To Make Change, Get Involved Locally

Longtime activist Lois Gibbs says individuals must organize to confront environmental disasters such as Love Canal—and Flint
Lois Gibbs at Tufts
Lois Gibbs encouraged the young people in the audience to also do their part—to step up to the challenges that they find in their local communities. “You are the ones who are going to have to get involved,” she said. Photo: Anna Miller
October 17, 2017

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No one knows better than Lois Gibbs, H13, what it takes to go up against government, and win.

Forty years ago, she discovered that her son’s elementary school in Niagara Falls, New York, had been built on top of a toxic waste dump, and that area groundwater was contaminated with toxins. She rallied residents in her neighborhood of Love Canal in what became a historic, grassroots fight for the health and safety of all the people of the community. With the help of environmental scientist and toxicologist Stephen Lester, Gibbs made it possible for 900 families to relocate. 

Gibbs and Lester would translate their local victory into a sweeping environmental movement. In 1980, they formed the Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste—later renamed the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ)—which focuses on environmental health issues and helps communities faced with environmental threats.

Speaking on October 16 as part of Tisch College’s Civic Life Lunch series, Gibbs and Lester, who married in 1984, said that today’s environmental problems—Flint’s lead-tainted water among them—continue to reinforce the main lesson from Love Canal: local citizens have the power to drive change.

“One place I always tell people to get involved is locally,” she said. “We are not big enough to deal with climate change on a grand scale, but if everybody worked from where they are” they would “create a beautiful, green, clean community,” a place that is “eco-friendly and where people want to live.”

That’s easier said than done, of course. Take the recent water disaster in Flint, Michigan, she said. State officials, including those with Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, ignored for more than a year evidence that public drinking water was contaminated with lead. The health crisis was only exposed in the national media after citizen-scientist Lee-Anne Walters sent samples of the contaminated water to a research team at Virginia Tech. The team confirmed elevated levels of lead and the presence of the Legionella bacteria, to which they ascribed the deaths of at least 12 people.

And Flint’s fight for clean water, Gibbs said, is far from over. “Today, people in Flint still have lead-poisoned water,” she said, citing hot water heaters that all contain lead sediment, which inevitably gets into household water.

Lester noted that having scientific evidence of environmental hazards is part of the equation of change, but by itself it is insufficient. Science, even when strengthened by massive amounts of data, “is not where the power lies,” he said. It can help a community “feel confident” that what they are asking for is “reasonable, right and technically sound,” but the real power lies in how well communities organize.  

One of the first things Gibbs said she learned about developing a successful “change strategy” is to gather allies—particularly in the media. And that means telling compelling stories. When Gibbs was trying to rally support in Love Canal, what worked best was showing how the environmental damage personally affected individuals, showing families whose children had birth defects stemming from the toxins. That got the attention of local politicians more than anything else, she said. “The media was really important to Love Canal, and it’s really important today,” she said.

For Gibbs, her work is a true calling. Forty years after Love Canal, she remains at the frontline of environmental justice, helping communities translate outrage into action. After the Tufts event, she was traveling to a north St. Louis suburb to work with residents confronting residual radioactive waste and long-burning underground fires, a story told in the new HBO documentary, Atomic Homefront.

 She encouraged the young people in the audience to also do their part—to step up to the challenges that they find in their local communities. “I think young people today are the answer for tomorrow,” Gibbs said. “You are the ones who are going to be the scientists, or [working] in the agencies; you’re the ones who are going to march in the street. You are the ones who are going to have to get involved.”

The lunch-hour talk also provided students with an opportunity to see how the organization founded by Gibbs has evolved over the decades, thanks to an exhibit of materials drawn from the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives. It is now the archival home for all materials related to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

Event moderator Julie Dubrow, senior lecturer at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and senior fellow in Media and Civic Engagement at Tisch College, called the collection “a fantastic resource for students and faculty and people who care about environmental justice.”  

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.