Lois Gibbs: How to Be a Citizen-Activist

The following conversation with Lois Gibbs is an excerpt from the new book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. You can read more about the book here.

In 1978, Lois Marie Gibbs was a 27-year-old housewife in the working class town of Niagara Falls, New York. When she learned that her neighborhood had been built on top of 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals, she became an environmental activist overnight, and soon organized her community into the Love Canal Homeowners Association. After a three-year battle, Gibbs and her allies succeeded in relocating 900 families away from the site. The nationally prominent campaign led to the creation of the U.S. EPA Superfund program, which identifies and cleans up toxic sites. For the past 25 years, Gibbs has been the director of the Center for Health and Environmental Justice.

Q: When you first uncovered the Love Canal scandal, you didn't have a history of activism. What was the most challenging leap for you to become a citizen-activist?

LG: The most challenging thing was not understanding how you do that. And actually trusting. There are two levels of trust. One is that if there's a problem, government would do something, all you need to do is ask. It really made me mad when they didn't. And second, I always thought that the corporations were responsible. It was a chemical city and a chemical world. They fed our families; they paid for our mortgages. The smell of chemicals meant the smell of a good economy. And we were brainwashed by them. So when I learned that both of them couldn't care less about us -- and in fact the government decided that it was OK to harm us -- that was when I got angry. We just took to anger. It wasn't conscious strategic thinking or anything like that. It was like, "How dare they! How dare they say we are not worth saving!"

Q: How did you in that day-to-day work develop your own skills as a leader and an organizer?

LG: I developed them as I went along, by the seat of my pants. I worked with a lot of local community people who also had never organized around anything. We were the Vietnam generation, so we knew about campus organizing. But for the most part, the community itself was not college educated, so we weren't really involved in it; we were at the sidelines of it. One of the things the women did -- it was mostly ladies -- was we organized like households. We gave different people different responsibilities, like what you do in your household: You cut the grass, you wash the dishes, you set the table. And we held them accountable. We used a lot of our skills as homemakers to run the organization, and it was actually pretty good. What didn't happen was we didn't become a top-heavy organization. I think it really strengthened our organizing in ways that helped us to win this fight.

Q: How did that kind of organizing make you stronger?

LG: I was a spokesperson that was identified in the media. But if I were hit by a bus, the group would still move forward. Every decision that we made was democratic. So we had different groups who would present something and it was either voted up or voted down. It wasn't done in a small little room; it was literally done in a room of 500 people. Everybody had a voice, everybody had a vote. It was disallowed to make fun or mock or to be negative about somebody's idea. ... We also knew that communication was really important, so we took something out of the electoral world of organizing. We set up block captains. It was the block captains' job to talk to the community folks on their block, invite them to meetings, collect dues, squelch rumors that were not true. The block captains also made sure that the people got to the meetings. That was kind of cool because we would have smaller meetings with the block captains before we had larger meetings with the community to figure out what's going on out there, what people's concerns are. We really had our fingers on the pulse at all times, and that was pretty remarkable.

Q: What lessons do you think the older, more established environmental groups could learn from that experience?

LG: One of the things they can learn is to stop talking for people. Give people the information and give them a voice in the conversation and the debate. They will come along. You just have to trust them. You can't really decide what's best because you are so much smarter than them. People can come up with really strong ideas, and they will make sure the policy gets through in a much easier way because there's many more people and many more voices.

Q: Despite all the successes you have mentioned, I think it's safe to say that most Americans are pretty disengaged from the political process and from grassroots environmental campaigns. Why do you think that is?

LG: I think one of the problems is that people don't think their voice matters. We hear that wherever we go. And if their voice doesn't matter, then why should they bother going out and getting engaged in politics in some fashion ... When we come to the table we want you to help us figure out what to do. People are like, "Wow! I have a lot of ideas. You want to hear what I have to say about this?" Yes, you are a really smart person that has a lot of really good ideas about this. A lot of what people call apathetic America, it's about people not really understanding any longer that they can begin from zero and create a policy and create change in different ways. The population has been brainwashed that we can't make a difference.

Q: How do you see the work that you are doing fitting within a larger movement to create a more sustainable and more equitable economy where we don't have these kinds of problems in the first place?

LG: Well, I think it's shifting the market. So for example in the PVC campaign, it's about the life cycle. In Louisiana, in Cancer Alley, you have people getting really sick as a result of the manufacturing of PVC. In the use by consumers, depending upon on what they put in it, a PVC bottle leaks into their product and goes into their body. And then in disposal goes into an incinerator and creates the same dioxins. ...

So it's not enough just to talk about shutting down a plant or transferring a plant that produces PVC plastic to another type of plastic. So in the PVC campaign, for example, Johnson and Johnson, who were one of our target corporations, rolled over entirely. They're not using PVC in their bottles anymore. They're using bio-based plastics. If we can get enough industries to use bio-based plastics, we have now created a new industry because somebody is going to have to make the bio-based plastics, somebody is going to have to ship the bio-based plastics. People will be using it. And when it gets disposed of, it's actually pretty benign. And so those PVC industries in Louisiana can turn to making bio-based plastics. And you are getting more family farmers involved, so instead of having resource extraction like what happens with PVC, which is petroleum-based plastic, you are having family farmers growing the products that go into the plastics.

Q: What kind of a green economy do we want to reach eventually?

LG: Years ago they said that if you set regulations to protect the wildlife and the rivers, then you will protect all living things. But now you are looking at if you build a green economy, you will protect many, many things. And I think that answer is much more accurate, because you protect the workers in the workplace, you protect the consumers, you protect the water supply, you reduce the greenhouse gases. It will just create a significant change.

Q: If you could share one lesson from your decades of advocacy, what would it be?

LG: That people can make a difference, regardless of their income, regardless of their formal education. People are just remarkable when they join together. If you look at Love Canal, where the people were blue collar, high school graduate families who brought the president of the United States to his knees. And you look at McDonalds rolling over, and you look at Johnson and Johnson rolling over. This is all because people have joined together.

If we all did one little thing -- and we don't have to do what Lois Gibbs did and commit her life to this issue -- but if we all did one little step, then the world would be a better place tomorrow.

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