How I became an environmentalist: A small-town story with global implications

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the Chief Executive Officer of Green For All, a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of all people in the United States of America through a clean energy economy. Green For All works in collaboration with the business, government, labour, and grassroots communities to create and implement programmes that increase quality jobs and opportunities in green industry – while holding the most vulnerable people at the centre of its agenda.

Phedra Ellis-Lamkins

Phedra Ellis-Lamkins at a press conference at the San Fransisco Mayor's Office announcing opportunities for directing green tech jobs to low-income communities, and discussing the relationship between environmental justice and green-collar jobs. Photo: Stephen Loewinsohn


It’s not surprising that new, popular movements and organizations are emerging in response to the ecological crisis. Climate change is the most important challenge facing humanity – and the rest of the planet – today. It threatens the balance of the global systems and relationships most fundamental to life – like the polar icecaps (the world’s fresh water storage system and a natural reflector of excess heat and light from the sun) and global ocean and air currents (the world’s circulatory system). These threats are serious, and demand immediate attention. But they are not why I became an environmentalist. My story is much smaller, about one family in one town on the west coast of the United States.

Growing up in Suisun, California
I grew up in a little California town called Suisun, about 50 miles from San Francisco. In retrospect, it is easy for me to see how my childhood was my impetus into activism – and into environmentalism. But I didn’t know it at the time.

What I did know was that, compared to the rest of the United States, my family was poor. Even in the richest country in the world, I had to sign up for my school’s free lunch programme. That meant I had to stand in a separate line, apart from my friends and most of the other students, clearly visible as too poor to pay for lunch myself.

Then one day, my mother got a union job. She started to make a little more money. It wasn’t enough to buy a fancy lunch, or even to pay full price at the school cafeteria. But it was enough that I could upgrade from free lunch to reduced-fare lunch. We could afford 40¢ for lunch every day – enough to get me out of the free lunch line and standing with my classmates, feeling like one of the group.

To this day, I remember how it felt: the dignity of self-sufficiency; the pride of accomplishment; and the quiet comfort of being an equal and accepted member of one’s community (in this case, a community of grade-schoolers). It was an incredible feeling – one that I’ve spent my adult life trying to bring into the hearts and lives of working families in the United States.

Life in Suisun was hard – so hard that, in 1989, the San Francisco Chronicle named it the worst place to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. We were far from the only poor family in town, and poverty was far from the only challenge facing the people who lived there. It was an unhealthy place. Most of the people in Suisun worked in heavy industrial plants, which poured a fair share of poison and pollution into our community. I was just one of many children who grew up with asthma as a result. Workers, parents, children – everyone had a hard time in Suisun.

When the people of Suisun had finally had enough, many (including my mother) began to demand that the big polluting companies shut down their toxic factories. They traced many of Suisun’s problems – economic and environmental – back to these facilities.

It was a powerful statement. A lot of people in Suisun didn’t have steady work, and many of those who did, worked at those facilities. It was a big risk to ask them to leave. For many of us, it meant going back to the free lunch line and many hungry nights. But it was a sacrifice that our parents were willing to make.

Back then, I didn’t see how we could have safe, clean, and healthy communities where people had meaningful and dignified jobs. I would learn that only much later.

Re-learning my own story
Early in my career, I worked for many years in the US labour movement. I became a union organizer because it was a union job that allowed my mother to move me from free lunch to reduced lunch. I wanted more parents to be able to do things like that for their children.

Green For All

More than 12,000 youth leaders converged on Washington, D.C. in early 2009 to advocate for investment in a clean energy future.

For a long time, I did not think of myself as an environmentalist. In my mind, I cared about poor and working people, and environmentalists cared about plants and animals. That was fine, but it was not for me. But soon I began to realize that many of the people I respected and worked closely with – people who clearly cared about poor and working people as much as I did – also considered themselves environmentalists. The more I talked to them, the more I realized that they had the same vision that my mother had given to me so many years ago: clean, safe communities that are healthy physically and economically for people and for the planet.

When I thought back to my childhood, I realized that I had always been an environmentalist. I just didn’t know it.

It was a profound moment for me. I was able to connect global problems – like the melting of the polar ice caps – with local problems – like childhood asthma in a small, poor town in California. I was able to connect environmental problems with economic problems, seeing that they both come from an economy that rewards companies that put profit before everything else, including the health of the planet and the well-being of their workers. I was able to connect what I had been doing – helping working people create a better life for themselves – with the work that I would soon be doing – helping to create a more safe, secure and clean country for all people in the USA.

The more I learned, the clearer it became that my life’s work was about to change. I needed to do something that both helped little girls like me move from free lunch to reduced-fare lunch, and helped parents keep their children and communities healthy, safe and economically viable.

That’s when I joined Green For All.

Poverty and pollution
Green For All is built on a simple idea: that we can fight poverty and pollution at the same time. Solving the ecological crisis is going to take a lot of work – like rebuilding our roads and bridges, renovating our homes and buildings, constructing wind turbines and solar panels, building electric vehicles, and expanding mass transit. At the same time, a lot of people need good, steady, family-supporting work. They are struggling to keep their homes, feed their families, and provide health care for their children. If we link the people who most need work in the United States with the work that most needs to be done, we can fight pollution and poverty at the same time.

Putting that idea into practice is not as simple. It means a complete overhaul of the way the United States does everyday business. We must invest in clean, green solutions – like energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. We must write our laws to include equity and opportunity for all. And we must make sure that the new jobs we create are high-quality jobs, and are available to workers in disadvantaged communities who often get left behind during economic boom times.

Obviously, no single organization can make these changes alone. We need every part of the United States to contribute: government, civil society and the private sector. Much as we need solutions that connect everyday people to global climate issues, we also need a broad, powerful movement that empowers everyday people to participate in those solutions. That movement is emerging, both here in the United States, and throughout the world.

Here, our movement still has a long way to go – but it shows incredible promise, and is growing stronger every day. Green For All is just one in a constellation of groups and individuals working in the US for a clean-energy future. But look just at what our one group is doing and you will get a sense of the hope this movement holds.

Green For All trains leaders from across the United States to be standard-bearers for this movement. We organize national “communities of practice,” where the grassroots practitioners building the infrastructure of the clean-energy economy can connect to each other, innovate together, and share their learning with the entire field. We work with emerging green businesses to make them stable and successful, and to take their operations to scale. And we bring all these people together to advocate for cutting-edge policies at the local, state and federal levels that invest in green industry and will lead to green-collar jobs.

A worldwide movement for change
This is a glimpse of how our movement looks in the United States. It will look different in different places, shaped in the hearts and minds of the people who live there. But no matter where you go in the world, I think you will find people trying to put into practice the lessons I learned in a small California town. Everyday people need jobs that can support their families. Those jobs need to be healthy for the workers, their communities and the environment. The benefits of polluting industries do not outweigh the costs to our health, whether those costs be asthma, rising sea levels or climate shifts that put us all in danger.

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

“I needed to do something that both helped little girls like me move from free lunch to reduced-fare lunch, and helped parents keep their children and communities healthy, safe and economically viable” PHAEDRA ELLIS-LAMKINS

In the United States, we are working to build clean-energy pathways out of poverty for everyday people. We want to create 21st century, green-collar jobs that buoy communities struggling to keep their heads above water. We want to launch green enterprises that create new wealth and new opportunities for the entire country. And what we are trying to do for workers, families and communities in the US, we can also do for people, even entire countries, who are struggling throughout the world. It is not only individual firms that can take advantage of the economic opportunity in clean and renewable energy and other green industries. Entire countries that have been struggling to find paths to development, now find in clean energy a vast economic landscape where everyone is new and no one has a decisive advantage.

Right now, we have a global economy that is hurting people and hurting the planet. The harm is global in scope, but people feel it at a local, personal level. Ecosystems collapse while small children in small towns suffer from asthma and poverty. We can fix this. By giving everyday people ways to participate in the decisions that are going to shape the next century, we can build a path from this moment to the future we choose. I want to help do that.

I guess that makes me a proud environmentalist.

3 responses to “How I became an environmentalist: A small-town story with global implications”

  1. Marco Simic

    This is a good article, but I wonder how Ms Ellis Lamkins would find it in a much poorer country. California is certainly not a poor place, and I wonder if the environment means something also to people who live on only a few cents every day in AFrica and Asia?

  2. Charles Arthur

    Marko Simic appears to be suggesting that environmental concerns are a luxury that poor people cannot afford. I would agree that when you are desperate to find the money to buy food for your family, you cannot think about the future environmental impact of your activities. However, I think Ellis-Lamkins’ article is making the point that health-damaging working conditions are an immediate concern to workers in countries all over the world. As she writes, parents want to “keep their children and communities healthy, safe and economically viable.”

  3. Camilla

    Green for All says “The dirty-energy economy has brought pollution and poverty to too many. But a clean-energy economy can bring opportunity, health, and wealth to struggling communities.”

    See the neat little video – “A New Sound: Green For All” at: