If you are waiting for someone else to advocate for you, you’re doing it wrong. ~ Dawn Chapman, Just Moms STL
“Ma’am, I’m unloading a lot of information on you,” said the voice on the phone. “Do you have any questions?”
She looked over at her daughter, quiet in the hush of an afternoon nap.
To be honest, sitting perched on the steps of her kids’ bunkbeds, all she had were questions.
Dawn Chapman had called her city government earlier that day, asking about a terrible, acrid smell. It wasn’t just a smell, really. It was more like … an experience. A caustic, putrid, eye-burning, throat-coating invisible cloud that would envelop them … only to waft away when the wind turned.
Sometimes she’d smell it in her car in the morning, a tell-tale sign it had settled in overnight. Sometimes she’d find a pocket of it as she turned a corner onto a different road. Driving with your windows down was risky.
What is it? She wondered.
It couldn’t be harmful, she reasoned, because that sort of thing just doesn’t happen in the US. But certainly someone knew what it was and what was being done about it. Someone would tell her.
So she dialed up the city of Maryland Heights.
A woman answered the phone, and, after hearing her question, paused and read from a script. “If you have questions, call the Department of Natural Resources at ….”
Dawn’s heart sunk. They’re kicking this to DNR, she thought. That can’t be good.
She placed a call to DNR, left a message, and then started putting her babies down for their afternoon naps.
That’s when she got a call back from Joe, at Missouri’s DNR.
They spoke for two hours.
And, while she balanced herself on those bunk bed stairs, looking at the giraffe she had painstakingly painted on the safari-themed nursery wall, what she describes as “her snow globe vision of the world” was shattered.
Over those two hours, Joe told her about Bridgeton Landfill, which wasn’t that far from her home. There was a subsurface fire in the landfill, he explained. Deep below ground. There was no way to extinguish it. It produced emissions, and hazardous liquid.
And it was spreading.
But there was more.
“I have to tell you something else, ma’am. And I need you to imagine this is all one issue.”
He dove into the explanation of St. Louis’s history purifying uranium for the Manhattan Project in the ‘40s. The castoffs from that process had been trucked in open dump trucks along the interstate, mixed with the local soil, and discarded. Some of that radioactive material had been dumped, illegally, at West Lake Landfill.
And West Lake Landfill happened to be right next to Bridgeton Landfill.
Nobody knew exactly where all of the radioactive material was. But they knew some of it was about 1,000 feet from the subsurface fire.
A stunning fact.
How could this be?
She absorbed it all while sitting in her kids’ bedroom, a place she had spent hours and hours to make perfect. When the baby got his own room, her daughter needed to share that bedroom with her son. So Dawn redecorated it with a safari theme to make the transition easier.
She had spent hours deciding on just the right pose for that giraffe, even more hours lovingly free-handing it and then filling it in with just the right color. She had spent hours poring over the right shades and positions for all of the animals.
And now this?
She and her husband had spent so much time looking for a house. Not just any house – the right house. The perfect one. The house they would raise their kids in. Maybe stay in forever. The one with the good school, the safe neighborhood, the cozy kitchen.
She’d spent so much time finding the right pediatrician. The one who would listen, who was good with all of her kids.
She had spent so much time making their lives – the kids’ lives – as perfect as she could.
But she had missed this.
Honestly, it had never occurred to her to look.
“I felt like an epic failure as a mom,” she said.
And, as she put it, she jumped into mom mode.
Soon enough, she found other moms like her, including a woman named Karen Nickel who lived around the corner who had started a Facebook page. They figured they’d use it to organize themselves.
You need to call yourselves something, they were told.
But we’re just moms, she replied.
And that is how Just Moms STL was born.
Just Moms began with a humble 100-person Facebook group that’s now over 13,000 people strong, and has been a constant thorn in the side of local, state, and national agencies and elected officials – holding them accountable for their action … and inaction.
Inaction was the name of the game until Just Moms came on the scene.
Although the site was added to the EPA Superfund program’s National Priorities List in 1990, it languished for years. In 2008, an EPA plan called for leaving the radioactive waste in place and capping the site. But still, nothing was done.
And here Dawn and Just Moms were, in 2013, having just learned that they were neighbors to a Superfund site that was perilously close to a subsurface fire.
They learned soon enough that none of the local officials knew anything about what was going on. Not the fire department, not the mayor, not the local state legislator.
Having had information withheld from them for so long, they decided to take matters into their own hands and monitor the site themselves.
Using blown-up topographical maps and temperature data they requested every week from the state using Missouri’s open records law, they studied the movement of the fire. They used color-coding for temperatures, shading them in with colored pencils.
In doing so, they made a startling discovery.
The fire was moving, and fast. Toward the radioactive waste.
Dawn called the local fire department and told them what she had found. As she describes it, she and the then-Chief “got into it.” “There is no way I wouldn’t know about something like this,” the Chief said.
He dismissively told her if she was so sure about this data of hers, she should drive up to the firehouse right now with the proof.
She buckled her kids in their carseats and set off down the road, maps in tow.
Within four minutes of looking at the maps, the Chief was gobsmacked. “Sonofa…”
He called the state (with choice words) and the local state representative’s office. This really was an emergency, and finally someone was acting like it.
Just a few weeks later, Missouri’s Attorney General sued the owner of the landfill.
Once that happened, the issue ignited and on took a life of its own. Press coverage blew up. Meetings that had been attended by a few dozen now hosted hundreds. A film crew followed her and others throughout St. Luois and Washington, D.C., ultimately turning their lives into the HBO film Atomic Homefront.
You would think the lawsuit and public acknowledgement would be a comfort. A validation. A recognition.
But Dawn sees it differently.
Because, as she said, “Part of you doesn’t want it all to be true. In this situation, being right has serious consequences.”
Over the last nine years, Dawn and Just Moms have fought tooth and nail for the EPA to clean up the site – not just cap it, as it had planned to do since 2008.
They have testified, protested, called and cajoled. They funded trips to D.C. by dipping into retirement.
And they were making an impact. That was pointed out to her when, while in D.C. lobbying for the passage of a bill, she learned she had unwittingly been followed by a horde of lobbyists. As she took her seat in the room behind her congressman, he turned to her and pointed at the back wall, which was lined with slick-suited lobbyists from agencies and corporations. As he wagged a finger at them, he said to her:
Don’t you ever doubt you’ve got ‘em running scared. Look at that back wall. Each one of those [bleep] is getting paid 300-400 an hour. Some of ‘em are lawyers. You did that.
Yes, they did that. There have been plenty of ups and downs, twists and turns. But finally, and in a first-ever for the EPA, it actually reversed its 2008 decision to simply cap the site.
And now, an actual cleanup is finally underway.
Meanwhile, residents have access to medical care and monitoring as part of a separate settlement.
Of course, it’s still not over. But they’ve already accomplished far more than anyone would have imagined.
Meanwhile, Dawn prides herself in still being “just a mom,” and never losing herself.
When they first began, Lois Gibbs (you recall her from this piece) explained that some people who do this work get numb after a while. It all becomes so much.
Dawn’s never let that happen. She still gets upset and emotional when she gets the calls from neighbors, “I found a lump…” You can still hear the passion and urgency in her voice when she talks about all of the work she’s done, and what’s still to come.
And you can hear the pride in her voice when she talks about how she has been able to do this while being authentically herself – even while nose-to-nose with statewide and national leaders.
She laughed when recalling what she described as “a really big call” with the Attorney General, the EPA, Senator Roy Blunt, Senator Claire McCaskill, and US Representatives Lacy Clay and Anne Wagner.
As usual, she took the call at her house.
Her son was potty training at the time, and they had one bathroom.
So there she was, on the telephone while sitting on the floor in the hallway, passing her son Cheerios, and puzzles, and books, and keeping him busy. She turned away for a moment, engrossed in the conversation – only to be interrupted by his proud, little toddler voice screaming…
“MOMMY! I POOPED!”
And, without missing a beat, she yelled back – “Yay! Way to go!”
And you know what?
Everyone on that call clapped for him too.
(In fact, it is now one of those US Rep’s favorite stories.)
She could have shushed him. She could have muted her life. But, as she says, “I stayed true. I’ve always stayed true.”
To this day she thinks that interaction scared some of the people on that call, because it crystalized the stakes. Her motivation was made much more clear.
“Don’t underestimate our willingness in these situations to take on a burden to protect our kids.”
I have no doubt she’s right.
But I think the folks on that call were probably a little wary of her already. Dawn still doesn’t seem to realize just how much she is viewed as a force of nature.
Maybe that goes with the territory – it’s not every day that the person who’s wiping noses is wiping the floor with her opponents.
After all, she’s just a mom.
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:
Be the expert: Dawn was taken seriously because she knows – intimately – what she’s talking about. In an interview with Washington University she explained that she and Karen had documents that agencies didn’t even have. “Between Karen and I, we have over 30 thousand pages of documents that go all the way back to the 1940s, and not one person is alive, probably besides Karen and I, that have read through all of them.” (See https://sites.wustl.edu/prosper/recap-environmental-justice-with-just-moms-stl/) She knew more about the direction and movement of that fire than anyone at the site or at DNR. Her depth and breadth of understanding has been a real asset, and instantly made her – and their organization – credible. How can you bolster your understanding of the issues you’re trying to tackle? How can you be the expert that local leaders go to for a better understanding of the issue?
Superman isn’t coming: Dawn quoted this phrase from Erin Brockovich a few times during our conversation. It’s the flip side of the inspirational saying: You are the one you’ve been waiting for. She never expected to be put in the situation she was in – but once there, she recognized that nobody was going to come to their rescue. They had to snap into action and do that work on their own. It’s a harsh takeaway, but sometimes you just have to pull on your boots and get to work.
Stay true to yourself: This is what Dawn is most proud of. She hasn’t let her identity suffer. I believe a lot of her successes have to do with the authenticity and passion with which she advocates.
Make voter registration part of every meeting: Dawn’s group is not partisan. (She proudly notes that for quite a while there was a bet about whether she was a Democrat or a Republican.) But she knew that adding voter registration tables to their events would catch attention. Her reasoning? If people who care about this issue vote – and elected officials know that – then that will help their advocacy. (Plus, it’s easy, and it’s just a good idea.)
Ask questions… and question the answers: Dawn started out not believing anything like this could happen in the United States, let alone in her backyard. She’s spent the last nine years uncovering truths and asking hard questions. Don’t be afraid to do the same.
**LAST NOTE: (And first action) Dawn and Karen continue to do this work, unpaid, and using their own resources. During our interview I learned about the toll its taken on their retirement accounts and their families. So far, they have shied away from aggressively asking for donations to the organization. So I’m going to aggressively ask you for donations on their behalf. 🙂 You can donate directly to Just Moms STL here: http://www.stlradwastelegacy.com/how-to-help/donate/
Actions for the Week of January 25, 2022
Here’s why Texas is in the news: Texas primaries are in March, and voter registration ends one week from today, on February 1. As always, the GOP has put up a lot of barriers, with mail-in ballot applications being rejected by the thousands and the excuse of “paper shortages” used as an obstacle to new registrations. This great document (H/T Jessica Craven of Chop Wood Carry Water!) gives you a few options to pitch in and help – from afar. Options include phone banks, text banks – and even postcarding for those of you who are craft-ivists! Check it out and spread the word:
Join Field Team 6 in calling eligible voters (likely Dems) in Georgia.
Georgia is on everyone’s mind, with really consequential elections coming up and the state GOP’s laser focus on voter suppression. So join Field Team 6 to reach out to voters by phone. You’ll be reaching out to get people registered as Democrats, or signed up to vote from home (vote by mail) if they’re already registered (and 65 or over, or disabled).
Making sure people are registered to vote, and that they can vote safely from home, is a super-effective way to make a difference. All training provided!
NOTE: All times listed are Eastern Time! But just to be abundantly clear, the event will be taking place at 3pm ET/12n PT
Great NextGen Bootcamp: Going From “How Are You” to “Have You Registered to Vote?”
We all know the sad stats about past voter participation. And we all know the importance of registering voters. But sometimes those voter registration targets are closer than we think.
If we all checked in with our friends, neighbors, and family – and turned out just one more Democrat to vote – our elections would look really different. Consider, too, that when the rubber hits the road, you are much more likely to get a friend or family member to vote.
But sometimes those conversations with friends and family can feel uncomfortable, right? That’s why I love this new Next Gen’s bootcamp on Thursday, January 27 (it’s part of a great series): https://www.mobilize.us/nextgen/event/428307/
Checking in on friends and family is easy but sometimes it’s hard to encourage those closest to us to get involved.
In this session we’ll discuss how to do just that! From how to get started and identifying what you care about and why you care about it, to how to have the conversations, the types of conversations you might have, and more, you will leave feeling fully equipped to go from “How Are You” to “Have You Registered to Vote”
This is one in a series of workshops in our Organizing Bootcamp — sign up for the rest of the events in the series here: http://nxtgn.us/bootcamp
Resist! The Relentless Attack on American Democracy and How We Fight Back
This Sunday, Jan 30, Join David Pepper, Author of Laboratories of Autocracy and Field Team Six for their Defending Democracy Speaker Series: (See their full calendar here https://www.fieldteam6.org/actions)
This is hosted by the Democratic Volunteer Center (DVC), which is proud to host Pepper, the author of “Laboratories of Autocracy” and Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party between 2015 and 2021.
Rob Bonta, Attorney General of California, will join us for a special introduction.
American democracy is under attack. Long before the events of January 6 and far from Washington, a well-organized, determined minority has worked for years to undermine the democratic foundations of our political institutions, seeking to establish permanent GOP minority rule. Largely at the state level, these forces of anti-democracy have rigged legislative elections, undermined voting rights, attacked courts, and are subverting the mechanics of the ballot-counting process and the Electoral College system.
In this timely warning of what the future holds if we don’t take action, author and law professor David Pepper speaks to where the greatest threat lies, the growing challenge, and the steps that we can and must take to win the fight for democracy in America.
Event preparation note: As foundational reading prior to this event, attendees are strongly encouraged to read David’s book, *Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call from Behind the Lines*. Then come with your questions!
This talk is co-sponsored by partners:
– Peninsula Democratic Coalition
– Santa Clara County Democratic Party
– San Mateo County Democratic Party
– Field Team 6
Sign up for the event here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/6716413553797/WN_v4Jq9tZdRLS3bV3Q5R787Q
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.