By Teresa Heinz
The second Women’s Health & Environment Conference begins tomorrow at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Sponsored by The Heinz Endowments, Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC and the Heinz Family Philanthropies, it is free and open to the public.
On one of my trips home to Pittsburgh several years ago, I saw that there had been a great deal of news coverage given to a small event that took place in a suburban school parking lot.
Teresa Heinz is the chairman of The Heinz Endowments and the Heinz Family Philanthropies (www.heinz.org).
The participants performed an unsophisticated scientific experiment known as the “white hanky” test. A senior scientist with a local environmental group and the owner of a school bus company held a white handkerchief against the tailpipe of a 6-year-old bus with its engine in idle. Within seconds, the diesel exhaust turned the handkerchief black.
The men then moved to the tailpipe of another bus that had been retrofitted to filter most of the pollutants — which are linked to a range of serious health problems from asthma to cancer — and the handkerchief remained white. Students clapped, cameras clicked and Plum School District officials announced the receipt of a federal grant that would allow them to buy filters for the district’s older buses.
For two young women who head local environmental nonprofits and who helped plan that event, the actions of Plum officials and similar efforts in three other school districts were commendable but fell far short of a comprehensive response to Western Pennsylvania’s serious diesel-emission problem.
Inspired by last year’s Women’s Health & Environment Conference and the Rachel Carson Centennial Birthday celebration that followed, Kathy Lawson, Western Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action, and Rachel Filippini, the executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, partnered with the Pittsburgh Public Schools and bus company owners to create the Healthy School Bus Fund. The project’s first-stage goal is to eliminate diesel pollution from the district’s 350-bus fleet. Eventually, the two women want to package the novel process and take it to the other school districts in Allegheny County.
Rachel and Kathy have been persistent and convincing, with the result that the first 20 retrofitted school buses in Pittsburgh are scheduled to make their rounds by the end of October. These two were among the 2,000 women who took to heart two key messages from last year’s conference.
The first was that even though many of the environmental hazards that threaten human health are so massive and complex that they’ll require nations to solve them, the power of one or 10 or 50 people taking action in local communities can significantly improve health.
The other message is that women are uniquely positioned to lead these efforts. Women are instinctive nurturers and care givers, and they exercise more emotional intelligence than many men in protecting the health of families and communities.
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam refers to the historical role of women as the shapers of civil society and the managers of the myriad ways in which people interact. It has been my experience that we women are willing to take the time to connect the dots — whether it be connecting to inform one another, to build community or to nurture the planet as it is presented to us in our own backyards.
While I expected participants at last year’s event to respond with action, nothing prepared me for the passionate response of a core group that emerged.
With a charter membership of 30, Women for a Healthy Environment will be formally announced at tomorrow’s conference, but women representing all dimensions of Western Pennsylvania — nonprofit leaders, business executives, foundation officers and community organizers among them — already have been changing personal habits, such as organizing mothers in low-income neighborhoods to exchange information on organic foods and other parenting tips. They have been hosting community forums on environmental health issues and planning new advocacy projects.
Aside from Rachel Filippini of the Healthy School Bus Fund, other members include Kathy Purcell, executive director of the Pittsburgh affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, who has committed her organization to educate women, especially those living in rural areas, on environmental factors connected to breast cancer.
Another is LaVerne Baker Hotep, director of community arts and education of the Center for Victims of Violence and Crimes. She is directing a project to identify environmental contributors to violence and crime in our region, with the goal of sharing the information with women in high-risk communities.
I could go on with the list of activities under way and those planned in response to this year’s conference agenda, which centers on environmental factors affecting air, water, food and the personal care products we use every day.
But the bigger insight is that Pittsburgh history may be coming full circle. In the 1890s, as Pittsburgh industry was ramping up to turn the city’s water and air into a toxic soup of pollution, a group of activist women formed the Ladies Health Protection Association. Even though they couldn’t vote or attend public meetings, they demonstrated and agitated to force the men running the city to enact the nation’s first smoke abatement ordinance.
Today, Women for a Healthy Environment continue that activist fight for a healthier community, one jar of organic baby food at a time, one white hanky-tested school bus at a time, one rural public education session at a time.
First published on September 24, 2008 at 12:00 am