The Portland State Institute for Sustainable Solutions partnered with Neighbors for Clean Air to host a screening of the film A Fierce Green Fire on May 15, which details the history of environmental movements around the world. Current executive director of the City Club of Portland and former Mayor Sam Adams was on hand to host a Q&A with one of the film’s featured activists, Lois Gibbs.
“[We] have an environmental hero with us today to inspire us, to take it to a whole new level because we haven’t even begun to scratch our potential,” Adams said before the discussion began.
ISS Communications Director Christina Williams believes that Gibbs is a role model for a new generation of people who care about the environment.
“Lois Gibbs is one of the early forebearers of the environmental health movement, and so I think it’s important for students who have benefited from a lot of what she’s done to hear from her firsthand about her struggles,” Williams said.
Gibbs’ efforts began in 1976 in Love Canal, a neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York. The area where she lived had been built atop 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals stored underground. The resulting pollution soon led to disease among the infants and children of the neighborhood.
A study by locals determined that 56 percent of children born had birth defects. This study and the general outcry was led by Gibbs, whose own two children had become ill.
The government sent officials from the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct studies. According to Gibbs, they advised residents to stop growing vegetables, going into their basements or walking barefoot, but they refused to take any action.
The film portrays a climactic moment when Gibbs organized a hostage situation. The officials from the EPA were barricaded inside a residence and Gibbs, now in contact with President Jimmy Carter, told him immediate action was necessary. Carter acquiesced, making a personal appearance and putting into motion an emergency evacuation. The aftermath with Gibbs’ sick children was overwhelmingly positive.
“We moved from Love Canal,” Gibbs said. “They got healthy, as did many kids from Love Canal, which also shows you how resilient the American person’s body is.”
The film, directed by Mark Michell, featured celebrities as narrators. Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende and Meryl Streep added their voice talents, and the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. Learning from mistakes in the past and the successes of people like Gibbs were some of the big takeaways from the film.
“She’s very inspiring, in terms of one person can make a difference,” Williams said. “So I’m hoping that students will hear what she has to say and learn a little more about the Love Canal experience, which was before a lot of students’ time, or they were very young. That’s a really empowering message for students to hear, especially when we’re faced with all the big challenges we are.”
Gibbs sees things getting better, but also a need for people to stand up when they see a problem. She was motivated by her family and strong emotions.
“My strength just came from the anger within me that the system doesn’t work. At first it was, ‘If I didn’t do it, who would?’ Afterwards, many community people called me from all over the world and said, ‘We think we have a problem like that and we don’t know what to do. What did you learn and how can you share that?’ And that’s what kept me going.”
Today, Gibbs is the executive director for the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a national nonprofit organization that provides organizing and technical assistance to grassroots community groups in the environmental health and justice movements. Sharing her thoughts with the audience, Gibbs states that change must come from common places.
“I think it totally takes an everyday citizen getting into a politician’s face. Politicians are only as powerful as you make him or her. A politician will only do what he or she has to do to stay in office,” Gibbs said.
“And yeah, corporations will give them huge donations, and if you’re not in their face, they’re going to answer to the corporation. But they have to come home to get voted back into office.”
As Adams sat across from Gibbs, he was full of praise for her grassroots efforts, but he also sees the issue of environmental sustainability as far too low on the nation’s priorities.
“We are very lucky,” Adams said. “Portland is ranked one of the most sustainable cities in the United States, but when I served as mayor and served as chief of staff to mayors … I would always follow the ethic that Portland might be the most sustainable city in the United States, but that’s high praise on an incredibly low standard.
“To give a local example, there are political action committees, which focus on a lot of local issues here in Portland. There isn’t a single political action committee whose mission is to focus on Portland’s urban sustainability.”
Adams sees PSU as a key player in the development of urban sustainability.
“We see it in the Institute for Sustainable Solutions having a partnership program, so students have the opportunity to either work in departments of government or non-profits that allow a student to be both an advocate for sustainability out in the community, and then take that real world experience back into the classroom,” Adams said.
“This is the best urban university in the United States, and a key reason for that is long term planning, public health, green business and all the sustainable practices. PSU is key for the future success of Portland’s urban sustainability efforts.”
Watch the trailer for A Fierce Green Fire here: