I grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, an oil rich town where black gold pervades the culture. The Petroleum Club was five minutes away from my childhood home. My Mom bought our clothes in the neighborhood mall called the Oil Center. I grew up admiring Exxon, thinking Shell was good. And then, at the age of 27, I learned about oil production in Nigeria.
While riding a train in San Francisco, I read a Harper’s Magazine article about the oil industry’s destruction of farmland in Nigeria. I was only two years removed from the Peace Corps in West Africa – a small country called Togo. I knew that if the fields in Togo were destroyed, people would die. And in Nigeria, Shell was destroying the fields with ceaseless oil spills and the constant laying of new pipes. Always more pipes, always expansions. People were dying because of oil.
This new knowledge put my worlds at odds. One world was the place I grew up, the friendly fathers I’d known throughout my lifewho were also oil men who’d made a fortune in the industry. I knew these men through the lens of a little girl, and through that lens they were generous, avuncular and kind. Next to these men was my other world: the village of Nadjoundi in Togo where I had been a Peace Corps volunteer. Here were the deepest loves of my life, a family that had welcomed me, had shared all they had. During my two year stay they scraped a living from the fields. I saw my dear friend Koosia, the mother of the family, wracked with concern as her two year old lay listless with malaria. I worried with her as she lamented the poor harvest. I laughed and talked with her every night as we looked at the sky filled with stars.
When I learned about the oil industry’s destruction in Nigeria, I immeditately imagined it happening to Koosia, taking place in Nadjoundi. There was no question about whose side I was on. Africa was my introduction to the oil industry’s abuses.
I volunteered and then worked for organizations in the Bay Area that were combatting the destruction of Nigeria. Before long I felt a nagging tug, a physical yank from the south. “Isn’t this going on in your home state, too?” I asked myself. And so, at the age of 30, I moved back to Louisiana. When I left for college I thought I’d never, ever live here again. But I had a mission.
I met Margie Richard right when I moved home. She was leading the Concerned Citizens of Norco in a battle royale against Shell. Her battle was a resounding confirmation of the approach that began in Nadjoundi: working with people at the community level, taking on their cause as my cause, adding whatever muscle I could bring to their fight.
From Norco there was New Sarpy and then Chalmette and thenBaton Rouge and now, 15 years later, St. Rose. In between there have been dozens of other communities, and though the odds are always against us I am not discouraged. For one thing, we win. In every single community where we focus community wisdom and energy on a polluter, we win. Our collaboration with communities has forced Exxon, Shell, Valero and Calumet to reduce pollution by installing pollution control equipment and air monitoring systems. Constant media pressure is one key to this success. And in a landscape smacking of agency capture, we have forced two federal investigations in the last three years and have exposed pollution so egregious that fines and enforcement have taken place.
Yet dirty energy is still raking in the profits, and granting tax breaks to polluters to build even more facilities is the norm in Louisiana.
But I am not discouraged because I have the long view. This is my life’s work. If I live to 103 like my grandmother did, I still have half a century to take down fossil fuels. This is my life’s work. As I write those words I feel – no joke - a stirring in my soul. This ismy life’s work.
How do I know? It is impossible to articulate, but in my life I have found a cause and a love that I cannot shake, a cause that propels me from bed in the morning and has me working devotedly and happily til late at night. At the center of it all are the people – the people like Koosia and Margie Richard. It’s the people who matter.
The people also make this painful, for working in Cancer Alley brings its share of illness and death. A few years ago I went to the funeral of my friend Gloria xx. She is the sister of my dear friend Iris Carter, another leader from Norco.
The minister’s eulogy was soaring, and as he comforted us he said that we keep going in this life, going toward something beautiful. He said we don’t know how we get there, but we will. He then quoted a Bible verse that most in the audience seemed to know. “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
That is how I feel about this work. We walk by faith, not by sight. I don’t know how we will beat the oil industry. I have some ideas, but I cannot tell you how we will take apart ExxonMobil, a company that makes $40 billion year after year. How did those before us bring down slavery? How does anyone ever beat big odds? We work hard, do our best and then walk in faith that we will win. This was the sentiment when we blockaded Wall Street at the Climate March in September. “I believe that we will win.”
In the last year one of the most well respected men in the state – General Honore – has stepped forward to help us win. He has – miraculously – taken up the environment as his cause. Who could have predicted that? He has given us a new power and unity. This is what walking in faith has brought.
Sometimes my co workers and I crash oil industry events as part of our strategy to upend the status quo. I often see people I know at these events – people from high school or my neighborhood in Lafayette. They are always on the oil side. And they are on that side because they never saw any other.
I owe my understanding to Nadjoundi. I am still in touch with Koosia. She has a cell phone now so we can talk. Writing this has inspired me to call her today. I can’t possibly express to her all that she has done for me, including helping me to find my life’swork.