When You Go Alone, You Lose: Lois Gibbs, the Mother of Superfund

Polite people get poisoned. ~Lois Gibbs

Average people and the average community can change the world. You can do it just based on common sense, determination, persistence and patience. ~Lois Gibbs


She was just a mom, really.

A homemaker with a high school diploma, taking care of her two children in a working-class neighborhood in Niagra Falls.

That is, until her son started to get sick.

Asthma, then pneumonia, then a urinary tract disorder, then a seizure disorder and a then diagnosis of an immune system problem. Her daughter, three years younger, had a rare blood disease.

Her kids were sick, but she couldn’t figure out why.

Then, one day in 1978, Lois read about the area’s toxic history in the Niagara Falls Gazette. Back in the late 1800s, William T. Love proposed connecting the upper and lower Niagara River by digging a seven-mile-long canal. The project was abandoned when the economy tanked, but not before a sixty-foot-wide and half-mile-long section of canal had been dug.

The so-called “Love Canal.”

The pit that had been created became a toxic chemical dumping ground for the Hooker Chemical Corporation, the City of Niagara and the United States Army. Then, in the ’50s, it was covered with dirt and sold.

Part of it was sold to the Board of Education … for $1.

Included in that deed was a warning that 21,000 tons of toxic waste had been buried under where they would place a playground and the 99th Street School. The deed absolved Hooker Chemical of any liability.

Homeowners, however, were never told that their homes sat atop a toxic dumping ground.

Convinced that the chemicals under the school building were behind her son’s illnesses, she went to the school superintendent and requested to have him transferred. The superintendent told her to fill out this paper, get that document, get that doctor’s letter, go through this hoop and that one…

She successfully jumped through every one.

And then, at the meeting where she was to give him all of the papers he had requested, he haughtily informed her that he would not be moving one child due to a “hysterical housewife,” and why didn’t she go home and take care of her child if he was so sick.

She was devastated.

She cried.

Then she got mad.

“Don’t ever tell me I’m a bad mother,” she thought.

So, she decided to petition the New York State Health Department to close the school. She’d need signatures of fellow parents to do that.

So, wearing high heels and a skirt (you wouldn’t be taken seriously if you weren’t wearing high heels in those days) she went door to door with a petition. She was so shy that she abandoned her first effort – lightly rapping on the very first door before hurrying home… only to venture out again once she’d gathered her courage.

She didn’t expect the reception she got.

Door after door opened. Neighbor after neighbor signed on to the petition.

“I’ve been waiting for someone to come to my door and tell me what to do.

People opened up about their own family’s struggles.

Epilepsy, asthma, strange birth defects – three ears and double rows of teeth. Many, many miscarriages.

Rocks exploded like firecrackers when thrown up against a wall. Kids played Beverly Hillbillies in backyards where they could plunge a stick into the creek and “strike oil,” with the black ooze that emerged. (Beverly Hillbillies was a popular TV show at the time about a family from the Ozarks that moved to California after striking oil on their land.) Backyard vegetables grew to enormous, comical size.

One man told her that the same chemical that had been found in his backyard was so toxic that at work he was given an extra $0.25 per hour in hazard pay when he worked with it.

Signatures in hand, she, her then-husband, and another woman drove the petition signatures to a planned meeting with the state health department 500 miles away in Albany.

She was met not with the private meeting she expected – but with a spectacle.

Instead of a small conference room, she was directed to an auditorium. It looked like a governor’s press conference.

That’s when the health department announced that it had conducted a study and determined that the Love Canal neighborhood was dangerous, especially to pregnant women and kids under two. It issued a health order closing the 99th Street School and evacuating pregnant women and children under two within a few blocks of the canal.

Residents were told to spend “limited time” in their basement, and not to eat food from backyard gardens.

Lois was livid. Here she was, learning for the first time about a study confirming the dangers of living in her neighborhood at a press conference? What else did the study show? What about the other children – those older than two? What about the people that weren’t being evacuated? Was this an ongoing harm? What was the state going to do for them?

She and her companion stood and – in front of the press – peppered the Department with questions.

They drove the 500 miles back to Niagra Falls mostly in silence.

When they got back to the neighborhood, it was anything but quiet.

Her neighbors were in the streets – amidst burning barrels, people yelling “Burn your mortgages!”, pregnant women crying. Everyone was scared, confused, upset.

All were asking the big questions: What can we do? What should we do? Where can we go?

Nobody from the Department of Health was there to describe the danger, let alone answer their questions about how to escape it.

And, because she had been the woman wearing the high heels and skirt and going door to door with the petition, they looked to her for answers.

Unfortunately, she had none.

But that was a blessing in its own way.

Because that is how the Love Canal Homeowners Association came to be – which is one of the most democratic entities I’ve ever heard of, and one of the best organized. As Lois describes it, they modeled the democracy they wanted to see.

LCHA membership consisted of approximately 500 families living within a 10-block area surrounding the Love Canal landfill. Within a week of the Health Department’s order, they had held their first public meeting and set their goals.

Everything – everything – was majority rule. For example, while there was an official Actions Committee, every action they would take – from solemn marches with faith leaders to delivering symbolic coffins to the state capitol to burning public figures in effigy – would be subject to an up-or-down vote of the members present.

And those meetings were always well-attended, in part because of the street captains. There were fifty such captains – with each street having someone directly responsible for organizing the people who lived there.

Before each meeting, those captains would go door to door, tell members what the meeting would be about, and why they should attend. They would ask what that person needed in order to make coming to the meeting possible. Did they need child care? Transportation? Then once they secured a promise of attendance, they would ask if that member could bring someone else.

The result? Every meeting had at least 500 attendees. (Lois attributes their power to that attendance; soon even legislative aides began coming to meetings to find out what they were going to do next.)

Over the course of the next two years, the LCHA advocated – pushing always for complete relocation of the community.

They learned as they went along and honed their advocacy strategies along the way. “We always targeted people, never an agency,” Lois described in a recent panel. After all, if the Health Department works for the Governor, why not directly push the person who can really make the change?

By the fall of 1980 (an election year) residents were told if they wanted to talk to the press, they needed to say President Carter’s name. Somehow, in some way, they needed to tie him to Love Canal directly in their comments.

Finally, after nearly three years of organizing and advocacy (and less than a month before the 1980 presidential election), in October of 1980 a total evacuation of the community was ordered by President Carter. The residents of Love Canal could move away, and the government would buy their house.

The goal of relocation had become real.

At the same time, Love Canal spurred the creation and adoption of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980 – you probably know it as Superfund – which authorizes the EPA and states to manage and clean up the nation’s most dangerous waste sites.

And that would have been the end of the story – an impressive one all on its own.

One working class woman with high heels and a clipboard bringing about government-sponsored relocation of hundreds of families and the introduction and passage of groundbreaking federal legislation.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Because Lois was inundated with letters from people all over the country.

Hers was not an isolated incident. Her sick children were not isolated sick children and her contaminated neighborhood was not an isolated contaminated neighborhood. There were families all over the country that were dealing with the same situation. Thousands of letters poured in.

She could help these people, she realized. She had learned many lessons over the last three years. Think of how much other people could do if they had the benefit of that knowledge? Maybe she could create an organization with that mission – educating and helping other communities like Love Canal…

So, now a single mother of two with $10,000 to her name, she got in her car to head to Washington D.C.

“You know you’re just a housewife with a high school diploma,” her mother said as she drove away.

That’s a knife in the heart to read. I can’t imagine what it was like to hear.

Lois carried on anyway.

The rest, as they say, is history.

She founded the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste in 1980 (which was later renamed Center for Health, Environment and Justice).

The CHEJ just had its 40 year anniversary.

Through CHEJ, Lois has educated and informed over 10,000 grassroots groups across the country.

As for Lois personally, she served as its Executive Director for four decades, and only recently stepped into more of an advisory role. She also remarried – her husband is the scientist the government sent to Love Canal to investigate. (Life is funny that way.)

She’s also inspired generations of activists and organizers, and continues to do so to this day.

When she was asked in a recent panel how she organized those hundreds of families, she shrugged and responded it was instinctive – or that she had learned by osmosis, or maybe it was a bit of both. The daughter of a bricklayer in a working class community of union members (her husband at the time worked for Goodyear), the way she went about organizing the community was just “how you did things.”

“Everyone who’s ever been in a union knows about contract negotiations,” she laughed. She was brought up in an environment with regular organizing meetings, goal setting, and working as a community.

See, she wasn’t all things, but she didn’t have to be. Others in the association had special talents, and she leveraged those for the community.

It wasn’t about her, she explained.

It was about all of them.

And that, according to Lois, was one of the most important lessons she took away from Love Canal.

At the very beginning, she had petitioned the superintendent – for herself. For her son. For her family.

She lost.

But when she petitioned for her whole community. For everyone

She won.

*Note: As I explained earlier this month, this is part of a month-long series of stories of people who became activists not necessarily by choice, but because their circumstances pushed them in that direction. The goal is inspiration, but each story offers slightly different takeaways. Let’s reflect on those (briefly).

Lessons We can Take Away:

When you go alone, you lose. This is an excellent takeaway – and a good reminder that organizing is not asking someone to do something, it’s asking someone to be part of something bigger. The people who Lois went door to door to talk to were relieved that someone was doing something about their shared problem and wanted to be part of the solution. Lois made the movement bigger than herself, and because of that it had an impact far greater than just one person could bring about.

Making it easy to participate increases participation: The distributed nature of the association was simple but really effective. Every house had a personal contact through the street captain. Because street captains were encouraged to find out what they could do to help homeowners participate (i.e., child care), that sent a message: we want you to come, and we’ll find a way to make that possible for you. An elegant idea. In fact, in these days of electronic access, it’s easier than ever to provide a virtual option. We can and should do that.

“Polite people get poisoned”: This is a direct quote from Lois. She didn’t take no for an answer when the superintendent brushed her off. Although she wasn’t deliberately mean, she also didn’t play by the rules that were set before her. Calling out individual politicians (especially during an election year) wasn’t “polite,” but it was effective.

Exposure to organizing helps all movements. Lois credits her ability to organize so effectively to the labor movement that was so active in her community. What a great testament to the importance of labor not just to workers’ rights, but to all those who are looking to join together to fight against larger entities. Supporting all organizing efforts … supports all organizing efforts.

You don’t have to be rich, well-connected, or a phD in organizing to make a difference: Lois had zero experience. She had a high school diploma. She lived in a community of people who made $10,000 per year – a typical working-class neighborhood.

And they took down the White House.

If they can do it, so can you.

Let’s get to work.

Actions for the Week of January 11, 2022:

Reform the Filibuster; Voting Rights are On Deck:

This is the big week, folks. As we discussed last week, Leader Schumer has promised movement on voting rights (i.e., the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act) this week and next. Martin Luther King Day is next Monday, and that is the “deadline,” so to speak.

In advance, this week we need an all-hands-on-deck push to move this legislation over the goal line.

There are LOTS of ways you can pitch in. This incredibly helpful page from Chop Wood Carry Water includes many. (https://tinyurl.com/helppassftv)

From text banks to phone banks, there are options for you to pitch in. Challenge yourself to choosing at least one:

Plus: Call your Senators EVERY DAY (the general switchboard is 202-224-3121, or text “DEMOCRACY” to 33339 and you’ll receive a daily text message with a reminder and the phone number to call) and say:

Hi, my name is _____ and I’m a constituent from ____. I am calling to urge the Senator to support the Freedom To Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. This legislation is so crucial, and there’s no time to waste. Please tell the Senator that the right to vote is important to constituents like me, and shouldn’t be a partisan issue. [If Republican: Rise above politics and support democracy.] [If Democrat: If we need to reform the filibuster to get this across the finish line, do it. The Senator’s oath to the Constitution is more important than a senate rule.] Thanks.

Call on President Biden (H/T Americans of Conscience Checklist.)

Call on President Biden to support voting rights legislation. Contact: President Biden, via the White House comment line at https://www.whitehouse.gov/get-involved/write-or-call/or email contact form at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/. Script: Hi, I’m a resident of [ZIP] and I’m asking President Biden to publicly support the passage of the Freedom to Vote Act (S. 2747) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (S. 4), even if changes to Senate rules are necessary. His public encouragement could get these crucial voting rights bills passed, protecting the freedom of all Americans to vote according to their consciences. Thank you.

Register for the first Truth Brigade BIG TRUTHS call of the year on Wednesday, January 12

Join Indivisible’s 2022 Kickoff Webinar Big Truths with Roger McNamee, founder, with U2’s Bono, of Elevation Partners and author of Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe. We inhabit a world where artificial realities thrive, personal choice is devalued and profit and power-seeking drive the undermining of our institutions. Roger McNamee understands the root causes of this system better than anyone, and we can’t wait to learn from him about the mechanism behind the madness and how individuals can and must disrupt the disinformation machine at the heart of the harm. Sign up here: https://indivisible.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJArdu-vrz8rH93lduLYHXOvC0ISDDLRfy5L

Inspired by the Street Captains? Become a Voting Squad Captain!

Did the LCHA Street Captains inspire you? Great! You can use the same model with When We All Vote, which is using Voting Squads, led by Captains. As a voting captain you can organize your friends, family, and community around getting registered and ready to vote.

Voting Squad Captains will have opportunities to:

  • Join exclusive trainings and briefings
  • Get access to coaching, tools, and resources to build their squad
  • Be part of a nationwide community of highly motivated organizers working to make sure that everyone participates in our democracy

You can read the Voting Squad Starter Guide here: https://whenweallvote.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/WWV21003-Voting-Squad-Guide-2021-Update_v3.pdf

And sign up to become a voting squad captain here: https://whenweallvote.org/votingsquad/

NOTE: Plan your personal Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Of Action for voting rights. 

Although I usually don’t post events/reminders that happen a week from now, I’m making an exception here because this coming Monday is MLK Jr. Day. On 1/17, communities across the country will gather to raise our voices to demand our elected officials pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. No doubt that your local activism community will find ways to honor King’s legacy, and push for reform. Plan to spend some time on 1/17 protecting the right to vote.

WHEW! GO TEAM!

P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

P.P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at
https://www.patreon.com/smalldeedsdone or via paypal at https://www.paypal.me/smalldeeds
My deepest gratitude in advance.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every email! We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.

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