Photo by Kayana Szymczak
When I started working in New Orleans, one of the first, and most valuable resources I was connected to was Karen Savage’s Gulf Coast Fund. Karen volunteers her time to collect and organize a daily email about the Gulf Region’s community events, activities, and resources. It has been a vital way for me to connect with others working in the Gulf, and stay informed on what’s going on. Then in 2014, I met Karen at a Bridge the Gulf event. I had long thought of her as my “information angel” and it was so nice to meet her in person. I soon learned Karen’s work extends well beyond her daily email updates. Her community work, research, and journalism to expose companies who bring harm to communities and families across the Gulf Coast has brought much needed attention to disturbing injustices.
For example, In 2013 Cherri Foytlin and Karen published an article in the Huffington Post that exposed, among other things, the company ChemRisk. The article went on to explain that ChemRisk “released an “independent” study concluding that off-shore workers who cleaned up BP’s oil between April and October 2010 were not exposed to harmful levels of certain airborne chemical compounds” (quote from the Huffington Post article). The article goes on to call out ChemRisk’s “long, and on at least one occasion fraudulent, history of defending big polluters, using questionable ethics to help their clients avoid legal responsibility for their actions.” In response ChemRisk filed suit against Cherri and Karen saying that “Ms. Foytlin and Ms. Savage had intended to write a “hit piece,” and as long as the article remained online, its “falsehoods will continue to do substantial harm to ChemRisk’s reputation.” (New York Times article by Barry Meier published October 2015 “Science Consultant Pushes Back Against Unlikely Opponents”) The New York cort dismissed the claims and Cherri and Karen “shot back with a motion to dismiss the Massachusetts suit under the anti-SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation, statute. They had a reasonable factual basis for their statements and, in writing the post, they had merely exercised their right to petition...The appeals court agreed.” (from a Law360 update “Enviros Cleared Of Defamation For Huffington Post BP Blog” written by Kat Sieniuc)
Karen’s interview below
What kind of support do you look for for your community organizing activities?
The obvious, funding! Goes without saying but it’s a reality. It’s also really important that whatever resources there are, and whatever groups they go to, that there are folks that are there to help to listen to community and follow their lead, as well as offer expertise.
Are there any resources for your environmental work that you’ve found to be helpful? Such as guides, monitoring resources, websites, trainings, network, or otherwise?
People, connections and relationships have been really helpful with work on the ground. Individual communities are fairly small voices, but once those voices are amplified and pushed out they can be connected to others in similar struggles. We all try to get better at this, but also look to allies with a larger organizations with more resources for getting the word out.
When you, or your group, is learning something new, what is the best way for you to receive information? What is your preferred method of sharing information?
It’s one of those things that you have to kind of need. That’s been the best way for me to learn. If I learn something that I might use two months from now, it’s not going to stick as much as if I’m desperate to find something.
Would being in a network of people from different backgrounds discussing environmental questions and collaborating on how to address them be useful to you? And what would you be interested in doing there?
It’s always useful, but it also depends on the level of discourse. The facilitators need to come from a really informed and connected place. I’m interested in effective ways to research corporations and what their company history is, who their people are, what their plans are. I’m looking for the nuts and bolts of the business for watchdogging them. I’m interested in knowing these things and getting ahead of the game. We’re always reacting. Someone has decided to build a pipeline, now we have to react. We need to get ahead of this curve. Every strategy for fighting these folks is valuable, and we have different ways of going about it. We and we need to go toe to toe against these companies.
Who would be important people for you to be able to engage with?
I think we need scientists. I think it’s incredibly important the whole science debate that goes on by the “industry of doubt”. All their tricks and secrets need to be brought out. Scientists, policy people, lawyers, people with local detailed environmental management knowledge are all important stakeholders to be able to engage with.
What would be important values or practices for the networking space to hold?
A framework of respect. Everyone is in a different place. Generally folks who do this work have the same goal. People have different ways to go about this, and we have to respect them because we need all the ways. We need people who might not be standing next to us on the front lines, to value their work and incorporate it. Keep doing what you’re doing, we need to all be together in the next 4 years.
--End of Interview--
To Karen, Cherri, and others who expose those responsible for environmental injustices in the Gulf Coast, and lift the stories of those who struggle at their hand. In solidarity.
**This post is part of a series with Grassroots and Environmental Justice Community Organizers. Read more on the series here or follow the blog tag to get updates on new posts.