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What Makes a Housewife an Activist?

Over thirty years ago, Lois Gibbs was a 27-year-old housewife living near Love Canal in upstate New York. Ms. Gibbs talks about what it was like to go from housewife to community activist before class action suits were a twinkle in Erin Brockovich's eyes.

Lois GibbsMs. Gibbs began going door-to-door around her neighborhood in 1978, asking her neighbors about their kids' health and whether they were concerned that the local grammar school was unsafe.

POV: Can you describe the events that made you go door to door in your neighborhood?

Gibbs: There were actually two things. My son, and my daughter, who were both living with me at Love Canal got very sick. Michael was a year old when we moved in and Melissa was born there. [Michael] was healthy before moving into Love Canal. I went door to door when I found out that the children's illnesses were related to the chemical waste that was buried three blocks away and next to the school where my son was attending kindergarten. The Board of Education called me a hysterical housewife and told me that they weren't going to move Michael and that they weren't going to do anything about the problem. And I realized as a mom — and I felt I was a very responsible mom — that if I was going to protect my children, I only had one choice, and that was to find other parents with sick children and to close the 99th Street School. That was our first effort.

POV: Why did you decide that going to your neighbors was the first thing that you needed to do?

Gibbs: Because every single government door was slammed in our faces and the health officials said, "Yes, Michael has all these diseases but you probably have bad genes, and it's not related to Love Canal." It was just so simple. It was benzene in Love Canal that was leaking out, and benzene causes leukemia and blood disorders and my daughter had a blood disorder. There was lindum (check this), which is a very toxic pesticide on the surface of the playground where my child went. It causes seizure disorders, and Michael had a seizure disorder. You don't need to be a medical expert to put those together. I often talk about it as "housewife chemistry." Women who are full-time homemakers or general know you don't mix ammonia and bleach, because it creates a toxic gas that will make you sick. If you apply that same sort of basic chemistry and you know that there is a chemical that your child is touching and being exposed to, and it causes seizures and your child is having a seizure, these things are connected.

POV: What was it like to go door to door? Was it something you were comfortable with from the beginning? How did your neighbors react?

Gibbs: Going door to door was probably the most frightening thing I did. I believed that when I knocked on the door, everybody was going to tell me that I was crazy, that I was in fact a hysterical housewife, a hysterical mom and that people were just going to dismiss me. It took a lot of courage to begin to go door to door, because it was like these people are going to think that I am nuts. But then when I actually went door to door and actually got up enough courage to do that, people were incredibly receptive and people would tell me stories that were very similar to my story, in the sense that their children were sick, their husband was sick, their wife was sick; they had different colored chemicals coming into their basement. In fact, it became a problem because people had so much to share that it was taking forever to go around and get the petitions signed which is was I started with, to close the school.

POV: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to community organizing?

Gibbs: I think overcoming fear of doing things like that, such as going door to door, or standing in front of a group of people where you have never done that before to talk about an issue you care about, feeling somewhat inadequate in your conversation, in the sense that by the time you have been in this kind of work, going door to door, or organizing a community, you have already been told by almost every authority, that you were told were smart and expert, that you are wrong. So you walk in with a sense of insecurity, about are you really nuts or is there really a problem here. All of those things come into truth. One thing that's really hard is that you have gone through this path and the city government says no away way and the corporations say there's no problem and the health authorities say its all genetic or all in your mind or you are just an unlucky parent or whatever. People in the room haven't walked that path yet, so you have to convince them that taking that path is not going to win justice; you are not going to get relocated, or you're not going to get a cleanup, because it is really a political route. People think you have to find the "magic fact" — the magic fact being health data or chemical readings or something like that and then the authorities will do the right thing. You know that because you have walked down that path and that's how you got where you are, going door to door, and you have to figure out how to bring all the rest of the people there and get them to the same place you're at.

POV: Do you think it's harder to organize today than it was when you did it in the late 70s? You know, with people moving around so much and neighbors not socializing as much as they used to?

Gibbs: I don't think it's harder to organize. I think it is harder to win. When we did it in the 70s, we were the first, so nobody knew what to do and nobody knew how to respond. Since Love Canal, they have sociologists and psychologists and all of these people study community groups like Norco, like Love Canal, or Missouri, or Pensacola, and how do the people react. They have their spin-doctors who try to figure out in each and every one of these cases that some woman's going to stand up with tears in her eyes, baby in her arms and say you guys are murderers, or something like that...and how do we spin that. They actually have classes and they teach the dark side, how to respond to that. So it's way harder to win, because they already got the responses, they have already focus-grouped it, and they've already tested other communities. And although they can't totally dismiss it, I mean a mom with a baby and tears in her eyes is a pretty powerful picture, they can lessen the impact on voters and elected officials and decision makers.

POV: What effect, if any, has the Internet had on grassroots organizing?

Gibbs: I think we have lots more access to information and we have lots more access to one another. And that is in the communities that have Internet. When you are talking about African-American low-income or Latino communities that are in the south, they don't really have access to the Internet, I mean they can go to libraries and use it, but they don't have it in the same fashion that most people do. The Internet is very helpful to them for sort of research information and periodical communication. It doesn't really work on a day-to-day basis as it does in a more working-class, middle-class community where they actually have that stuff at their disposal and everyone has one in their house. And for those folks, it's really important because you can learn a lot on the Internet. You can ask people posts, you know, this is the problem does anyone have any good ideas or a strategy. People will share, they will tell their stories. Certainly stories are helpful to people. And looking up elected officials and their track records, is really helpful. And certainly doing corporate research to find out who your opponent really is, and who does sit on their board, and what are the other violations they had is just incredibly important.

POV: This experience has become a lifetime pursuit of yours. How did this happen?

Gibbs: After Love Canal I received calls from people all over the country, who said, I've got a dump just like that, how do I clean it up, or how do I get my family moved or how to get some medical testing of our community. I just felt like there was this real need out there, and I certainly didn't have all the answers but I had at least some of the answers. And I felt that I had to fill that need, that I couldn't just go back to what I was. There was a lot of environmental work they were doing, extraordinary work, but it was mostly on policies and there was nobody to say, "In this community, here's how you organize, this is how you go after the corporations, here's how you go after the elected officials." I moved on try and fill that niche. And I think in addition to that I'm also still angry. You know when you go down to the diamond community and you look at those folks, and they have very modest homes, and they have very deep feelings and love for their families, of which they've lost some. I just look at them and say I walked in your shoes I know how you feel, and I want to help you and how dare they do this to you. How dare they make them wait ten years before they are going to move them! Why didn't they do it ten years ago? What has happened to these families? And its just make me angry that here in the richest country in the world, and the home of the free, and it really isn't so. The poorer you are, the more of color you are, the less you get from society, and it just really makes me angry.

POV: What issues are you and the Center focusing on right now?

Gibbs: We are looking at children and environmental health. There are many schools, we looked at five states, and there are many schools within a half-mile of Superfund sites. And we're also finding that these schools are being built on top of toxic waste sites or brown fields as they call them, which are old industrial sites, that they are trying to rebuild, and I look at them and say, oh my god, its like Love Canal all over again, it's like the 99th street school being put next to a dump site, why would people do that! So we have a big effort to make sure schools are not built on or near these particular sites and to make sure that the schools being built are green schools. We are also working with communities across the country that are trying to get relocated, very similar to Love Canal, who are living on or near a contaminated area, such as in Hazleton, Pennsylvania where they had a gasoline spill and they had higher levels of gasoline in their houses allowable at a gas station, and for some reason they are still allowed to live there. We are working on Dioxin, which is one of the chemicals, which is a big issue in Louisiana. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals known to man, and it comes from the manufacture of plastic, which has chlorine in it, so we are really working to try and eliminate that type of plastic from the market place.

Photo Credit: Images from the book, >Love Canal: The Story Continues, and posted with the permission of Lois Gibbs.





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