Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco awarded Lois Gibbs an honorary degree during the University's 157th Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 19, 2013.
Your children suffered from unexplained illnesses, as did the children of your friends and neighbors. You were frightened. But when you learned that your neighborhood—the now-infamous Love Canal—had been polluted with toxic chemicals, you turned that fear into action. Your courage and determination put Love Canal and environmental issues on the national agenda, and because of your advocacy, Congress passed what is known as the Superfund Act to clean up other toxic waste sites. In 1981 you established the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, which has helped more than 11,000 grassroots organizations confront leaking landfills, polluted drinking water, and hazardous waste in their communities. Your ongoing work to expose the dangers of environmental pollutants stands as a model of what can happen if just one person takes a stand. You are a national model for active citizenship, a value this university embraces with vigor, and Tufts is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Public Service, honoris causa.
LOIS GIBBS is synonymous with active citizenship. She not only led her Love Canal neighborhood in New York during its infamous struggle to deal with the health issues caused by toxic waste, but continues her activism today as executive director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, which she founded in 1981 to assist communities facing toxic-waste hazards.
Gibbs was a housewife in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1978, and found herself taking her children to the hospital frequently for a variety of illnesses. She learned her neighbors were also struggling with unexplained illnesses, as well as mental retardation and other health problems. A survey at the time found that fifty-six percent of the children born in Niagara Falls between 1974 and 1978 had at least one birth defect. Many homeowners’ basements were covered with a thick, black substance, and vegetation around the houses
Gibbs and her neighbors discovered they were living adjacent to 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals that had been dumped in the former canal their homes were built next to or around. She started demanding the federal government clean up the toxic waste, and organized her neighbors into the Love Canal Homeowners Association. It was an uphill battle. “They made me mad,” she said about the government’s initial refusal to help. “It wasn’t a matter of, ‘I’m going to go out and do good.’ I was just furious and frightened.”
By 1980, a presidential emergency order had declared a health crisis in Love Canal and relocated more than 800 families, reimbursing them for their homes. In response to the Love Canal disaster and the discovery of other toxic waste sites around the country, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, better known as the Superfund Act, to clean up such sites.
During the Love Canal crisis, Gibbs was contacted by numerous people across the country who were experiencing similar problems. Eager to find a way to help others, in 1981 she established the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, which has provided more than 11,000 grassroots groups with organizational and technical help as they contend with leaking landfills, polluted drinking water, incinerators, and hazardous waste. Gibbs frequently speaks to communities in this country and around the world about toxic chemicals and the unique vulnerability of children to environmental hazards.
She has been widely recognized for her role in the grassroots environmental health movement, and has appeared on 60 Minutes and The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 1982, CBS produced a movie about her life, Lois Gibbs: The Love Canal Story. Gibbs has received numerous honors, including the Goldman Environmental Prize and Outside Magazine’s “Top Ten Who Made a Difference Honor Roll.” In awarding her its prize for environmental contributions in 1998, the Heinz Foundation noted that Gibbs’s message is not “not in my backyard,” but rather, “not in anybody’s backyard.”
Gibbs will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree.