Something Erin Brockovich knows too well: There is no hero who will swoop in to save the day. It’s been 20 years since the Oscar-winning movie about her legal fight against Pacific Gas and Electric for illegally dumping toxic chemicals in Hinkley, California, turned her name into a verb. “To Erin Brockovich something” is to investigate and advocate for a cause without giving up.
The conditions that spurred her work in Hinkley have not stopped—they’ve intensified. The United States is experiencing a severe water crisis, an issue triangulated at the intersections of failing infrastructure, corporate greed, weak regulations, and intensified climate change. And the worst part? Most people don’t know it’s happening.
Armed with decades of experience and grounded by a lifetime of what she calls “stick-to-itiveness,” Brockovich has recently released Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It. The goal? To give readers the comprehensive knowledge and support they need to be their own superheroes, in their own backyards.
“American children are growing up exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in history and it shows,” Brockovich says in her book. “I’m not going to accept that. In order to move forward, we have to find these solutions. The moment is here to do that.”
Brockovich recently spoke with Glamour about the importance of citizen science, the necessity of self-care, and the power people can harness when they trust their intuition and act out of the courage to love radically.
Glamour: Right off the bat, the title of your book is extremely alluring. Where did the title Superman’s Not Coming come from?
Erin Brockovich: It’s been in the making for a really long time. Just going back all the way as a kid, realizing that someone wasn’t going to fix my problems, to the moment I stepped out in Hinkley. We all realized that whoever we thought was going to fix it, wasn’t. And we had to fight to be heard. Over the course of the last 20 years, every community I go into has this look on their face when they realize this. [They ask] why didn’t the agency clean this up or why weren’t we informed. I just had to start telling people. “I hate to inform you but, Superman is not coming.”
It’s through my work that this evolved, starting in Hinkley where I thought this was a one off and jump in the future and here we are today. It’s everywhere. And I don’t know if we thought that Santa Claus or Superman was gonna come fix it, but that’s not going to happen. It will have to be we, the people.
In your book, you emphasize the importance of stick-to-itiveness as being a framework for creating change. What advice do you have for parents who would like to help their children to embrace this framework?
It’s hard to do that with young kids. I have grandkids and the six-year olds are going to be six-year olds. It’s something that you just keep instilling in them and that’s what my parents did. I don’t think they thought I ever got it and frankly I didn’t, until I had my own children. I kind of see that process with my kids as they are adults now. They know it now, the stick-to-itivness, and it gets stronger in them. It is a constant repetitive message that I think you subconsciously can drive into their minds, but they won’t always get it until they themselves are older.
What advice do you have for young women that look at your story and aspire to be change makers in their own communities?
It boils down to looking at yourself and believing in who you are and that you can [do it]. It is true self-empowerment and oftentimes we don’t go there because we’ve got that negative voice that gets stuck in our thinking. It says, “You don’t have this degree, so maybe you can’t do that” or “Are you kidding me, you’re at home raising your kids! How can you possibly run for city council?” It’s a process of finding a quiet space to hear your voice to knock out the negative and go: “I got this”.
You’ve got this. Trust your logic, which is your common sense. You know what you’re drinking, or seeing coming out of your tap, or what your children are experiencing. That happened in Hinkley, it happened in Flint, it happened in almost every community—when a mom has a sick kid. They know it. And they have to go through neighbors saying “It couldn’t possibly be the water” or doctors saying “I’d know if it were a chemical”. [The mothers] know it, they own it and they stay with it. That’s that common sense set of skills that we have, but we question. Don’t.
In your book, you discuss how intuition is critical to the scientific method. However, there is this gatekeeping in the scientific community that reinforces this narrative that you need a scientific degree or Ph.D. to participate in science. Your work defies this. Why is citizen science so important?
Science is so much about observation and a process of eliminations. I had a conversation on a radio show, I believe we were talking about chemicals being added to the water in Columbia, Missouri, and people were experiencing health effects. They were noticing hair loss or their skin was burning or they’d get a sore on their head and a scientist told me, “Well you don’t have the data to conclude that it in fact is this chemical causing these problems.” I said [to him], “You’re right I don’t. I’m in the process of gathering that information though. But here’s what you’re not addressing on your side—you, the scientist, don’t have all the data points either. So how can you conclude that it doesn’t cause the problems these people are experiencing?”.
We don’t allow the people who are exposed to these chemicals to have a place to report the cause and effect. It’s oftentimes dismissed. Citizen science is real, because it’s collecting information from the people that are being exposed to it.
It’s clear that access to clean water is a human rights issue. Why is framing it as such important?
It’s water. None of us survive without it. We all need water. It is a gift on this planet that is life. There is no way that any group or country should be excluded from that. Water is not a right for corporations to own and dig out when they want. It’s a human right. We are water. You know what I’m fascinated most about water? Water is not a sound bite, it’s a story. And water is everyone’s story. I’m often fascinated that there are no two bodies of water on this planet that are the same. We are water. To turn against water, we turn against ourselves. We all are entitled to this right to water.
What advice do you have for people to maintain community in the self-distanced reality of the COVID pandemic?
That’s an excellent question. I’ve cycled through this myself. I have found that in some ways, that because we’ve been put on a hard stop, that I can actually think and find myself more effectively communicating via a conversation over the phone. We still do have ways to effectively build community. And we are doing it right now. If we were still in this crazy, busy time, we may not have the time to stop and have a meaningful conversation over the phone.
I often refer to environmental work as being the ultimate form of love. What are your thoughts on that?
Our “why” and our motivator is born of love. You often find your greatest successes there, [when you] look at what you’re fighting for and why you are fighting for it. It’s usually because you love your family, you love your child, and you love your health. Don’t be afraid to embrace it. We don’t do that. We think that our vulnerabilities are our faults and we hide behind them and don’t want anyone to know. I truly believe some of [what you] think are weaknesses are actually your strengths. Don’t be afraid to embrace them. It’s a process of understanding who you are, getting behind yourself and trusting in the decisions you are making. That comes from knowing yourself.
You’ve characterized activism as the work of love, of loving your community, family and—dare I say it—of loving yourself. What self care do you practice to ensure that you can continue to share this love in your work?
I allow myself to know that there will be days that I’m tired and [let myself] say I’m tired. Part of your health is your mental health. When you hit this moment [of exhaustion], that’s when you have to reconnect. You’ve got to recognize that and reboot. That’s when you will have the opportunity for self-renewal. That’s the fuel that you will need to keep going. When you recognize that, reboot! Disconnect, put your phone down, go walk on the beach, breathe in the beautiful smell of rain or cut grass. Do what you enjoy. You will hear your voice in that moment of self-renewal. People think when you need a break, it’s a weakness. No. That’s your strength.
Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru is a 21-year-old environmental justice advocate and founder of BlackGirlEnvironmentalist. She is the first Black person in history to receive the Rhodes, Truman, and Udall scholarships. You can follow her work on Twitter or Instagram.