Phyllis Omido, mother of a sick baby poisoned by drinking her own breast milk, sprang into action when she learned smelter from a nearby factory compromised human health, stunted childhood development, and increased the rate of miscarriages and still births in her community in Kenya. Although thrown in jail for her effort in 2012 to protest toxic factory emissions, she still pressured the government to shut the plant down. They did, two years later.
Environmental success stories like Omido’s are far and few between, but they do exist.
Dressed in their native garb, one by one, they walked on stage to a roaring, thunderous ovation that filled the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. That night, the spotlight belonged to Phyllis Omido (Kenya), Myint Zaw (Myanmar), Howard Wood (Scotland), Jean Wiener (Haiti), Marilyn Baptiste (Canada), and Berta Cáceres (Honduras) — all of whom have a story worth listening to.
On April 20, 2015 these six grassroots environmental leaders were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. This prize recognizes individuals around the world for their activism, sacrifice, and sustained effort to protect and enhance the natural environment.
This year’s west coast ceremony, moderated by award-winning Bay Area broadcast journalist Dana King, lived up to its reputation of being an “emotionally-filled” event as over 3,000 people collectively cheered, laughed, wept, and were inspired by each environmental steward.
From galvanizing community members to stand in the way of big business and private interests, to pioneering national environmental movements in the midst to political instability and poverty, to empowering nations to see the long term value in managing natural resources sustainably, these individuals accomplished it all with gumption, gusto, and grit in a dignified way.
As I watched and listened to the stories of each prize winner, it reminded me of three Bay Area women who pioneered an environmental grassroots movement of their own in 1961. While each of these individuals may be heroes in our own eyes, the truth is that they are all ordinary people, like you and me, who took extraordinary actions to protect the natural world.
As people who care about the health of our natural world, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture in this storied quest for environmental justice and forget that others in your local and global community share the same vision of a healthier planet. However, in the words of Jean Wiener, “It’s not enough to simply say things, action is required on our part” for such dreams to come to fruition.
It’s a privilege to live in a progressive region that cares about the environment, but that comes with a shared responsibility to protect, nurture, and preserve the open spaces we love around the Bay Area.
While all of us may not be ready to lead an environmental crusade, there are plenty of things we can do together to defend our natural resources. For example, saying no to Styrofoam and single use plastic bags, volunteering at a wetland restoration event, or standing up against shoreline development.
It sometimes feels like we are constantly fighting an uphill battle against development, pollution, and climate change, but these six individuals serve as living proof that one person can make a difference.
I know they’ve inspired me to keep fighting the good fight.