A Conversation With Lois Gibbs
The founder of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice talks about her organization, the companies it targets, and what she loves about her job.
Thirty years ago a shy housewife decided she had had enough—no one, not even the biggest employer in town, was going to get away with poisoning her kids and polluting her town. Soon Love Canal was a household name, but the story didn’t end when residents were relocated, or even when the federal government passed the Superfund Act. In fact, Lois Gibbs is still taking on one big corporate giant after another—and winning. Audubon caught up with the globally renowned activist to find out how she does it.
Audubon: How big is the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice?
Gibbs: We don’t have members, but we work with literally thousands of groups across the country. Our theory is we need to build the base, not our particular kingdom, and really build and empower people at the local level to take control of their own lives because nobody knows more about their community than them.
Q: What’s your group’s primary focus?
A: One of our biggest efforts is working with communities across the country to prevent harm—whatever that looks like. In some cases we work with communities in North Carolina to stop a new influx of mega dumps, and we are presently helping groups in Ohio who are low income and communities of color who are trying to get an environmental justice policy in the state because right now they have no voice in what happens in their communities, and of course their communities are targeted for polluting facilities.
Q: How do you pick your corporate targets?
A: We do a lot of corporate research, and try to match it with places where we have people or constituencies. For example, in 1986 we wanted to do something around solid waste, and we said, Who makes solid waste? Fast-food industries. So who goes to the fast-food industry? Children. Well if we got children involved, that would be a really cool campaign because it’s better than a bunch of grown-ups with picket signs. So we launched the McDonald’s campaign to get them to move away from Styrofoam. When McDonald’s rolled over, so did Burger King, so did Wendy’s. Most of the fast-food industry followed in line. And when we got Microsoft to stop using PVC packaging, Target stopped using PVC packaging, as did Wal-Mart, as did Kmart, as did Sears. So if you look at sort of the leaders—and that’s what we do—and you make a lot of noise, none of the other competitors want to be the next target.
Q: It seems like you have some fun with your work?
A: I love my work. But some days it’s incredibly sad and I just want to go home and cry because we do run into people often, almost on a daily basis, who are where I was: ‘I’m a mom. My kid is sick, I don’t know what to do. The doctors don’t know whether it’s related or not. The government just decided that they’re not going to do anything because it’s too expensive,’ and so on. They’re scared, they’re crying on the phone, they’re frustrated, they’re angry, and they’re just full of fear for their families. That part is not really so much fun.
But doing these campaigns and helping people figure out strategies so they can organize an effort to try to fight back—that’s when it really becomes fun. You get them in the room and say ‘Okay, you want to fight back? Who are you fighting?’ You see in people’s eyes a sense of hope—‘I know where I need to go now.’ We walk them through a very long strategic analysis and potential plan so they know that when that door is slammed in their face, that there’s another door they can go to, and that provides the hope. That part is fun.
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