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Lois Marie Gibbs: Fighting for a Healthy Neighborhood

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She looked the then-governor of New York in the eyes—the “mean, bulging eyes”—and pictured him on the toilet.



“I think he was taken aback by the fact that I was smiling,” said Lois Marie Gibbs, executive director and founder of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.



Gibbs, who has made a career of making sure that those who are poor do not have to suffer the physical and emotional effects of living in a toxic environment, was a single mom in her twenties when she fought to relocate more than 800 families from Love Canal, New York. When her son came down with severe epilepsy and her daughter became inflicted by a dangerous blood disease, Gibbs discovered she and her neighbors were living next to 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals.



“It was adrenaline. I had children who were not well.”



Although her children are now healthy adults—her daughter Melissa is expecting a baby in April—Gibbs drew on her fear for their well being as she fought what became a national battle against environmental hazards.



Since the Center for Health,  Environment & Justice was founded in 1978, it has worked with 10,000 groups across the country. The center’s triumphs include wrangling with McDonald’s until it agreed to stop using Styrofoam products; helping get the Community Right To Know law passed so that people can gather information about hazardous chemicals in their community; and stopping every potentially hazardous waste landfill from being built (except one in Colorado in 1984).



Gibbs’ mom, who passed away a couple of years ago, became a huge fan of her daughter’s accomplishments. But back when Gibbs left Love Canal in the 1970s with nothing but a U-haul and her children, her mother told her, “you’re forgetting you’re just a housewife with a high-school education.”



Gibbs is now empowered, confident, and a woman changing the world. Top on her list of things to beat are classism and racism—both very much at play in the world of toxic hazards in the environment. As she is quick to note, companies don’t decide to build factories with poisonous fumes in rich, white neighborhoods.



“Because we’ve exposed it and called it what it is, we can say this is racism and classism and you can’t do it here,” she said.



Gibbs is focusing now on a community between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that she calls “cancer alley” because there are PVC manufacturers. She wants to change the products that people use so the factories—and jobs—still exist, but will cease to leak toxic fumes into the local communities. The Center is making a big push for bio-based plastics, or plastics made out of environmental products, so that the demand for PVC products will vanish.



“If we can change how people look at products, it will make the most impact,” she said.



For example, under Gibbs’ leadership, the Center has gotten the state of New York to use green cleaning products in all state institutions.



And in New Jersey, the Center has gotten all faith-based schools to more toward green cleaning products.



“It makes them safer, and it makes people realize stuff they use every day is toxic,” she said.



Gibbs’ advice is to read labels, and to pay special attention to what is in your children’s schools and your own backyard.



“I had no clue about vinyl curtains,” she said. “I had no clue that dioxin was in the milk I was feeding my kids.”



And Gibbs is quick to say that women are the ones who are most likely to forge the change.



“Home and school are the two places that matter most, and it’s women in charge,” she said. “…Organizations that are led by women are more likely to succeed than organizations led by men. Women are used to delegating responsibility, they hold people responsible, stroking those who are doing well and nudging people who are not.”



Gibbs, for her part, has nudged change and transformed communities where there used to be no hope.

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