same road making more potholes and a longer line of vehicles that need to turn left at that corner. You may not care about the pollution but there will be plenty of other disruption to the community if this incinerator is built. He agreed and we had a much longer conversation about community power and corporate greed.
My message to the group, then and to us all now, is to stop screaming about how right you are and how wrong others are. Instead, try listening and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see that you aren’t that far apart, and together you can create a better tomorrow.

Backyard Talk

2019 – What Do Think Will Happen? Here’s some thoughts.

If you think the last two years were bananas, 2019 is going to be a real doozy.
My colleague, James Mumm at People’s Action Institute, wrote this insightful forward looking piece and thought I’d share it with you.  I spent the last few hours of 2018 thinking about what we need to do next year to defeat Trump and Trumpism. We played solid defense this year. We created a #PeoplesWave to take back the House and many states in the midterms. But Trump is still president and McConnell and the GOP have a stronger grasp on the Senate.
Here is what I know. Trump blames everyone but himself when things go wrong. Now that the economy is off the rails thanks to his erratic international and domestic actions, he is pointing fingers in every direction except where it belongs (squarely at himself).
Trump tries to act big because he feels small inside. His edifice complex will not bring him the love of his mother or father, nor the majority of the American people. Truth is, his world is very small. A shrinking circle of yes men and women, campaign rallies with diehard fans, and a chorus of Fox News right-wing extremists.
If you think the last two years were bananas, 2019 is going to be a real doozy. With an incoming Democratic majority in the House and Mueller’s investigation coming to a crescendo, the walls are closing in on Trump. His entire world is shrinking and that makes him panic.

  1. Trump will double down on anti-immigrant white nationalist populism.Trump is going to lash out with all the power of his office against immigrants, women, LGBTQ communities, people of color, low-income families. We will need to play ferocious defense against these attacks.
  2. The Trump 2020 campaign will swing into high gear and make us all fear that he could win again.I learned a hard lesson in 2016. Michael Moore and my mom both said that Trump was going to win. I scoffed. Well, I scoff no more. This could happen and it terrifies me (you too I bet).
  3. Trump’s instability and chaos will cause a recession.One year ago, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan rammed their tax scam through Congress. The result? Big corporations gave CEOs and investors one trillion dollars in the form of stock buybacks. The tax scam did not create jobs; it made millionaires and billionaires wealthier while creating a mountain of public debt that the rest of us have to pay off. Trump took a lot of unwarranted credit for the economy when it was booming. Now Trump will have to own the coming recession. And the next Democratic president will have to do something bold (see next prediction) to pull America out of a spiraling crisis.
  4. The word of the year in 2019 will be “Green New Deal.”This is a bold idea that Democratic presidential contenders will be wise to endorse. A Green New Deal that is 100% Just is a total winner. 100% Just means 100% renewable energy and 100% equitable for the communities of color and low-income communities on the frontlines of climate change. This could be the answer to how we save people and planet at the same time.
  5. Lightning will strike twice and the #PeoplesWave will continue with thousands of fearless progressive women, people of color and young people running for (and winning) local office. There are thousands of city council, county, school board, and more elections happening across the country next year. The country is changing from the bottom up and there is nothing that Trump and the GOP can do about that.
Backyard Talk News Archive

What is the road ahead for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria?

On Wednesday, September 20, Hurricane Maria made a direct hit to Puerto Rico– virtually destroying most of its infrastructure and plunging Puerto Ricans into a humanitarian crisis. About 97% of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million population is without power, and about half without running water. Let’s not forget that these are American citizens we are talking about.
The Trump Administration’s response has been significantly slower and less effective than the response to Hurricane Harvey and Irma. President Trump tweeted about the situation on Monday, stating that,“Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
His lack of empathy towards a U.S. territory struggling to survive following a disaster is alarming, even for him. Focusing on the massive debt held by Puerto Rico, whose economy is now even more ravaged than it was before, is just cruel but unacceptable.
Gov. Ricardo Rossell of Puerto Rico urged Congress to approve a commensurate aid package. A week after the hurricane, FEMA put out a statement that they have airplanes and ships loaded with meals, water and generators headed to the island.
In addition to the ongoing crisis, the Guajataca Dam in the island’s northwest corner has suffered a “critical infrastructure failure,” which poses immediate flooding threats to about 70,000 people. While the majority of residents in the potential flood zone have evacuated, efforts are being made to evacuate periphery areas.
The path for Puerto Rico ahead is uncertain. Its power grid is almost entirely wiped out, and has proven to lack resilience. Many experts on disaster response urge for the opportunity to be taken to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid from the ground up– a project that would require billions of dollars.
Not to mention, there are 23 Superfund sites on the island that likely have contaminated soil and groundwater. Unexploded bombs, bullets, and projectiles are among the toxic contents of these Superfund sites, specifically on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques which was used by the military as a bomb-test site.
In the southern coastal town of Guayama, a five-story pile of coal ash has been sitting next to a low-income, minority community of 45,000 people. This ash contains heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and chromium. The company responsible is Applied Energy Systems (AES), which was ordered to remove the pile prior to the hurricane but whether this was done is unclear. It is highly likely that this toxic ash has contaminated the surrounding land water sources.
At this point, we must continue to urge the U.S. government to provide ongoing aid to our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico. Be sure to check back with CHEJ on the front of environmental justice for Puerto Ricans following this humanitarian disaster.
Click on the below link to see how you can help the victims of Hurricane Maria:


Just Moms Plead For Relocation Away From Superfund Site

Dawn Chapman, Just Moms STL,  had listened with surprise and skepticism as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency vowed to clean up West Lake, the nuclear waste dump that has filled her days and nights with worry.
Read full article.

Backyard Talk

March for Science

As a scientist, it’s not unusual to experience people not understanding the jargon and complexity of science. Part of what we’re trained to do is explain and interpret what we do. What’s much harder to understand is the total dismissal of scientific information and consensus around issues. While science does not have many critical answers for people exposed to toxic chemicals, it is nonetheless the foundation of what we do know. It can tell us what chemicals people are exposed to, the concentration of those chemicals, and the risks these exposures pose. We often don’t know how long a person was exposed, what interactions/synergistic effects might result if exposed to more than one chemical, or what specific health outcomes a person can expect or anticipate.
There are clear limitations in what we know, but that does not mean we ignore the science altogether. This what Donald Trump is proposing to do with climate change, ignore what the vast majority of scientific researchers who devote their life to studying this issue have  coming to agree on – that human behavior is influencing the earth’s climate in a dangerous way that cannot be ignored.
This is why the scientific community is stepping out of its comfort zone and organizing a march on Washington to protest the dismissal of worldwide scientific consensus on the issue of global climate change. As described on its website the “March for Science is a celebration of science. It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it’s about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.”
There’s a lot of push back coming from within the scientific community that generally shuns public involvement in politics. But this is an unusual time. Not only has the President of the United States called global warming a “hoax” … “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” but there is an alarming tend towards dismissing scientific facts and consensus, and an illogical attack on research funding that threatens our basic world understanding. These threats have left scientists with little choice but to come together and speak out.
This is an unparalleled opportunity to highlight the value of science and show your opposition to the war on science. Join the March for Science on April 22nd in Washington, DC. For more information, see

Backyard Talk News Archive

Trump’s EPA Cuts: No One Will Protect Us

President Donald Trump’s deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency terrify me. They will gut the agency, removing protections for American families and our children. As I travel from one polluted community to the next, women weep as they hold their children, and explain how chemicals in their air, water or land have made their families sick. Local leaders describe how their city or town won’t help them, because it’s a company town, and no one will hold the polluter responsible. They go on to say their state agency isn’t much better. Their only recourse is the federal EPA.
The EPA was designed to provide a safety net for these communities. But it has been hard enough for EPA to answer demand for their services across the nation, and to stretch their existing budgets. Clearly, Trump’s administration intends to take away this safety net, and a means for checks and balances. I can tell you from first-hand experience that living in a toxic environment, with little hope of getting out, is a family’s worst nightmare. In 1978, I lived with my two small children at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, NY, where 20,000 tons of toxic chemical wastes were buried.
My daughter had a rare blood disease, and my son suffered from many medical problems including with his liver, asthma and epilepsy. Our house was worthless, and our American dream taken away through no fault of our own. Fifty-six percent of our neighborhood children were born with birth defects.
Niagara Falls was a city with 47 different chemical facilities. The city didn’t want to upset the industry, nor did the county. Moreover, the state was concerned about setting a precedent, estimating there were thousands of similar sites in the region just like Love Canal. The federal EPA came in to investigate the site, after pleas from the community that the city and state were not acting. Eight hundred families were later relocated, and the Superfund Program was established to address threats to human health by the most dangerous chemical waste sites.
Superfund provides the opportunity for the EPA to come in to a town or city and clean up contamination to protect families from exposure. The program also identifies the corporations that created the site, and holds them responsible for the costs. If there is no responsible corporation, the EPA has the authority and funds to clean up the site.
There is no gentle way to state the obvious. Trump prioritizes corporations over people, children and the planet. These cuts will gut the agency, removing protections for American families. I am old enough to remember the black smoke of the steel mills, the rivers catching fire and sickness and death in communities that surround the factories. The magnitude of the cuts proposed by this administration will take America back decades.
Cuts in the EPA budget mean no one will be watching the polluters. No one will be there to ensure industrial facilities don’t dump wastes into the sewer, air or rivers. No one would hold polluters accountable to pay for cleaning up toxics or for the costs of sick children with asthma, cancer, with birth defects and so much more.
Superfund was designed to provide technical, financial and legal assistance to states and local governments by creating a pool of funds to be used in the most toxic waste sites in the country.
States nominate sites for the Superfund program because they want help; they can’t afford to clean up abandoned sites on their own. As was the case in Niagara Falls, many states and local governments have neither the resources to investigate, nor the backbone to take on corporate polluters. Instead, they look the other way.
Trump’s cuts mean there will be no one to police the environment, and no enforcement. Think about that. What if there were no police in your neighborhood? People would speed down neighborhood streets where children walk to and from school. Someone could just walk into a bank and demand money, or someone could assault you or your loved ones with no fear of consequences.
What polluters take from us is more than any bank robber can ever take, and much more devastating. The air you breathe, the water you drink and land you play on could be toxic poison. Regulations mean little when there are no police, no investigators or consequences for doing harm.
The entire planet is at risk if the Trump Administration cuts the EPA’s budget by 30 percent. Everyone but the very wealthy will suffer the consequences. Families of low income and of color will suffer the most, as they often live closest to industry.
Rather than weakening the EPA and environmental protections, we should work to strengthen rules to protect communities from the impacts of waste dumps, factory farms, fossil fuels, and other pollution sources. We should work to ensure all people have access to clean water, safe food, and a livable climate.
Everyone will be harmed by these cuts, and everyone must speak out. Our very existence, public health and America’s future depend on it, as does our ability to control industrial pollution and hold corporations accountable.  Please sign my petition:  Don’t let Trump’s budget destroy the Superfund Program or the EPA. Reprinted from: People’s Action Progressive Breakfast 3-20-17

Backyard Talk News Archive

What Does Standing Rock and Love Canal Struggles Have In Common?

Real democracy in action.  Both situations did not have the law on their side, regulations or much of anything. Yet both of those fights had real victories. There are real lessons that can be learned from these two high profile situations. Lessons that are important as we as a country enter the Trump era. Although there was science and legal work in both situations that was done to build a case to stop the madness that was not the magic answer.  It was people. Hundreds of people and at time thousands of people who stood up, took risks, spoke out in a united voice to say, “NO” that made the difference.
It was also using the media and a narrative that the average American person could understand.  It was value-based and widely supported. One of the differences was at Love Canal the residents had the mainstream media on their side. In Standing Rock it was the alternative media, Amy Goodman from Democracy Now, who refused to let the story go. It wasn’t until she was charged by police for breaking the law, that the story caught on with the mainstream media. There was also the difference of Love Canal families who were largely working class white people and at Standing Rock were Indigenous Peoples at the center of the struggle. That’s part of America’s racism that is real and again demonstrated at Standing Rock.
This is a story,  a comparison which needs more analysis and lessons learned. Yes, a longer article needs to be written. Unfortunately I can’t do that now, but  will likely in the future. My reason for raising this comparison at all, is for all of those who say under Trump we have no chance. Yes you do–yes we do– but only if we organize people, unite voices and build the political power that is needed to not only save what we’ve got, but win more. We can do it– but it takes stepping out of your place of comfort, take some risks like signing a petition that your friends might not agree with or giving something– a dollar, an hour, food, make a phone call, go to a meeting  and so much more. Today is the day for you to make a change so we — all of us — can live in a free, safe, healthy  and inclusive world.