Women Form the Frontlines of Local Environmental Activism

Kim Phillips is an accidental environmentalist. While most women now attaining national clout in the environmental arena spent years studying the issues and building their careers, the grassroots movement is led by former housewives like Phillips who knew little about environmental issues until one hit close to home.

Phillips, now the environmental chairperson of the Texas Parents-Teachers Association and a leader of Citizens to Save Lake Waco, says if someone had told her in 1990 she’d become an environmental activist, “I would have thought they were crazy. I didn’t know what the environment was.” But in 1991, when Waco proposed a landfill expansion next to South Bosque Elementary School, when she was PTA president, Phillips learned fast. “You get so angry when you find out the government is not protecting you” that you decide to do it on your own, she says. (The landfill wasn’t stopped, but the PTA won limits on access times for garbage trucks, better liners for the landfill and monthly meetings with the mayor. Phillips has since persuaded the state legislature to toughen laws about dump site locations.)

Phillips is not alone. Issues of environmental justice and health have captured the nation’s attention in the last 15 years, sparked by the explosion of grassroots organizations. While women in national environmental organizations and governments are slowly gaining power, there’s no denying their leadership roles out on the frontlines.

In Pensacola, Florida, Margaret Williams heads Citizens Against Toxic Exposure, a group formed in 1991 to battle the Environmental Protection Agency’s digging on a toxic site near her home. “As with most people, environmental issues had never crossed my mind,” she says. But when residents-most of them elderly and not well-off financially-began suffering eye and skin irritations and breathing problems, Williams quickly learned about the poisonous effects of dioxin. Although her group lost the battle to stop the digging, it recently persuaded the federal government to pay for the relocation of all 358 families.

“Women are leading the charge,” says Terri Swearingen, who achieved national recognition for her attempts to stop development of a hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. Most of these women aren’t media-savvy and aren’t polished public speakers; Phillips says that everything she knows about organizing, “I learned through the PTA.” But Swearingen says ignorance is actually “a great asset-I didn’t know the obstacles that would be in the way, so I didn’t see them. I just forged onward.” The incinerator went up anyway, but Swearingen’s dogged protests-and willingness to get arrested for the cause-gained enough attention to prompt Ohio Governor George Voinovich to halt future incinerator construction, and the Clinton administration to strengthen its regulations.

Most environmental justice protests arise out of poor, often minority communities, and usually it’s women who become involved at the grassroots level “because they are concerned about their children and about their health problems,” says Hazel Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery (PCR) in Chicago. Johnson only became an environmentalist when she learned about her neighborhood’s disproportionately high rates of cancer, asthma and bronchitis-all traced to waste dumps and plants near the projects.

Swearingen adds that men expend their energy at work, “then they come home and see their family-it’s totally separate. They don’t want to know about problems.” (Phillips adds that she’s seen many women give up environmental activism because their husbands felt threatened by it.)

Johnson says that men working at the grassroots level focus too much on establishing their power. Despite her title, she remains devoted to the concept of teamwork. “I don’t consider myself the leader,” she says, even though PCR-which she formed in 1978 to help tenants of her housing project get repairs done-has removed asbestos, shut down hazardous waste incinerators and stopped a new landfill project. Johnson was given a President’s Environmental and Conservation Challenge Medal in 1992. “I’m a person who likes to have action,” she says, “and I’ll do whatever it takes to get it done.”

Getting things done is often made more challenging because the media and industry frequently treats a woman activist as “a hysterical housewife,” Swearingen says. “So what if you’re just a mom.” Phillips adds, however, that a mom “is the best thing in the world to be.” She says a Waco city official once asked her, “Where are the cookies? The PTA is supposed to bring cookies,” and then didn’t bother deposing her in the case he was working on, though she was an expert witness. “It’s the idiot bimbohead syndrome, but I love it-it’s always good to be underestimated,” Phillips says. “When people make comments like that, it just makes me dig in.”