by Debra Mackey
Originally appeared in Whole Terrain, vol. 12: Resilience

The Louisiana State Capitol building is the tallest in the nation. It rises from the shores of the Mississippi like a lightening rod, a perfect symbol of the larger-than-life drama that is Louisiana politics. But seen from the twelfth floor of the Department of Justice Building, it is dwarfed by the two-thousand-acre Exxon Refinery—a complex so vast that it looks as if an intergalactic battle station had landed in Baton Rouge’s backyard.

Here at the northern gateway to Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, where government and industry have cozied up by the mighty river, William Fontenot has spent the last twenty-five years trying to pry them apart. It’s where he has cajoled, soothed, agitated, organized, conciliated, and sometimes gone to war. He is the Community Liaison Officer for Environmental Affairs in the State Attorney General’s office—a position the New Orleans Times-Picayune once described as getting “a state salary to make trouble.” There is no other job quite like it in the country. He has no staff, no budget, no law degree, no corner office. He is a slight, unassuming man with the soft, slow voice of someone raised on tupelo honey, and a will as powerful as a gator bite. In the Office of the Attorney General, folks call him “Mr. Willie” with all the affection and respect due to the person considered to be the grandfather of Louisiana’s environmental justice movement. He is the man who brought hope to the common people of Cancer Alley.

I met with Willie in Baton Rouge this May. We spoke for three hours, his stories serving up a rich gumbo of some the most significant events in the history of environmental justice. What follows are excerpts from our conversation about resilience and the qualities that form the backbone of an environmental advocate. I began by asking him how his unique job came into being.

Willie Fontenot: The job was created by former Assistant Attorney General Dick Troy. In 1978, he convinced Attorney General William Guste to hire me to go out and meet with citizens and groups and help them figure out how to deal with environmental problems. I had been working as director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation and thought, “Working for the government? Maybe six months, two years max!” I’ve kept at it because I realize that it’s important for the public to feel that they have a friendly person in government that can help them with their problems; get them going in the right direction.

I had not really done a whole lot before graduating college, which was in ’69, in terms of being involved with community or environmental issues. My major in college was political science and I had looked a little bit at how people went through political struggles to solve whatever problems they were working on.

Debra Mackey: So you’ve been interested in difficult situations and struggle from your college days?

WF: Well, probably before then, but I didn’t have any way of dealing with it. My parents were involved, in their own way, with some environmental things. In the early 1950s there was a federal program to spread Chlordane and some other pesticides, which are now banned, wholesale across the South to control the spread of Argentine fire ants. My father refused to allow it to be spread across his property.

DM: How did your neighbors perceive your father for taking what must have been seen as a rather unorthodox approach to the problem?

WF: They thought those kinds of things were eccentric, a little kooky. But he was a lawyer, and my grandfather—his father—was a well-known, influential kind of guy. Folks kind of gave him a wide berth.

DM: It sounds like you come from a long line of folks who do what they think is right and don’t care too much what the neighbors think. Who are your heroes, Willie?

WF: Well, these are good questions. Some of what Gandhi did, I think, was very, very important. The way he approached life and how to challenge the system when you think it’s wrong.

DM: Gandhi’s story is certainly a lesson in persistence and resilience.

WF: Yes. And also in thinking of creative ways to present a problem or to get a larger public involved in taking on a challenge.

DM: Who else do you admire?

WF: Myles Horton, who had a school in Tennessee called Highlander. He wrote an autobiography called The Long Haul, which gets into your resilience question. His approach was that we had to be involved in things for the long haul, and that large, systematic problems were not going to be solved quickly or with an easy fix. You really had to look at how you were going to get through this over time and with persistence.

Gandhi and Horton pretty much personify the way that I would look at how you need to approach problem solving. It’s trying to get a larger community involved, trying to bring diverse people together to figure out how to solve the problem. Part of the approach that I think works is to get people connected with their neighbors and with someone else—an organization that has been through a similar problem—so they can learn from them and get support from them.

In most environmental situations, the more isolated you are, the less likely you are to succeed. I guess Lois Gibbs [Love Canal] would be a good example. When her children started getting sick, she realized maybe there was something in their block or their home that might be connected. Her biggest challenge was to get up enough courage to talk to her next-door neighbor; she had never talked to any of them! She practiced all day with her dog, “Hi, I’m Lois Gibbs. I live next door. My kids are really sick. Are your kids okay?”

She went to her neighbor’s house and knocked on the door. She said she knocked so lightly that the dog inside didn’t even hear her. She ran home and cried. Then she realized she’s sitting home with sick children and she’s afraid to talk to her neighbor! That was preposterous! So she got her courage back up and, when she knocked on the door, the woman who answered said, “Oh yeah, my kids are sick too! Come on in.”

DM: What keeps people like Lois going through all the years of frustration and setbacks?

WF: One of the women I worked with here in Louisiana had a sewage problem in her neighborhood. Her name was Darlene Genova—a little, sharp woman. Just an ordinary housewife who did some volunteer work with Girl Scouts and then took on this major project pretty much by herself. She said she had decided, after about a year of struggling with this proposed sewage treatment plant being built next to her house, that what she needed was prayer, preparation, and persistence.

DM: Prayer, preparation, and persistence…

WF: Yes, the three P’s! She didn’t stop the sewage treatment plant, but she was very successful in getting the town to change the way they were going to operate and how they started dealing with the community.

DM: Talking about these women reminds me of Gay Hanks from Vermilion Parish down on the Gulf. Her daughter’s death led her to fight for the clean-up of Vermilion Parish.

WF: I first talked to Gay Hanks in, maybe, July of 1978. I got hold of Ms. Hanks on the phone at the suggestion of a co-worker and talked with her for about two hours. She said there were thirteen sites in her community where waste was being dumped by trucks. They would dump waste off bridges and roadways into the local drainage system. Downstream was an irrigation ditch. Waste was being pumped into these rice fields and crawfish farms. The foreman would come out the next day and all the crawfish were floating in his pond or all the rice had died. We’re talking about several hundred acres. Basically their fields would be salted. They couldn’t grow rice on it for decades after that—like the salting of the land when the Romans tore down the temples in Israel and put a lot of salt out there so they wouldn’t cause trouble anymore.

I suggested to her that they should keep records of what was going on: the description of trucks that were coming in and out, license plate numbers, and names on the trucks. And they should talk to their public officials. She was a little concerned about that because she said there was a state representative driving around in a Cadillac that belonged to one of the trucking companies hauling the waste. The sheriff’s deputy and another public official owned one of the waste sites. She said, “If public officials are this involved in it, how can we expect them to do anything?” I told her to just pretend like they’re going to do the right thing. If it turned out they were not, they could work to find other people to run for these offices, and let them know that it was because they were being unresponsive that they were helping other candidates. After a couple of hours, she had written all that down and she went off.

I happened to go to her community two years later—first time I met her. They had a new state representative who was sympathetic. They had the support of the District Attorney for the Parish. They had several other officials who were with them. It was a completely different group from when I first talked to her on the phone.

They had thirteen different groups of people at this meeting with photographs and diaries of what was going on with these thirteen sites. At one point, they challenged one of the field investigators for the Office of Conservation in the Department of Natural Resources. They talked about this turquoise-colored pipe that came out of one of the pits. The official said that there were no pipes coming out of that pit.

Now it turned out that one of the people involved with their group was a crop duster. He and his crop-duster friends had been flying around for the better part of the year, getting right up over this site, taking photographs. The people running the site thought they were just doing agricultural stuff; they didn’t realize they were a surveillance team! So, they pulled out these aerial photographs and said, “Oh yeah? Here’s the site, and here’s the turquoise pipe and there’s the man that runs the site standing right there, and there you are standing right next to him, both looking at the pipe!” The inspector turned bright red, walked out of the room and resigned his office. It had a profound, immediate effect. The group in Abbeville in Vermilion Parish was really the first example that I could come to of citizen groups doing something to get control back in their community.

They eventually got all but one of the sites shut down. They stopped about two dozen new companies from locating waste facilities in their community. It turned into one of the most incredible stories about people in the local community really changing public attitudes. They didn’t have a national group helping them; they never filed a lawsuit. They were just very persistent and resilient.

DM: Ecologists tell us that resilience in natural systems can only be measured over very long time scales. What sort of time scale is relevant in your work?

WF: People think, “If I can just do this, then next week I can do something else.” It might take an hour to solve the problem, but it might take a month. It could be twenty years! I remember talking to Theresa Robert, who took on this hazardous waste site. She said, “Damn you, Willie! I remember when we met in my trailer ten years ago you told me this might take six months or a year and I should pace myself. If I had known then that this would have taken ten years, I would have never gotten involved in it! No, I wouldn’t say that—I just can’t believe it took ten years!”

It took a toll on her family and her, but when she gets up at a public meeting and speaks, people want to come to the meeting just because of the struggle she has been through.

DM: The biologist E. O. Wilson has said that diversity is the key to resilience. Here in Louisiana you’ve brought blacks, whites, Native Americans, the labor movement, local, state, and federal government officials together to work on environmental justice issues. How important is diversity to the resilience of the movement?

WF: Where you have diversity, whether it’s in interests or race or gender, the more you can bring in people with different kinds of knowledge and background, the better your chances are to succeed. The case of Petro Processors and Rollins Environmental Services, just north of Baton Rouge, is an excellent example. Here you had a dump site that was operated by a small company. They would haul waste from a dozen industries and dump it in this swamp because the assumption at the time was that the Mississippi River would just carry the waste off.

I had been working with Catherine Ewell. She lived next to the Rollins plant and was keeping a record of the fumes. I had a worker from the Allied Signal plant south of Rollins who came in with a petition saying he felt his health was being threatened by the fumes from Rollins. He got wind directions and how it smelled. His diary matched up on five days with what Catherine was writing in her little diary. When she was doing okay, he was doing terrible. When she was suffering, he was doing okay. We needed a third data point to figure out which facility was responsible for this.

Nobody lived within several miles to the west because of the swamp, but on the east there was this all-black neighborhood, Alsen. I said, “Catherine, can you find me somebody in this community across the road here who might keep track of when the fumes are coming out of these plants and what they smell like?” She called me a few days later and said, “The person you want to talk to is Mary McCastle.” I called up Ms. McCastle and got her to get some of her neighbors and relatives together.

I got to her house and here were all these people. I had no idea who they were, but I was the only white person in this room. I ended up listening to them for a couple of hours. Everybody in Alsen, which stretched for more than a mile from Rollins, had health problems: eyesight problems, runny noses, tired all the time, aching joints, sores on their skin, conditions where their skin would be bleached-looking, and a lot of respiratory problems.

One of the things I told Mary McCastle was, “You’re isolated out here. You’re like a little island. If you say, ‘We’re this black neighborhood and we’re being adversely impacted, our people are sick,“ you’re absolutely correct. But the white people in Baton Rouge and the people a few miles away will go, “That’s really terrible what’s going on in Alsen. I’m glad I don’t live up there!’ What you want them to say is, ‘That’s really terrible what’s going on up there in Alsen and it’s affecting us. We need to do something!’”

That was how they approached it. Mary went all over Louisiana helping groups through that process. By the time 1985 came along, Mary McCastle was one of the best-known people in the State of Louisiana and certainly one of the best-known environmentalists.

DM: Sounds like she’s one of your heroes, too. I’ve heard that the Japanese writer, Jun Ui, has influenced the way you think about what happens when citizens take on environmental polluters. What has he taught you?

WF: He said that environmental struggles basically go through four stages: outbreak, identification, denial, and solution. It’s one of the best descriptions of how citizens approach a problem. He was writing about Japan, but it is applicable to any place in the world.

At first people try to solve the problem. They consider that maybe they’re the cause of the problem; they’re not good parents, they don’t take care of their children, they drink too much beer, whatever it is. They progress when they finally find out that maybe there’s some contamination coming from a discharge pipe, maybe somebody’s buried some waste somewhere. Then they try and find out what it is, how it’s affected them, and who caused it, and try to come to some resolution.

The polluters basically try to blame the victims. Their approach is to whittle the victims down so that they end up paying nickels or pennies on the dollar in compensation for whatever kind of damage has occurred. They spend a lot of time and money on lawyers and experts figuring out how to cut their losses— not trying to solve the problem or make the community all right. Anybody who helps the citizens, whether it’s lawyers or experts that might join with them, really has to live in the community to be able to represent the interests of the community. Otherwise they end up being more interested in settling a case than really coming to a resolution that has the victims as the primary focus.

DM: You must have seen this play out many, many times. What qualities distinguish individuals and communities that get “whittled down” from those that don’t?

WF: One of the things that Ui wrote about is that citizen efforts that give up their authority to a central organization are likely to fail and that decentralized, spontaneous groups working together have a better chance of success. I think the more people are able to get beyond their neighborhood and see that they are part of a larger community, the more likely they are to succeed—if they can get beyond worrying about this in their living room and say, “Who out there might be able to help me?” and not to be discouraged by “No”s.

DM: You’ve talked quite a bit about the importance of reaching out to find groups that can help you as you tackle complex problems. But what happens when you’re the ‘go-to guy’? What has sustained you over the last twenty-five years, Willie?

WF: I guess my family and friends. Then the people I meet and work with. I’m still talking with people that I’ve worked with—in some cases their children because they’re not around any more—that I was helping ten, twenty, even thirty years ago. So you develop support from people that you’ve helped or that you’ve come in contact with.

DM: So the hundreds of grassroots organizations that you’ve nurtured have become your…

WF: Resources, contacts, and support.

DM: Louisiana is known for its volatile politics. You’ve served under six gubernatorial administrations and two Attorneys General. How have you survived politically?

WF: Well, it hasn’t always been easy. There was a lot of pressure from industry and other agencies on Attorney General Guste to get rid of me. I heard about a meeting where there were about a dozen representatives from industry—CEOs of pretty big corporations. Apparently, twenty minutes into the meeting they said that he ought to get rid of me—that was really the purpose of the meeting! He said, “Whoa, Willie’s just doing his job. What else do you have to discuss?” That was his approach. He was a pretty exceptional, incredible guy. A great guy to work for!

DM: What happened in 1991 when he decided not to run for re-election?

WF: I talked to a few people after the election and apparently they said that, in every forum where the candidates for Attorney General spoke, people in the audience would stand up and say, “What are you going to do about Willie Fontenot?” All the candidates, except for one, said, “Oh, he’s great. We’ll have ten more people like him. We’ll definitely keep him.” That was at every forum across the state!

DM: Willie, what advice would you give to people who want to make environmental advocacy their life’s work?

WF: You need to like what you’re doing. It’s looking for things that match your personality and your abilities. You don’t always find that. Some people are unhappy because they are working on the wrong thing. If you don’t like it, if it’s too painful for you, then maybe you need to find a different way of approaching this. There are a lot of different ways to support individuals to solve problems in their communities. And if you don’t take care of the needs of your body—food, rest and relaxation—then you can’t do this sort of work.

DM: Part of your prescription for resilience has been pacing yourself. What else do environmental practitioners need to do to keep going over the long haul?

WF: I think they need to realize that not all these things are going to be solved immediately. They need to give themselves time to work on problems and with groups. It’s not easy to be patient with other people. You want to solve this! You want to solve this right now! Some things can be done that way, but it usually takes longer. It’s taken a few decades before people in Louisiana insisted some things be done a certain way.

It’s always lots of people that make these things happen, though somebody is the focus person—Gandhi, Lois Gibbs, Mary McCastle. It’s easier to think in one-person terms instead of a whole movement working together. Gandhi never did anything by himself. It’s never just one person.