Grassroots Flower Power By David Spero For forty years, the Newtown Florist Club has brought flowers, food and other support to families of the sick and dying in their African American corner of Gainesville, 55 miles northeast of Atlanta. In 1990, they started wondering why they were always so busy. "I saw so many of my neighbors die," says Faye Bush, an indomitable 59-year old grandmother. "We lost 12 people on one street. We wanted to find out why." The women of the Florist Club went up and down the rambling streets, knocking on doors with their homemade community health survey. The results documented extraordinary rates of cancer and lupus, an autoimmune disease often leading to death from kidney and heart failure. After the nearly all-white Gainesville City Commission ignored the shocking statistics, Faye Bush began organizing the neighborhood to demand action by the State. "People called me a troublemaker," she remembers. "But I just kept going. You have to prove to them you're right. It's an educational problem. I had to educate myself." Finally the Georgia Department of Human Resources did a formal study that confirmed the Florist Club results but blamed the epidemic on the residents' lifestyles, specifically, alleged smoking and fatty diets. (This dodge for explaining cancer clusters in low-income communities has become a staple of health departments across the U.S.) The Newtown Florist Club rejected this explanation and in 1992 contacted ECO-Action, a group specializing in helping poor Georgia communities with toxics problems. With ECO-A's help, NFC began to discover the extent of the environmental abuse they suffered. THE TRUTH COMES OUT "We found that 75 percent of all the chemical emissions in Hall County are in this one neighborhood," says Sheila O'Farrell, ECO-A organizer. "Newtown has 13 of 16 toxic reporting facilities in the county and two Superfund sites." To force the State Environmental Protection Department (EPD's) hand, NFC planned an action campaign ("A little of everything," according to Bush.) They hung black ribbons on the mailboxes of people who had died and conducted "toxic tours" for media, politicians and environmentalists. The community-in-mourning effect was striking, and Newtown began to get publicity and pledges of congressional support. When EPD did their soil and water studies, they found heavy metal and petrochemical contamination hundreds of times acceptable limits. The neighborhood, built after a tornado flattened the area in 1936, turns out to rest on a landfill. Now that the truth is out, Newtown and their allies have entered a new and tougher phase: fighting for cleanup and compensation for their poisoning. Meanwhile, Newtown activists confront the other ills affecting low-income urban neighborhoods. Since construction of Route 129 flattened a thriving Black-owned business strip, Newtown has had no shopping district and only one small park. Another highway cuts Newtown off from the wealthy white districts near beautiful Lake Lanier. Gainesville's at-large voting system excludes the Black community from representation. NFC has won a new park and gotten funds to rehabilitate some run-down buildings. They've held marches against drugs, fought Ku Klux Klan attacks on the neighborhood, and filed a Voting Rights Act suit demanding district elections. They've even started a young people's marching band, because, as Bush says, "The youth need activities. We've been leaving them alone too much." NEW LEADERSHIP Newtown leaders are in the crest of a new wave, and it's a big one, according to organizer Bradley Angel of Greenpeace. "There are thousands of communities across the country, mostly people of color, fighting on toxics issues alone," he says. "There's no limit on what community-based groups can do." Organizers have learned that all communities can rally behind environmental concerns. Lead contamination and air pollution, for example, are almost universal poor urban communities. "They're issues of health and self- determination," says Francis Calpotura of the Center for Third World Organizing. "People want to know why they're getting sick...Fighting corporations and government on the environment politicizes communities and develops new leaders, especially women and people of color who don't get many other opportunities to lead." Grassroots environmentalists usually need help from the outside, though. After all, they're often up against corporate giants, (like Newtown's Ralston-Purina and Cargill.) Fortunately, such help is now widely available. Groups like ECO-Action are springing up all over, and more and more grassroots leaders have learned their way around the difficult chemistry of industrial pollution. "Now when Greenpeace gets a call," says Angel, "we often simply put the callers in touch with other communities fighting similar battles. They can share strategies that have worked and teach each other how to deal with government agencies." Neighborhoods in struggle have combined in "environmental justice" networks like the Southwest Network for Economic and Environmental Justice (SNEEJ) or the Southern Organizing Committee (SOC,) whose strength is mushrooming. Last autumn, a SOC conference planned for 500 people drew 2,500 activists, mostly people of color. "The left is really missing the boat on this," says Angel. "The environmental justice movement is the most exciting development in decades. It's empowering and uniting communities to deal with racism and economic injustice." Although struggling with lupus herself, Faye Bush said she will never give up. Send letters and other support to Newtown Florist Club at 1053 Desota St., Gainesville, GA 30501. And here is a list of a few organizations who can help communities fight toxics: Southern Organizing Committee, P.O. Box 10518, Atlanta, GA 30310; 404-243-5229. Citizens Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste, P.O. Box 6806, VA 22040; 703-237-2249. SouthWest Organizing Project, 211 10th St. SW Albuquerque, NM 87102; 805-247-8832. Greenpeace, 1436 U St. NW, Wash. DC 20009; 202-462- 1177. Clean Water Action, 1320 18th St. Ste. 300, Washington DC 20036; 202-457-1286 David Spero is called "Mr. Rogers" by the kids on his block in San Francisco because he's always talking about the neighborhood. Please send news, questions, and ideas or stories on community-neighborhood organizing to this column at CrossRoads, P.O. Box 2809, Oakland, CA 94609.