October 24, 2019 by Sean McMahon and Sara Harper


A few weeks ago the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy co-sponsored a visit from Lois Gibbs, often called the Mother of the Superfund. She guest-lectured in a few classes and met with community members in Birmingham. We had the wonderful opportunity to sit down and chat with Ms. Gibbs over lunch at Lucy’s. We were able to get to know her a bit more and hear about her 40 years of Environmental Justice (EJ) work.

If you missed her, you can listen to the podcast she recorded with the Office of Public Health Practice. You can view Ms. Gibbs's lecture here



Conveying Environmental Justice Concepts through Storytelling

We found out very quickly that Lois Gibbs is a woman of many great stories – stories of triumph, direct action, community, and even stories of failure.

Relocating Together or Breaking Apart

Although the abandoned coalmines beneath the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania caught fire in 1962, residents weren’t relocated until 1983. When sinkholes opened in the town and released dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, an act of Congress provided the funding to relocate. Gibbs told us that when the community was relocated, the citizens of Centralia stayed together and each family moved into the same sort of house they lived in prior to the incidents. According to Gibbs, “On one hand, [environmental justice communities] are very excited to get moved out because they needed to get moved out for their health.” But being forced to move from the neighborhood you call home is hard. She continued, “On the other hand they are scared to death, and they really feel that they aren’t going to be able to cope… When they relocate, they lose [a sense of togetherness and community]. They go into a strange neighborhood. They don’t know anybody… It’s really unsettling and I would say that [of the two], the unsettling part is the strongest factor.” While the idea of relocating a community together is favorable, this process played out differently for a generations-old African American community in Pensacola, FL. The EPA proposed moving the entire community together and providing each family with the same amenities they had before their forced relocation. The community loved this idea, but when a lawyer from the Office of Civil Rights called and accused the agency of racism (alleging that the agency was keeping them together to prevent integration into the white communities), they threw out the idea and conducted business as usual, separating the community during the relocation.

Direct Action

During our lunch, Gibbs recounted the exciting story of what she calls an “Environmental Justice SWAT Team” in a town called Wheatfield. The SWAT team would come in the night to fill pipelines with cement, ultimately halting a development project altogether. She purposefully never found out who the perpetrators were, so that she could remain honest when telling the local authorities that she didn’t know. This direct action prevented the development of a polluted area into a neighborhood. Disclaimer: this might not always be the best course of action, but this is what worked in Wheatfield.


Most importantly, she told us stories about empowerment. When a governor wanted to use on EJ community for a PR stunt for his re-election campaign, the community reversed the narrative by asking him: “What can you do for us first?” The organizers would ask the governor to visit them and see the pollution for himself, to which he would respond with an offer for a thirty-minute visit during work hours. Community influence prevailed, and the governor went for a two-hour visit in the evening so that the communitymembers could really meet with him and discuss potential solutions. Timeand time again, real change happens when the communities seize their intrinsic power and leverage policymakers. Gibbs continued recounting stories of power as we moved on to different subjects.



Community Organizing: Best Practices

Lois Gibbs founded the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ) in 1981 after her successes in Love Canal, NY to provide guidance to other struggling EJ communities as they fight their own battles. Since then she has served as the principle community organizer of the CHEJ and has aided communities in organizing and pursuing justice. With four decades of experience, she shared with us a few of her rules for engaging with EJ communities.

The 10-90-10 Rule

Often, experts will go into a community and list out what the obvious needs are; they’ve been in EJ communities before and they think they know exactly what it is the community needs. However, this doesn’t always work. Gibbs told us, “every statement you make needs to be in the form of a question as opposed to telling people what they should be thinking.” She explained to us what we’re calling the 10-90-10 rule: community organizing is “10% talking, 90% listening, and 10% flipping what’s been said by asking another question to help them dig deeper.” She said she finds it helpful to start with something as simple as “What do you guys want?” She says, “you’re really trying to create a conversation about what is right, what is wrong, and how you’re going to move forward, and how does it fit into your culture?”

She described a time when the women of a South Carolina community said that if they were to protest it would upset the unspoken community norms and they would be ostracized from their social circles. With a few prompts from Lois they decided to stage a “Save the Earth Parade” instead of a protest because that is what felt the most compatible with their community’s culture/norms. Instead of prescribing what the women should do and being upset with their rejection of the protest, Gibbs asked why and then the women came up with the parade themselves.

Set goals and plan to achieve them

Gibbs reminded us that concrete goals are important before embarking on an EJ journey, “I always advise [communities] to set their goals and always put those goals in front of the room at their next meeting[s]... If somebody says ‘Let’s go do this,’ [they’ll be asked] ‘How’s that going to get us there?’” After setting goals, a community can form a strategic plan by asking questions like, “Who can give you what you want? Who can relocate you? Who has the ability and the authority to do it? How is that person or that agency vulnerable and how do you make them do it?” One group she spoke with recently wanted to have the President visit them to see the pollution for himself; after asking who had a viable contact to make that happen, the group decided to find someone else.

Don’t settle for being an after-thought

Gibbs stressed the importance of refusing to compromise with powerful people at the expense of your community. It may be tempting to have that PR moment with your representative, but never forget “you have the power… [Policy makers] work for you, by the way.” She notes that it is hard to say no to people in power when they give you a nod, “but don’t take the potato chip when you can have the whole potato field.” Utilize your community’s power by refusing to be on stage with them until they agree to do whatever it is you’re asking them to do. If they’re asking you to engage with them for their own image, they’ve given you the power to influence that image.

Say thank you121-930x590.jpg

Most importantly, she said that recognizing people’s hard work is imperative to getting them to repeat the behavior. She reminded us of the carrot-and-stick analogy. “Recognizing people for even the tiniest thing that they do,” makes them, “more eager to do it and turn out, and they’re proud of their work and they have a sense of respect and pride in delivering it.” When she was organizing the Love Canal Homeowners Association, Gibbs would reward her “street captains” with recognition and small drug store trinkets, which she said fostered pride and ownership among the group.


Sacrifice Zones: A Policy to Rewrite the Story

The CHEJ is currently drafting and vetting a policy to improve ambient air quality by allowing communities classified by the EPA as EJ communities to apply for a “Sacrifice Zone” designation – a name coined from the notion that these communities are already sacrificed for the sake of industry. Communities wLh6g2fUb_400x400.jpgould opt into the program by a majority, which takes the decision out of the hands of the state or county. This policy is about mitigating the effects of that sacrifice, specifically as it relates to air pollution. Here’s a break-down:

  1. To qualify, the community has to fit the criteria for an EJ community, and the cancer risk has to be in the 70th percentile as compared with the rest of the state.
  2. Upon approval, a four-mile radius is drawn around the polluting industry (or industries). This is the same geographic area covered by EPA superfund sites.
  3. Within that four-mile radius, no industry development can happen – meaning no new industries, new permits, permit renewals, or expansion – until air contaminants have gone down 30 percent. This forces the industries to work together to reduce their emissions – none of them can progress unless they all collectively improve.
  4. Real-time monitors would be placed at polluting facilities that would be accessible to the community in order to increase accountability and transparency of the program.
  5. During this time, health professionals in the area would receive a briefing on the magnitude of chemical releases, the possible effects it can have, and how to recognize those effects in patients. A community wellness van would also be provided to each Sacrifice Zone to assist with primary care and educate the public about exposure symptomology.
  6. Fines on the polluting industries within the Sacrifice Zone would pay for all this, incentivizing local and state governments to fine negligent companies.

CHEJ will vet the program with an EJ community in Houston, Texas this December, with hopes of a second pilot in Mobile, Alabama this coming January. Once vetted with community stakeholders, the policy will eventually be proposed as a federal bill for Congressional review, superseding individual state approval.


“If I was Mayor”

We asked Ms. Gibbs what she would do as Mayor of Birmingham to address the Environmental Injustice that burdens the city. She stressed the importance of economic development as a way to make positive change. In a country where everyone is worried about employment and havingABC 1500-1.jpg their needs met, Environmental Justice must focus on transitioning away from dirty industry by providing jobs in industries that do not emit heavy pollutants. An example Lois gave of this was a community in North Carolina that was repeatedly pressured to accept an incinerator or a landfill in the county, but instead opened a regional recycling facility thanks to grassroots-level pushback. This was an example of a community tackling the incoming waste stream in a way that they could generate profit from it instead of suffer from it. She also emphasized the importance of meeting with our neighborhoods, assessing their needs together with residents, and creating a plan of action that is both inclusive and feasible.

We closed out our conversation by asking what gives Lois Gibbs hope in a constant uphill battle. She said she has hope for the future of Environmental Justice as it is garnering more public attention this election season. It is becoming a national topic thanks to a boost from climate activists and has been addressed by multiple presidential candidates. As we parted ways she praised the community of North Birmingham, “They’re becoming stronger, so that’s the good news!” We look forward to meeting Ms. Gibbs again, and we’ll keep you posted on the Sacrifice Zone legislation!