Judith Robinson, Executive Director of Coming Clean, spoke with Rachel’s Network members about how Coming Clean has built an effective coalition of nonprofits, policy makers, business leaders, and scientists to work together to reform the chemical and fossil fuel industries. We recently followed up with Judy to learn more about her work, and what makes her optimistic about chemical policy reform. 

What about your work keeps you up at night?

Two things: My leather armchair and my dusty house. The chair is the last known piece of furniture I own made with polyurethane foam treated with industrial chemical flame retardants. These chemicals are hazardous to human health and they don’t stay where they are put! They escape from our chairs and couches and other products made with treated foam and accumulate in house dust. In my case, that is a lot of dust and leads to big concerns that my family is being exposed to toxic substances that do nothing to protect us from fires but potentially endanger our health on a daily basis.  For the past eight years, I’ve been working in Coming Clean to reduce use and exposure to flame retardants through integrated policy, market and grassroots campaigns.   We’ve forced the flame retardant industry to abandon three of their worst flame retardant mixtures.  We’re well positioned to take on additional bad actor chemicals used in foam that need cleaning up, along with my dusty house and that leather armchair!

What about your work gives you hope?

I know from 15 years of work in this field that most people are good to their core and want to do the right thing not just for themselves, but so others will be healthy and thrive. Only a tiny fraction of a percentage of people and their inter-related corporations are standing in the way of a just and sustainable future for us all.  The opportunities for making connections to other progressive causes interested in similar outcomes are incredible. We can respond to threats and opportunities — whether it’s an extreme weather event, a pesticide plant explosion, or a corporate financing investigation — in a way that lifts and connects locally based work with inter-related national campaigns that will deliver big impact. Local, regional and multi-state campaigns linked to national organizing are required to help create the infrastructure for a new economy and culture based on safe, sustainable practices and outcomes.

What’s something people might not know about your work, but they should?

Coming Clean tries to connect the dots between groups that on the face of it, might look quite different from one another, as a strategy to build power. We want policy campaigners to have the latest new science on endocrine-disrupting chemicals, even if they don’t have a scientist on staff. We want stories from life on the fenceline of oil refineries and chemical plants to be part of market-based campaigns, because most people want to take personal action when it is in defense of others.  We want community organizers to connect with small business owners because their interests are more aligned than our opponents want to admit.  We want to connect the dots between diverse groups so they see their shared interests, start working together, and together, powerfully increase the impact of what would have resulted from isolated efforts.

What organization would/do you support (other than your own) that is advancing issues important to you?

It’s all but impossible to whittle a giant list down to one group when you run a collaboration that includes hundreds of groups, but Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services is a grassroots non-profit based on the Houston shipping channel that is doing ground-zero work on fossil fuels and chemical refining that really cuts at the heart of health, toxics and climate change. They are doing heroic work at the local, state and national level, lifting up the voices of young people, immigrants, people of color, women and others who are in harm’s way, weaving them into state and national policy campaigns, market work, and in social mobilization strategies, all on a shoestring budget.

What woman leader or role model had an influence on your work or inspired you?

Sojourner Truth (1797–1883) is an historical hero of mine because she fought for equality and justice even after she secured her own freedom from slavery. And she brilliantly engaged her faith, the courts, grassroots organizing, and the media to pursue her cause. She worked all her adult life for the cause of women’s rights and yet saw none of the fundamental laws establishing women’s equality pass in her lifetime. How impossible it must have all seemed at the time. Free the slaves? “The economy will collapse!” Women with the right to vote?  “It will destroy the nation!” Yet Sojourner and so many others worked faithfully for those reforms, and now we cannot imagine they didn’t always exist.  Today I can envision a future where fossil fuels and their toxic chemical byproducts no longer endanger life nor trespass into our bodies. I can see a clean energy future and toxic free manufacturing and products that support life and the health of the planet.  I believe in safer chemicals and a sustainable chemicals and energy future. I believe the economy and society will increasingly embrace this future as reality as we make breakthroughs along the way. And I plan to work on those breakthrough points no matter what the odds makers are saying at the moment!

Judith Robinson is the executive director of Coming Clean (formerly the Environmental Health Fund) and has been working in the environmental health field since 1998.

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