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Activism 101 with Lois Gibbs
Author: Christina Williams
Posted: May 5, 2014

Residents in the Love Canal Homeowners Association didn’t know the dangers posed to their children’s health by a nearby toxic dump until Lois Gibbs came on the scene in 1978 as one of the first and most influential environmental health activists in the U.S. 

On May 15 Gibbs, now the founder and principal of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, will come to Portland State University to share the experience of her decades long fight against dangerous chemicals and other detriments to community health. 

Gibbs will host a free screening of “A Fierce Green Fire” at 5 p.m. on the first floor of the Academic and Student Rec Center, followed by a question and answer session with City Club President and former Portland Mayor Sam Adams.  (Event details here.)

The PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions, which is co-hosting the event with Portland City Club and Neighbors for Clean Air, caught up with Lois Gibbs this week to get her thoughts on starting a movement and the important role that universities and their students play in the fight for environmental health. 

ISS: You became an environmental activist in the 1978 when you and your neighbors discovered your community’s proximity to a highly dangerous toxic chemical dump. If you met someone today who made a similar discovery, what would be your first piece of advice?

Lois Gibbs: To organize your community to create the political pressure to achieve your goals. The facts about how you and your neighbors are being exposed and made sick is not enough to win relief.  For every scientific fact you can demonstrate your opponents will hire an army of scientists to prove you wrong.  Community struggles are more about the power you place on the decision makers to make them move then the sad reality of poisoning innocent people.

ISS:  What have been the biggest changes in the world of environmental regulations since you began working on these issues?

LG:  Our country has advanced in many ways around solid waste, air pollution, cleaning rivers and streams. The really bad stuff has been taken care of but today the struggles are harder because you can no longer see the black smoke, rivers that catch fire, or barrels pilled in the field.  The chemicals Americans are exposed to today are largely invisible but still very very toxic.  And some laws like our 1976 laws and regulations (Toxic Substances Control Act) around chemical exposures from products have not changed even in light of our new understanding about how people especially children are exposed through baby bottles, toxic toys, and other products.

ISS: What are the top battles currently being fought by the organization you founded in 1981, The Center for Health Environment and Justice?  

 LG: Climate change and energy issues are bubbling up across the country and that brings those critical  issues to CHEJ.  Hydro Fracturing and resources extraction has exploded nationwide and with that comes serious environmental, public health and social costs. Furthermore, severe storms created by climate changes have undone some of the positive actions that have been historically taken. For example, toxic waste sites were engineered to contain wastes so they don’t move out into the environment. Today many of these sites are in the eye of the storms, meaning their severity creates the flooding and wind that tears open the surface of the sites and chemicals once again leak out into the environment.

ISS: What are the most effective ways that universities can engage on environmental health issues?

LG: Universities house the next generation of leaders and consumers. Most young people don’t realize the power they have with consumer products and their manufacturers. In a conversation with the company that owned Bath and Body Works and Victoria’s Secret brands told me during a conversation to convince them to stop using PVC plastic bottles, that the reason they agreed to stop was because a huge part of our campaign was on campuses. I was told that young adults develop their “brand loyalties” between 18 and 25 years of age. The companies did not want to lose those future consumers so they agreed to stop using PVC.  Universities also hold a great deal of investments and stock in corporations that don’t do good things.  These are investments that students can influence and move the Universities assets to support greener industries.  Remember that corporations are about money, profit and losses not social good in most cases. To create change you must directly impact the corporations’ bottom line. Young adults are the most powerful group to make that happen.

ISS: Your work has inspired others to become activists. Who is your hero? Who inspires you?

LG: The people who inspire me every day are the leaders in communities across the country. The African American women in Georgia who stood up against a powerful corporation and government agency to demand they clean up the pollution. Racism and sexism is alive and strong in the south and for women to move beyond that to take a stand is so courageous.  The leaders in Florida who took over the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s meeting demanding that they control the agenda and flow since they are the victims and EPA works for them, the taxpayers. The young students from Portland’s Roosevelt  High School who traveled last year to the state house to ask for relief from the toxic air that is impacting their health.