Climate change is an existential crisis that needs creative and innovative solutions. In other words, in order to accomplish anything, we’re going to need to think outside of the box. But what does that even mean?
One example of an environmental organization that has found a way to think differently is the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ). CHEJ is essentially an umbrella organization for resources in grassroots activism and community organizing, specifically surrounding environmental health and justice. Its story is actually insane: Lois Gibbs was a stay-at-home mom in the 1970s, living in a neighborhood called Love Canal near Niagara Falls in New York. When she noticed all of the kids in the neighborhood were getting sick, she did some digging and learned that the neighborhood had actually been constructed on top of a toxic landfill.
What’s worse is that no one in local government or otherwise would help, claiming the landfill wasn’t their responsibility. So Lois took matters into her own hands — she started an activism campaign that gained national attention, demanding her children be allowed to live in a community that wasn’t poisoning them. That campaign eventually became the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), better known as the Superfund program, which today is responsible for designating and cleaning the nation’s most toxic hazardous waste sites.
Now, CHEJ works intimately with keeping the Superfund program in check. I learned at CHEJ that laws like CERCLA can provide an excellent framework for getting things done. However, bureaucracy means that progress is slow: Sites listed as Superfund sites probably won’t get cleaned up unless someone is constantly nagging the government to do so.
CHEJ frames its entire approach around this philosophy that grassroots activism and government programs can sometimes work in tandem. CHEJ knows that because the Superfund program was born out of community organizing, it ultimately must be enforced through community organizing. Today, CHEJ helps communities across the country get cleaned up through the Superfund program.
Lois Gibbs is a realist: she knows that in order to get a community cleaned up under the Superfund program, the community must be willing to put in the work to organize. She’ll help a community learn how to organize more effectively, but she won’t do that work for it because she knows it’s futile.
However, when a community does want to put in the work, CHEJ is beyond creative with its strategies and approaches to activism. They offer a small grants program, a leadership training academy and science and technical assistance, among other things. While their approach can be complex and varied depending on the case, they actually have success in accomplishing concrete goals for people.
My takeaway from my time working with CHEJ is that sometimes, the most successful activism works in tandem with government programs. Sometimes, especially when we are on a deadline, we have to take advantage of structures that are already in place in order to achieve our goals.