The gravity of this unparalleled moment in history is not lost on Erin Brockovich. After all, she can't leave her house without experiencing it firsthand. The 6o-year-old activist stepped outside her California home for the first time all day when she spoke to Woman's Day about the ongoing public health crisis, the existential threat of climate change, and her new book, Superman's Not Coming. As she stood outside, she was immediately hit by a wave of humidity and 106 degree weather. "We're supposed to finally get a break in California tomorrow," she says. "But damn."
A conversation organically unfolds, centering around how hot this COVID-19 summer has been and the difficulties facing the American public that lead this reporter to inadvertently cuss. "I love the f-bomb, a girl after my own heart," Brockovich graciously assures me. "I love it!" After all, what is going on across the globe is cause for a curse word here or there. The world is, literally and figuratively, burning. "Here we are, talking about a book sandwiched between the DNC and the RNC, the economy, and COVID," Brockovich sighs. It is, well, a lot.
But while much has changed since the movie Erin Brockovich was released 20 years ago — transforming Brockovitch into not only a household name but a verb (she writes, in the introduction of her book, that "to 'Erin Brockovich something' has become synonymous with investigating and then advocating for a cause without giving up") — her steadfast belief in the power of ordinary people, has not.
"Superman’s Not Coming is focused the environment, but if you really peel back that layer there, the real focus is on us believing in ourselves again and reconnecting [with the idea that] we need to be involved," Brockovitch explains. "Often times, we shy away because it is politics, and 'we can’t do that.' Or because it is science, and 'we can’t do that.' Well we can, and I think it’s pretty obvious that we need to be present and stand up."
"There's this whole idea that if you’re a stay at home mom you don’t know anything? Stay at home moms know everything."
It would be easy for Brockovich — for anyone — to become and remain pessimistic these days. The Trump administration has reversed over 100 environmental protection laws, at a time when the country has experienced the worst wildfire in the nation's history and the Atlantic hurricane season is on pace to be the worst in recorded history. The majority of Americans believe climate change is real, according to a 2019 Pew Research study, and most do not believe their government is doing enough to protect the planet. Young people led worldwide marches to protest elected officials' inaction on climate change, yet environmental protections continue to be dismantled. Those elected to serve the people do not seem to be listening to the will and needs of the people.
"You know, I watch politics closely and I always say that I'm not political," Brockovich says. "But there is always something political I could say about it, and I tend to have something to say about anyone in office that isn't following environmental issues. Because it isn't a priority for them, the all-mighty buck is."
"But [Trump] has really gone to extremes," she continues. "I don't know if it's out of not understanding what's really going on, or [he's] not getting information, or [he] flat out doesn't care, but I think he's causing major damage."
But Brockovich has seen this before: governments refusing to take the people they represent seriously. And she has seen the persistence of people — especially mothers — force governments to eventually listen, act, and do better.
A year before the water crisis in Flint, Michigan made national news, LeeAnne Walters, a stay-at-home mom of four, and Melissa Mays, a mom of three, and other moms in the area contacted Brockovich over the state of their water. "I am like, 'This isn’t right.' So I got it over to Bob Bowcock, who I work with closely and is a water expert," Brockovich explains. "He wrote me back and he said, 'I’m leaving for Flint tomorrow.'"
During his visit, Bowcock found high levelsof chlorine in the water. The lead and iron pipes that distributed water in the town had corroded, leading to dangerous levels of lead and iron in the water, too, as reported by CNN. In a recent interview with Amanda Fortini for The Atlantic, Brochovich says they drew up an entire water protocol plan for the officials of Flint as a result of their horrific findings. The city, Brochovich said, told them to "f*ck off."
The moms of Flint — who Brockovich says were the original "boots on the ground" — were not deterred but motivated by the city's inaction. They began mobilizing, but "we didn’t want to see them [and] we weren’t talking about them because, again, somehow when moms start to get evolved it becomes, like, a hysteria," Brockovich says. The mom of three and grandmother of five has, herself, experienced the cold shoulder of that "hysteria" — the idea that moms are "too emotional" and ill-informed for their concerns to be taken seriously. (And in Flint, where 53% of the people who live there are Black, the stereotypes and racism Black moms are up against make it more difficult for their messages to be considered valid by those in positions of power.)
"This whole idea that if you’re a stay at home mom you don’t know anything? Stay at home moms know everything," Brockovich says. "They are nurses, they are doctors, they are financiers, they do it all — they do. And they have a lot of gumption, and I think that’s instinctual for most moms — it’s just that guttural sense and they lock on and they’re hanging on, I’m just saying: they will do that. They were [doing that] in Flint then, and to see them rise up that always inspires me."
The state of Michigan is set to pay the victims of the Flint water crisis $600 million, according to a recent report by the New York Times.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s women rising up in their own backyard," Brockovich says.
"One hundred percent this is moms across America."
It's not just the moms of Flint from whom Brockovich draws her inspiration and optimism. Whether it's Roberta Walker of Hinkley, California, whose research brought Brockovich to investigate PG&E and the company's contamination of the town's water supply (PG&E was eventually ordered to pay victims a $333 million settlement, putting Brockovich on the map) to the mothers in Tonganoxie, Kansas, who, as Brockovich tells it, "ran Tyson out of their town because they didn’t want that in their town, polluting their water and affecting their families," Brockovich has spent an entire career witnessing the power of the people.
"One hundred percent this is moms across America," she says. "The ladies of Essure, they fascinated me." Essure, a medical device used as a form of permanent birth control put on the market by Baer, caused a number of reported side effects, including "persistent pain, development of a hole in the uterus or fallopian tubes, and movement of the device from the fallopian tubes into the pelvis or abdomen," according to the Mayo Clinic. Still, Baer was continuing to market the product due to "preemption protection," a complicated provision of the U.S. constitution used to protect manufacturers from liability lawsuits.
Women who had suffered painful side-effects as a result of the product got ahold of Brockovich. "Those women came to me and I said, 'Well, we got a preemption issue. And they were like, 'Well, what the hell is that?' And I told them that basically it can get out on the market and if it harms people you can’t sue because of preemption," she explains. "And they are like, 'Oh, hell to the no.' And they went from 5,000 to 15,000 to 25,000 to 40,000 to 50,000 women on a Facebook page. Then that went to 100,000 women. Then that went global."
The women began pooling funds to send groups to Washington, D.C. to lobby the Federal Drug Administration and elected officials to pull Baer's product from the market. "When [one] group had to come out, they had raised enough money to send the next group in," Brockovich says. "They never stopped. For 365 days a year, for years, at the FDA, showing up at the meetings, showing up on The Hill, going from senator to senator, knocking on door after door. They’d rotate one group in and out and they’d bring in the next and they kept that going, and I’m telling you that pressure alone? Well, Baer pulled [Essure] off the market — the world market."
"What they did in the US amazed me," she continues. "They worked together and they leveraged themselves."
"There are going to be days when you think you can't."
Brockovich also relies on “stick-to-itiveness,” a lesson she learned from her mother that has carried her through the entirety of her career.
"This is that stick-to-it moment that I have talked about on my keynote lectures since forever that I learned from my mom: definition is now, propensity to follow through in a determined manner; dogged persistence borne of obligation and stubbornness," she explains. "And now I’m gonna tell you: 100% of the women [I know] fit that title. And if they get going, they’ll keep going."
But with that stick-to-itiveness comes another important lesson that the environmental activist has relied on, especially in difficult times such as these. "There's never an I," she explains. "It's a we, and you gotta pass something off and not be afraid to say 'I'm tired' or "I need a break"... to have that moment [of rest] so somebody else can pick up the torch."
Brockovich says she's happy to pass that torch, and that the ones picking that torch up are also why she remains hopeful about the future. Young climate activists have captured the world's attention, after all, but they also seem to understand what many activists of past generations didn't: that self-care is a vital part of pushing society forward. That in order to take care of others, we must first take care of ourselves. That we do not need to be "perfect" in order to enact real, systemic, long-lasting change. That a change-maker can come from anywhere and be anyone.
"There are going to be days when you think you can’t," Brockovich says. "But if there’s something going on you don’t like, don’t be afraid to change it. Realize who you are, and part of that is realizing that, you know what? We’re not perfect. We have vulnerabilities and we have defects — we all do, I don’t know any perfect human being — and instead of seeing that as a fault, embrace it. Embrace it as a vulnerability and give yourself permission to cry."
There is no allusion tricking Brockovich into remaining optimistic. She is well aware of the challenges Americans face, both now and in the future. But she says "now is the moment when we turn to ourselves and say 'I’m going to have my back. I'm going have my family’s back. And I’m going to take up this issue." And Brockovich knows entire swaths of people who are ready for the challenges ahead. They've been ready. And she encourages everyone to steel themselves for the work needed to solidify a future — and a habitable planet — for today's children.
"You will get back up," she says. "And most importantly, when you lose your mojo — and I’m telling you, it’s easy to do in this crazy-ass world — take the time for self-renewal. We have got to remember to feed and love ourselves, and I know that sounds corny but it’s true. And when you can reconnect and you can hear yourself think and feel yourself feel and take that breath and have a moment of renewal, you’ll come out swinging tomorrow."
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