When Sandra Steingraber received a call for help from an organization attempting to block expansion of a hazardous waste dump that sits on the border of their Illinois town of Peoria, she rolled up her shirt sleeves.
The author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, Steingraber was no stranger to the devastating effects of toxic chemicals. “I had my own experience with cancer living in this very place, quite possibly from carcinogens in the water,” she says. The landfill (one of only a handful in the country that accept some of the most dangerous chemicals known to exist) threatens an aquifer that provides water to both central and northwest Illinois.
Steingraber and the citizens’ group, Peoria Families Against Toxic Waste (PFATW), teamed up with the local Sierra Club chapter and Peoria’s medical community to educate themselves and the public. In the end, thanks to countless hours of testimony and thousands of pages of evidence, the landfill expansion was denied.
So how do you take on Goliath and win? PFATW leader Kim Converse shares their formula for success with grass-roots activism:
Find diversity. “The great strength of our group is that we each had different talents and interests: finance, science, outreach, politics, fundraising, research, writing, media exposure, etc.”
Hire experts. Besides Steingraber, the group and partner organizations hired an attorney and a geologist, and enlisted the testimony of the medical community.
Embrace technology. The strategy included a comprehensive Web site, plenty of 3 a.m. e-mail exchanges, and an Internet group to promote constant communication. “One of the major keys to our success is that we were very plugged in; we did a lot of research on the Web and made a lot of Freedom of Information Act requests.”
Research/network. Talk to people who’ve done it and were successful. The group had conference calls with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (an organization that provides resources to activists working on toxic waste issues), and they are now receiving calls themselves.
Get out there and pound pavement. Billboards, lots of yard signs, letters to the editor and good-old-fashioned door knocking are effective ways to get your message across.
Huddle up on a regular basis. The group met every Monday night with few exceptions.
Organize. The team drafted a plan and got right to work. They didn’t waste time lamenting or venting.
Fill the room. “We brought out hundreds of people to the hearings. It’s really something else to have two-thirds of the room filled on a Monday night. Employees of the landfill’s owner, Peoria Disposal Co., and their families were there, too.”
Never give up. “It’s been surprising how much people are willing to give if you have vision and hope.”
Learn about ways you can work for environmental justice by clicking here.