When You Go Alone, You Lose: Lois Gibbs, Founder of CHEJ

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By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
On April 6, 1981, 501(c)(3) paperwork was filed marking the beginning of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ). Lois Gibbs, Founder of CHEJ, remembers the role everyone played in making it the organization it is today. We all now have the “right to know” and Superfund. Dioxin has been stopped in many places, much policy work has been done, and the movement has grown.
“An organization is only as successful as the people who are running it.”
Gibbs was a mom with two children moving through her life while not being able to figure out why her kids kept getting sick. She believed the school nearby was the culprit and asked the school board to transfer her son and close the school. They told her they were not going to do anything for one irate, hysterical housewife, so she decided to get others in the community involved. A parent’s petition was created. Gibbs, in high heels and a skirt, worried and nervous, went and knocked on doors. While doing this, a woman told her that she had been waiting over a month for someone to knock on her door and tell her what to do. That indicated to Gibbs that there were many people out there just like her. With guidance, ideas, and a friend, people would band together.
“When you go alone, you lose.”
The main industry at Love Canal in Niagara Falls is the chemical industry. Most households had someone employed in that type of work. People understood chemicals because unions educated workers, who in turn educated their families. People understood Gibbs’ plight. Gibbs, her husband, and another leader, Debbie Cerillo, took the petition to the state Health Department in Albany, NY. They were planning on having a meeting since every local entity refused to close the school. At arrival, they were told by the receptionist to go to the auditorium. Confused, as it was supposed to be a small meeting, they headed down and upon entering the auditorium they saw so much press that it looked like a governor’s press conference. They were bombarded by the media. Gibbs realized that this is how the government manipulates. They try to catch you off guard and make it feel like you don’t have control or know what is going to happen. It is about politics, not your health. The health department came out and talked about a study in which they found a problem at Love Canal and declared an emergency. All women and children under the age of 2 in the first row of homes had to be evacuated. Chemicals can pass through the blood brain barrier of children under the age of 2 and create brain damage. Outraged and with many questions, Gibbs and Cerillo began yelling and asking questions. The media had a frenzy, the health department left, and the press conference was closed.
The drive home was silent. When arriving back at Love Canal, there were barrels aflame, and people were yelling, “Burn your mortgage!” No one from the health department was there to answer any questions or worries people had. Gibbs was thrown in front of the makeshift microphone because people thought she had answers considering she just came back from Albany. She had never spoken publicly in her entire life, and did not have the answers they needed because even she did not know.
The community decided to create “street captains.” These captains were responsible for a number of houses. They would touch base, hand out flyers, and collect money, among other duties. There were never less than 500 people at Love Canal meetings as a result of having these street captains and this built power. There was not an executive team, Lois never made a decision. Majority ruled because it was a democracy.
Love Canal consisted of 800 families, 240 of those lived in subsidized housing called Griffon Manor. Sarah Herbert was head of the community called the Renter’s Association. Lois’ Homeowners Association and the Renters Association began working together and set goals. They were one group, but with separate leadership.
They never targeted an agency, always people, specifically the governor. When the state saw that the group was having success, they decided they needed to break it up. Mike Cuddy, who worked for the state and was the “on site” guy, came up to Gibbs and Cerillo one day as they were walking to a Renters Association meeting. He told them they could not go because they were women and it was dangerous. He unraveled a large piece of paper that listed the crimes in the area as a scare tactic that was not effective. Gibbs and Cerillo ignored him and went to the meeting.
The state wanted to make it clear that they were helping the Homeowners Association. They would do things for the Renters because they fought for it, but only the Homeowners Association’s name was ever acknowledged. Consequently, the media also never paid attention to the Renters. The state and the media worked hard to talk about the young woman with little kids, but would leave the African American families, who were just as impacted, entirely in the dark. Herbert and Gibbs would meet on a weekly basis until Sarah told her they could not meet anymore because things were getting uncomfortable. Tension rose amongst people within the groups and the Renters decided to go on their own. The dividing and pitting against each other was deliberate. Gibbs says she is responsible for not taking it head on. At the time they were trying to fight for their lives and already had no idea what they were doing, but in retrospect things could have been done differently to change the outcome. A lesson was learned.
By May of 1980, ring one and two of homes had been evacuated. The homes were purchased at full market value and the area was fenced off. A cleanup and daycare for children, that was located outside of the community, was won. Stephen Lester, now CHEJ’s Science Director, was hired and buses ready for evacuation were provided. Of the 12 goals originally planned, all but one was acquired: relocation.
In a similar fashion to what happened at the first press conference in Albany, EPA representatives told the media that they found chromosome damage in people and that children, and potentially children’s children, could face the consequences which included cancer, birth defects, and genetic damage. Instead of directly telling the community this catastrophic news, they held a press conference. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. People were furious and said if it was safe for them to live here then let the EPA representatives live here. The representatives were called up and then locked in a house that was surrounded by over 500 people refusing to let them leave.
Gibbs called the White House and asked to speak to Jack Watson to inform him about the hostages and the angry people who were just told about the dangers of living in their community. The woman who answered the phone began lecturing Gibbs. Gibbs told her that if she was crazy she would shoot them and then hung up. The hostages were held for five hours. When they were let go, a message was sent to the White House and President Jimmy Carter stating that they had until Wednesday at noon to give residents of Love Canal relocation or something would happen that would make what occurred that day look like a “Sesame Street picnic.” Gibbs also made it clear that this was not preplanned, and she does not advise anyone to do this, though good things did result from the situation. Love Canal attracted national media attention. This led them to create a different narrative. Anyone who talked to the media had to mention Jimmy Carter, who was running for reelection at the time, and talk about how he was not taking action. A sort of countdown began, counting down until Wednesday at noon. It built momentum and was a brilliant strategy that happened by accident. 
For the first time, the media did not get the message before the community did. They called the White House and asked for the news release to be read. Precisely at noon, the Whitehouse said everyone would be relocated temporarily until finances could be secured for permanent relocation, but permanent relocation was the goal. They had won.
In October 1980, President Carter went to Love Canal, stood on their stage, announced that the appropriation had been made, and signed the bill for Superfund. Love Canal was essentially over. Lois Gibbs then moved to D.C. and started CHEJ.
“That’s my story. My story is I aligned myself with really smart, strategic people, and then together we all created this new world and made these changes.”

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