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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What true environmental heroes look like

Louisiana women environmental heroes honored for putting their lives on the line
Two of LEAN's founders: director Mary Lee Orr and Florence Robinson
By Will Collette

A new book called “Women Pioneers,” a twenty-plus year labor of love for author Peggy Frankland, was just published to herald the work of forty-plus life-long environmental activists in Louisiana. Nearly all of those still living were honored at a recent testimonial by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) in Baton Rouge.

All but a tiny handful are women. There were a couple of male ringers included in Peggy’s book (including me), and nearly all of them were first-time activists who were motivated to fight against hazardous waste sites, mega-dumps, chemical plants, oil spills and other horrors that threatened their families and their communities.

In Charlestown, where environmentalism seems to be limited to conservation only, the last time we saw activists like these women was during the fight almost forty years ago against the Narragansett Electric plan to build a nuclear power plant at the site of what is now Ninigret Park and National Wildlife Refuge.

Today, leading Charlestown "environmentalists" seem more concerned about mandating the thickness of mulch local businesses put under their shrubbery or prohibiting local working people from parking their work vehicles in their driveways or preventing our firehouses from being built out of brick.

Author Peggy Frankland was my first friend in Louisiana. We began talking in the early 1980s when she and friends Mary Ellender and the late Shirley Goldsmith formed a group called CLEAN to fight the practice of injecting hazardous waste into the ground near Lake Charles in Calcasieu Parish.

CLEAN was one of the first southern groups to actively reach out to and include the black community where, as you might expect, the worst of the toxic waste dumping was taking place. Soon, and over the years, there were many more.

When I was organizing director for the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (now called the Center for Health and Environmental Justice), I worked with Peggy on her local fight. 

I remember Peggy telling me about many other struggling local groups across the state who also needed help. I suggested that we could try an experiment and convene a statewide meeting where we could talk strategy and set up a dynamic for groups to provide each other with mutual aid.

Peggy Frankland signing copies of her book
As I suggested, Peggy put together a steering committee of other local group leaders to plan this event. It took a couple of years, since most local leaders necessarily put top priority on their local fights, not to mention their families and jobs. But eventually Louisiana’s first Leadership Conference was scheduled in 1986. As conferences go, it was pretty good, with a nice array of workshops, presentations and speakers.

But the most important thing that happened was at the very end. Peggy and I had hatched a scheme to have this conference serve as the launch pad for something bigger – a formal, statewide mutual aid network. Peggy kept elbowing me in the ribs saying it wasn’t gonna happen, it wasn't gonna happen. Until it did.

At that final session, with representatives from around two dozen local groups, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network was born, with newly minted leaders and a steering committee and a sense of commitment and purpose. 

LEAN almost died in its first year. There was internal strife, money problems and a bad choice was made in the hiring of LEAN’s first staff director.

Then, a miracle. The LEAN office burned down. It was a major conflagration and everything LEAN had went up in smoke. Their erstwhile Executive Director took off and was never seen again.

LEAN President Mary Lee Orr called me in tears to tell me the sad news. My reply to her was that this was wonderful news since nothing focuses people’s attention better than a disaster. This of course was a lesson Mary Lee and LEAN applied to superb effect later after Hurricane Katrina and the BP Gulf Oil Spill.

I reminded Mary Lee that she had given me a copy of LEAN’s mailing list for safe keeping. I told her that the first thing to do was assemble the Board, then contact the foundations who were funding LEAN and ask them for help. Then, once the mailing list arrived, to put out an appeal to the rank-and-file.

The result was a bigger, better and stronger LEAN that is now into its 28th year, having lasted longer than any of the statewide groups of its type that came into existence in the 1980s. I'm not making any of this up.

Rose Jackson receives her award from former Louisiana Governor
Buddy Roemer, who was perhaps the only LA governor who ever
really fought to clean up Louisiana's environment
Over the years, I worked with most of the women who are honored in Peggy’s book. All are memorable for their body of work, but I have a number of personal memories that I treasure. Too many to recount here (buy the book!), but I can’t resist describing a couple of them.

In the section of the book with my story, I talk about my friends Ann Williams and Rose Jackson. Ann was an 82 year old white retired school teacher and Rose a young working class African American. 

Both have their own chapters in the book.

They were inseparable in their fight against dumpers who were using Plaquemines Parish – the delta area south of New Orleans stretching out into the Gulf – as a dumping ground for oil field waste. 

Ann was one of the earliest victims of a SLAPP lawsuit (“Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”), sued for $10 million for calling a dump a dump. While so many other residents were scared off by the lawsuit against Ann, Rose stood with her. They beat the SLAPP suit and curtailed the dumping.

My friend, Lorena Pospisil (right) with Kay Gaudet at the awards
ceremony. Kay ran a pharmacy in St. Gabriel, LA in the heart of
Louisiana's "Cancer Alley." Her store became a hub of local activism.
She documented high miscarriage rates among local women 
Lorena Pospisil was on the stage with me one evening in Alexandria, LA speaking at a rally against a giant landfill that Waste Management Inc. proposed to build on the banks of the Red River. It was going to be a “state-of-the-art” landfill except that, in less than 10 years time, a navigation project by the US Army Corps of Engineers was going to put the landfill site underwater.

I suggested to the audience that perhaps Waste Management planned to put all the waste into a humungous zip lock bag; otherwise, how could they claim the landfill wasn’t going to leak? That triggered screamed death threats from a large group of drunken yahoos who lined the back of the auditorium. “You’re not gonna make it outta here alive, Yankee Boy!”

I yelled back even though I felt my bladder weakening. When I sat down, Lorena complimented me for yelling back at the yahoos, but I told her she was the brave one for dealing with this every day, while I was going home the next day. I did ask her to line up an escort out of the parish from the Sheriff, which she did. It wasn't until I was about a hundred miles away that I stopped shaking. But that was what Lorena dealt with all the time.

If you want to understand what it’s like to have your life turned upside down by a threat to home and family entirely not of your doing, read Women Pioneers. Their stories follow a recurring arc – they started out as moms, wives and working people just trying to live their lives in peace but then became devoted activists. They learned they had skills they never knew existed. They pulled off “radical” actions they never dreamed they would ever do.

Wilma Subra
Locally, I think our neighbors in Concerned Citizens of Bradford-Charlestown who are fighting the Copar Quarries would probably see a lot that is familiar in this book.

Each of the Louisiana women pioneers stuck with it, even when their local fight was over. Mary Lee Orr has been LEAN Director since the fire. Her two sons, Paul and Michael, joined the LEAN staff.

They are aided by Wilma Subra, a volunteer scientist who was honored with one of the MacArthur Foundation’s annual “Genius” fellowships. There’s the makings of a sequel to Peggy’s book just telling what each of the women in the book have done with their lives in the years that came after their first campaign.

In most cases, these women taught other women the lessons they had learned.

I credit that to one of the values we built into LEAN right at the start – mutual aid, meaning that if you expect to get help, you are also expected to give it.

I have been honored to know these women for almost thirty years now. In the beginning, it was my job to teach them how to fight, but the truth is that they taught me a whole lot more.