How To Be the Next Erin Brockovich

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S1: I’m 60 years old, OK? And when I was 40, I mean, the fishing was just unbelievable and I have seen such a decline.

S2: I mean, if we don’t get this stopped soon, all of our lakes are going to die.

S3: Welcome to How to. I’m Charles Stuart. We spend a lot of time on the show helping people make changes in their lives and as hard as many of those changes can be like asking for a promotion or reconciling with a difficult parent, the outcome usually feels like it’s within our control. But what about when what you want to change is the world around you? Meet Mike from Florida.

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S4: I started out as a fisherman. I love to fish. I turn on fished and I just solve our water, just going downhill big time. And we started getting a lot of sick fish in our rivers.

S3: Mike runs his own home construction business, but he spends most of his free time trying to draw attention to what he sees as a grave threat to the environment.

S5: He’s particularly concerned about how the state of Florida sprays herbicides in the rivers and lakes near his home.

S1: They started out OK, you know, doing this back 20, 30 years ago. But what they’ve done is now they have these hundreds and hundreds of airboats across the state. They just go out and spray everything. And right now, our lakes are so depleted of plants that there’s nothing left for them to spray.

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S5: The situation in Florida is complicated. There are all these big agricultural operations that use fertilizers and dispose of animal waste and that can get into the state’s waterways and sometimes caused these huge algal blooms. And so for decades, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is part of the state government, has been spraying herbicides to kill invasive plants.

S3: That spring has increased in recent years, and some experts, including the ones Mike listens to, think it’s doing more harm than good.

S6: All right, here we are at the first site and you can see spattered acres of spattered on dead. This is a native plants. This is what frogs, fish, everything. Put their attach their eggs to this when they spawn complete devastation.

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S5: So for the last few years, Mike has been making these videos with, like dramatic music and lots of aerial footage to try and convince the Fish and Wildlife Commission, also known as the FWC, to take a different approach.

S1: Well, they need to stop spraying. You know, there are other methods to get these plants.

S5: Have you gone to meetings and have you told the.

S2: Oh, yeah, we’ve been we’ve been to a lot of meetings. They have to be seen, knows who I am.

S5: And what do they say when you say, look, I think you’re you’re over spring, you’re killing too many of the plants. We need to let the letter recover a little bit. What do they say?

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S2: They just they just completely write me off as someone crazy.

S5: Mike feels powerless. He’s just an average guy trying to get the state of Florida to listen to him. But the problem he’s taking on as big and complex and there’s lots of smart people who disagree with him. This week’s expert knows just what that feels like.

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S7: I love you, Mike. You are not crazy. For twenty two years, I have been out in the environment dealing with just this. You’re using your common sense. You are not wrong.

S5: This is Erin Brockovich. That Erin Brockovich, the one from the movie.

S8: OK, look, I think we got off on the wrong foot here. That’s all you got, lady. Two wrong feet and fucking ugly shoes.

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S7: And I’m not Julia Roberts. Ha ha.

S9: That’s my joke. But she is the author of a recent book called Superman’s Not Coming Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It. On today’s show, Erin has some tips for Mike about how to fight for change even when people think you’re nuts. Stay with us.

S5: The story of Erin Brockovich, this underdog environmental crusader, is so famous these days that her name has become kind of a shorthand for average citizens who are investigating and fighting for a cause.

S8: Don’t talk to me like I’m an idiot, OK? I may not have a law degree, but I spent 18 months on this case and I know more about these plaintiffs than you ever will.

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S5: Aaron was somewhat of an accidental activist when she was younger. She bounced around between jobs. She was managing a Kmart and competing in beauty pageants. And then she got in a car accident and she somehow convinced the lawyer who was representing her in the lawsuit against the other driver to hire her as a file clerk at his L.A. law firm. And one day in 1991, she was assigned to do some work on a case in Hinkley, California, a small town north of Los Angeles.

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S7: Mr. Masri, who ran the law firm. Gave me a box to open up a case, and in the box was medical records and as I was reading them, I thought, what the hell is wrong with the kit? And so, Mr. Masri, let me go out there. And when I got out the Hinckley, you could feel something that was almost oppressive. I was born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas. And I assure you, there are no two headed frogs growing up out there. And there was no dairy farm with cattle that had a thousand tumors on it. And none of the neighborhood children had bizarre blood work. Something was not right.

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S10: When Aaron was in Hinkley, she saw that the water was discolored and there was a large number of animals that were deformed. And there seemed to be an unusually large number of residents with nosebleeds or miscarriages and in high rates of cancer. And then Erin learned that the power company PG&E had quietly contaminated the water supplies with a chemical they said wasn’t dangerous. When you were in Hinkley and you noticed these things going on, the the cows with tumors, the kids with weird blood workup. And you started saying, look, I think there’s something wrong. I think there’s something wrong with the water in this town. Did people react well to that or did they say that they thought, you’re crazy, like what happened next?

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S7: Oh, I definitely thought I was crazy. So I started getting more facts and information and I kept going back out there. You have to build trust with these communities, especially if you’re an outsider. So it took building trust for them to come around and then to realize some of them worked for PG&E and they would look at me and they’re like, so my company that I got to work for a day that is help because I have a job and send my kid to college is actually poisoning them. Is that when my daughter died is a mind blowing moment. And so this was happening and, yes, I didn’t have a science degree, but you know what? You don’t need to be a PhD to understand water and to make a note and see a pattern that fish are dying, that fish have tumors, that frogs have to head, that something is wrong.

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S10: After talking with people in the town and documenting what she saw, Aaron convinced her law firm to take on the case. And in 1996, Aaron’s persistence paid off. Her law firm won a three hundred and thirty three million dollar settlement on behalf of the people in Hinkley. At the time, it was among the largest payouts ever for a lawsuit. Then when the Oscar nominated movie came out in 2000, Erin gained a whole new level of fame. Today, she runs her own consulting company, where she advises people on environmental issues and inspires folks like Mike.

S4: You know, I’m following in her footsteps. I watched her movie and my mom, she she started calling me the Erin Brockovich of Florida. So but but when I watched her movie, I watched it over and over again because I’m experiencing that what exactly what she went through. I’m experiencing it.

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S9: And we should note at this point, we don’t know if Mike is right about what ought to happen in Florida or if the state is handling the situation properly. It’s definitely not a black or white issue. Rather, our question today is a little bit different. If you believe something, if you think that something wrong is happening in your community, but you’re just like a normal citizen, how do you get people to listen to you?

S5: How do you take on the man and actually make progress?

S7: Well, first of all, Mike Kaluza Waterkeeper. Yes. So there are Waterkeeper up and down these rivers network with them.

S2: I have a full time job, so I’m very limited and and I have reached out to to some of them.

S5: And so and so what’s happened there? Has that been successful?

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S11: You know, here’s the thing. Everybody has their own priorities, OK? And it’s going to be a hard thing to get everybody to focus on the bigger picture.

S9: But getting people to focus is how you make change. And so this is our first rule. Try to find Like-Minded allies. Erin Brockovich is the name we all know. But in real life, there were a lot of different people who came together to fight for Hinkley. And the only reason Erin or anyone else was successful is because they built trust with each other and with the Hinkley community. And they did their research and people got organized and focused. All that said, as Mike is experiencing, it can take a while to get people on board. So how do you stay the course when it seems like you’re one lonely voice? We’ll answer that when we come back.

S5: We’re back with our listener mic and our expert, Erin Brockovich. Mike’s on a mission to stop the Florida government from spraying so much herbicide in the state’s waterways, but he’s not armed with much more than a drone camera.

S11: I bought my first drone in twenty sixteen and right when we were in the middle of an algal bloom. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been just going around with the drone and videotaping. And it’s like when you’re seeing all these animals dead and floating and and all this other stuff, it’s very shocking.

S5: Tell me what else you’ve done besides taking the drone footage and putting that on YouTube.

S11: You know, I’ve been going around to their meetings. Of course, you know, the FWC doesn’t really like me because I’ve been making fun of them for the past two years. So they kind of broke down and they invited me to participate in a Lake Okeechobee stakeholders meeting where they’re taking input from the public. And so I went there and I was telling them, I like, look, you know, you guys are destroying the lakes and they are they listened. And then they said, oh, OK, well, we’ll get back to you.

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S1: Well, we heard later on that, but they’re not even going to do anything until the end of twenty, twenty one. And it’s like it’s just a slap in the face.

S9: It’s like really it’s not exactly surprising the government can move slowly. But Mike’s question is, what does he do to make sure that that movement eventually happens? He’s been invited to sit at the table, but how does he translate that into action, especially when right now it feels like he’s not having much impact.

S12: Keep dreaming, Mike, keep putting videotapes on over and over again, get those videos to Riverkeepers, get those videos to some of the environmental groups, you have to do this and stick to activeness at its finest. You have got to have stick to it. My mom taught me the power of that word propensity to follow through in a determined manner. I have a funny feeling, Mike is that person. And that’s the key, because they don’t always want to hear you at first and you have to fight like a son of a bitch to change it.

S9: This is the second rule. Even once you’ve gotten people’s attention and you’ve started to find some allies, you may need to keep being loud. But you should also think about how you’re being allowed now that you’ve got some attention. Are you adjusting the volume? Are you documenting the problem accurately and attending community meetings and reaching out to the media?

S11: Oh, absolutely. I’ve got a real good friend that’s that that works at one of the local newspapers. And he’s been publishing stories right and left. And, you know, they get a bunch of views and then it just goes away.

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S5: Yeah. So, Aaron, let me ask you this. How do you deal with that, with the fact that, like, at first everyone starts to pay attention, but eventually, you know, people get distracted by other things like get together 500 people to show up to city council.

S7: Frankly, they don’t always know what’s going on. But when you do show up in numbers, you’ve got to hold them accountable.

S5: So when you when you’ve been to those meetings in the past, have you brought friends with you? Like, how many people do you bring with you?

S2: They actually had an FWC meeting in my hometown, and I spent weeks before that. I did videos begging people to come to this meeting. I called people and I literally thought that I was going to have a thousand people there. And I got to tell you, maybe a dozen people showed up.

S5: So it sounds to me like the tactic that you’re using, that you’re making videos and you’re reaching out to people, which is great. But it sounds like that tactic isn’t working as well as you had hoped. And actually getting people to show up to let the FWC know this is an issue that’s important to us. Aaron, what did you do with all those those folks in Hinkley to convince them to keep on showing up? Because I know that having those numbers is so important, you know, and try to convince them of anything.

S7: Don’t try to convince them anything. The minute you start trying to shove something down the community’s throat, they’re going to kind of wrestle with you, give them a minute to figure it out. They do.

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S5: There wasn’t a time when they said, look, we’re tired, we’re wondering if we should continue doing this. Our enthusiasm is flagging.

S7: Sure. Well, then I pick up the banner. If I was tired, they pick up the banner. So especially with moms, you know, they’ll get real organized and there will be five moms out there pushing and then they’ve got to get home and deal with kids and dinner and their life and do their thing. So the next five moms will come in and they kind of rotate. And that’s the beauty of the collective and a team. And I can feel Mike’s frustration and he does have a job.

S2: Yeah. And it’s not uncommon for me to actually stay up all night long working on videos to to get it out the next day. So, you know, I don’t get to spend much time with my grandchildren or, you know, I’m out the door on the weekends, half the time going up to my buddy Scott’s house. And we kind of feed off of each other where, you know, one of us will be down and then the other one will just call. And I mean, I talk to him almost every day. So we kind of charge each other up.

S5: And having a friend or a teammate who can charge you up, who can share that emotional work with you, that’s really important because they’re going to be times when you want to give up. And so another important rule is to divvy up the work and pace yourself because otherwise you’ll burn out.

S7: Give yourself a break when you have that moment of exhaustion, just because you set the ball down for a weekend and reboot and catch your breath and re strategize doesn’t mean you fail and it doesn’t mean the game’s over.

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S9: And so let’s say you’ve done all of this. You found allies, you’ve gotten the media involved. You have a community to share the work with and a close friend, a partner to keep you going when you feel like giving up and let’s say it works, you like Mike, you finally get invited to participate in the process. Well, at that point, you might need to try a different approach than what succeeded so far.

S5: Mike, let me ask you. You know, it sounds like you’ve got a little bit of a seat at the table. And I know just from covering lots of different political movements that when you get a seat at the table, oftentimes to take advantage of it, you have to recalibrate a little bit how you’re acting and what you’re doing. And it sounds like up until now you’ve been pretty critical of FWC, you’ve been critical of them for not listening, you’ve been critical of them for ignoring you. And now it sounds like they’re listening to you. Maybe not as much as you’d like. What do you think you can do with that seat at the table, even if it’s a little chair to try and make yourself effective?

S11: Well, I don’t take crap from anybody. I’m a very, you know, brash individual. And I don’t you know, a lot of people like to take the nice approach about, oh, you know, but the nice approach hasn’t worked. You know, there are so many people. I’m not the only one on this issue. There’s there’s thousands of people. And, you know, they’ve just been pushed aside and stepped on. And I just refused to be stepped on.

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S5: I guess as an outside observer, I’m going to assume that the people who work for the state of Florida, the biologists, work for the state of Florida, that they’re not just evil people. They’re doing these things and they might be doing the wrong things, but they have at least some reason for doing it that they aren’t part of like some sinister plot, but. They’re just dealing with a bunch of different people, telling them different things, and they’re trying to make the best choices they can.

S11: Well, you know, that’s that’s not the way I see it, but it sure it’s possible most of the biologists that work for them are good people. And I’ve and I’ve known them. I’ve got to know a lot of them. But what they’re doing is they’re being brainwashed. And I just don’t think that they’re smart enough to know what they’re doing is wrong.

S9: Again, there are some really smart people working for Florida who are not brainwashed and in fact, that kind of language. That might be why officials are tuning Mike out. But the reason we’re doing this episode is because one of the strengths and sometimes challenges of a democracy is that everyone has the right to participate in the decisions our government makes. And sometimes the only way you can get officials to act is through citizen action. Take, for instance, what happened in Flint, Michigan. Starting in 2014, the water in Flint became tainted with lead poisoning. A number of residents, particularly children, in long before most of us knew about it. Erin Brockovich was alerted to that problem by parents who were worried that their kids were experiencing skin rashes and hair loss.

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S13: Flint started for me one year prior, before anyone knew what was going on in Flint, and it was the mothers that reached out. They knew something was wrong and they were basically told to f off.

S9: But then slowly, people started listening. A task force was put together. In 2016, the governor of Michigan and then President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint. And the whole time, those mothers and other residents, they continued complaining, continued being loud.

S7: They’ve been going through hell for six years.

S13: They continued to stay banned together. They just continue to move every bit of it. The day, the weeks, the years push forward a little more. A little more. A little more. You’re just not going to get either side of the aisle what you want tomorrow. But we are going to have to figure out a way how to start working together to get that.

S5: And then something important happened. As residents gained more prominence, they shifted their tactics. Instead of just shouting and complaining and criticizing officials, they began working within the system. A community member started running for office. And when they got elected, they began focusing on water safety and eventually it all paid off. Those residents found allies within the government, and this past summer, it was reported that the state of Michigan will pay 600 million dollars to the victims of the Flint water crisis. And this isn’t to say that Mike should run for office, but the final rule is that it’s important to learn how to work with every stakeholder, even the people you dislike or mistrust or you think are wrong.

S7: And listen, I guarantee you, once he has a seat at the table. I’ve done it. I see everyone do it. You listen. You come prepared with facts and information. And don’t be afraid to say the truth. I disagree with you. Here’s why I disagree with you. And in passionate moments, we do say things in your brainwashers, stupid. And I’ve been there many a time and I understand the point on how it is we communicate. So we’re heard. Listen, I own my shit. If I’ve done wrong, I will tell you I’m sorry. I’ll tell you I shouldn’t have said that. And the other side be able to work with forgiveness. OK, let’s start over. Correct our problems and just stop doing the same thing over and over again. Expecting a different result. We’ve got to start finding real solutions to our problems.

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S11: I couldn’t have said it any better.

S7: Well, listen, it was a great conversation and you can email me. We will be happy to work with you. OK, but I will tell you, community after community after community, who has prevailed, who did make a change and it took time, starts with one individual such as yourself, Mike, that rises up and is going to stay with it.

S4: That’s that’s quite a compliment coming from somebody like yourself. So I really appreciate that.

S3: And as a final note, even before we talked, Mike was beginning to put some of these rules into place and they had helped him find a receptive audience among at least one elected official, his U.S. congressman.

S4: I gave his staff a whole bunch of footage about the spraying and he put out a video calling out the spraying and he announced that he was put in legislation trying to stop that. And so when he put that video out there that was like that, supercharged both me and Scott. And I got to tell you, you know, it was just the recharge that we needed.

S3: Thank you to Mike for sharing your story with us and to Erin Brockovich for her advice, you should look for her book, Superman’s Not Coming. And if you like this episode, you should check out another episode titled How to Save the Planet and Still Use a Plastic Straw is filled with tips from environmentalist Emma Marris about how you can make effective change when it comes to the environment. Even with a problem as big as climate change. You can find that in all of our episodes in our podcast feed. Do you have a problem that needs solving? If so, you should send us a note of how to add slate dotcom or you can also leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And we might have you on the show. And if you think the advice you heard today is helpful, please tell a friend or give us a review. That’s how we can find new listeners and new people to help. How To is executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produce the show and Merritt Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hanesbrands. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of Audio and Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.