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Women in the Movement

From the Navajo women fighting uranium tailings to the Latinas pursuing lead cleanup in Oakland, people of color who bear the brunt of pollution across the country are moving from victims to activists.

And in grassroots resistance to pollution, women have been leading the way in calling attention to environmental health problems and doing something about them.

In my travels as an environmental reporter, I've been awed by women who've led difficult struggles to get horrendous environmental problems targeted and solved.

Perhaps it's because women aren't as easily intimidated by authority. At an historic women's meeting in Window Rock, Arizona, in the mid-1970s, Navajo Tribal Council member, the wise Annie Waneka, was a model for other women. She found the room for a big national conference locked. She just laughed, and said it didn’t surprise her. She got it opened.

Or perhaps it’s because women find the courage when they see their children threatened by dangerous radiation or chemical emissions or leaded paint or pesticides or toxic waste incinerators. Women who have never spoken in public, or raised their voices or questioned authority, find it easy when the health of their families is at stake.

Women, including women of color, are on the front lines of protest, research, lobbying, and public education to slowly and painfully bring about change.

Here are some of the places:

In Arizona,

  • Cyanide in a Tombstone silver mine threatened groundwater.
  • Families lived in mobile homes atop asbestos tailings and Tonto National Forest residentws in Globe were sprayed with the herbicide 2,4,5-T.
  • A copper smelter spewed out sulfur dioxide in Douglas.
  • Drinking water tainted with trichloroethylene, or TCE, was unknowingly delivered to people's houses for 30 years in Tucson.
  • On the Arizona Strip at the Utah border, Mormon communities were contaminated by Nevada Test Site atomic fallout.

In California,

  • A fire released toxic chemicals into neighborhoods in Oroville.
  • In Calaveras County, asbestos dumped on roads put children at risk.
  • In the Central Valley, people drank well water contaminated with pesticides and worked in freshly-sprayed fields.

In researching a recent story on lead pollution in Oakland, I met more strong women. I can still hear the words of Guadalupe Nuño, Maria Garcia, and Luz Maria Fonseca, who talked of a new organization in the Fruitvale neighborhood.

The mothers became part of the environmental movement after they learned from People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO), a group launched by the Center for Third World Organizing, that their yards and playgrounds contained lead.

Now they go from door to door to get people to meetings. They—whites, blacks, Filipinos and Hindus—protested at Children's Hospital in Oakland in July 1990 to change the system and get routine lead testing under the Children's Health and Disability Prevention Program of Medicaid.

Nuño, sitting in her living room, said she had lived in her tidy house by the railroad tracks for 15 years before she even learned about lead in paint, soil and air.

"There are a lot of problems with lead, but they don't want to listen to us. They don't want to clean up our neighborhoods. The people who live here, well, we've known each other for 10 years, but they don't do anything for us.

"We need more information. We need more people to come here and speak to us in Spanish. But I don't feel isolated, and I'm not afraid of going to protests. Slowly more people understand about the lead problems." She smiles and says, "Adelante."

Women of Color       ?õ¬?       Vol. 1 No. 4      ?õ¬?       Winter 1991