The Grassroots

by Stormy Williams

Grassroots groups are the sentinels, reactors and troops of the environmental movement. Grassroots groups are formed when a town or an area gets hit in the face with a flounder -- a toxic site, a cancer cluster, a toxic dump or incinerator, sewage sludge facility, waste transfer station, etc.

These groups can also form when something bad for their health and safety is proposed. These mostly small groups form to fight for their lives and they need help and support from other small groups, and from larger groups like Citizens for a Better Environment, Citizens' Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste, California Communities Against Toxics, and Greenpeace. These large umbrella groups provide information, education, training, moral support, physical support and legal and other types of needed expertise.

In California, as well as in other states, people of color are dumped on more often than affluent people. Therefore it is vital that the grassroots groups network and receive the help they need. Finances are usually a problem; postage, phone calls and copying expenses can get so high groups can't manage them. It's necessary to have fax machines and copiers when you live in a rural area, as it is too far to travel to find these services. Usually at least one person in the group gets these needed machines, through fundraising or help from other groups.

Here in the high desert of California our small anglo group made allies with the mostly Latino group in Kettleman City that was fighting off a proposed toxic incinerator on the site of the state's biggest toxic dump. We went to most of the rallies and demonstrations -- and we hauled up food and drinks, appeared and spoke at hearings, offered any support we could, both physical and moral. Finally after many years' fight the company withdrew they permit application, I cried on and off for two weeks. I couldn't even call up there; every time I even thought about Kettleman City I'd cry. They had a festival to celebrate and I couldn't figure out what I should bring. They finally called and said it was decided I should bring the salsa! Not salad or soda. We all just howled -- they said just buy it, don't try to make it. It is a wonderful and satisfying experience working with people of different cultures. Challenging sometimes but enlightening and gratifying.

Here in California we have a string of successes in stopping toxic incinerators -- Rhone-Poulen in Martinez, Kettleman City and Alpaugh in the San Joa-quin Valley, Mojave in the high desert, Vernon near East Los Angeles, and some of us helped to keep an incinerator from starting up in Tijuana across the Mexican border. In the case of the incinerators being planned at Alpaugh and Mojave it took just one meeting to run them out of town. Not to imply that these were your generally gentle, quiet meetings. Sometimes when the proponents get a load of the mood of the locals they get the picture real fast. There is a place for polite and there is a place for I'm fighting for my life and look out!

The grassroots group in the small farming town of Alpaugh named themselves "Endangered Species, Alpaugh." They had T- shirts printed up with those words and a picture of three or four children holding hands in a circle with a slash through it. These shirts said it all -- no to poisoning our children.

The meeting up there was a classic -- the Spanish interpreter was a Methodist minister. He got so angry at the state officials and the proponents that he slammed down the mike and said he was through -- too many lies at the worst meeting he had ever attended. This just brought down the house. He stormed out. It was a classic moment -- never to be forgotten by those attending.

It is said that sometimes the grassroots don't know there is a dangerous problem in their area until illnesses show up. Most people do not go around with their antennae out looking for toxic-related or nuclear-related businesses. We all need to know what is in our neighborhoods and if we detect that something isn't right we need to get nosey and curious and start investigating. It is so sad when the detection comes too late, as it did for the nine children in my town of Rosamond who comprise California's worst childhood cancer cluster. Seven of these nine children are dead. They still don't know which of our toxic sites is at the fault. There are 24 toxic sites in the list and all are permitted businesses allowed to run amok. Over half of these children died of a rare brainstem cancer. It should never have happened.

Stormy works with the Ward Valley Coalition, ccat, Desert Citizens Against Pollution, and many other groups.