Members of the grassroots, ultimately, have the most powerful tool for affecting change in their communities: riveting, unique stories.
The foundation of a fascinating story is one single, central fact. Case in point is the recent Kingston sewage scandal. In April 2005, millions of litres (14-million gallons) of raw sewage washed up on the shores of Wolfe Island, at the eastern tip of Lake Ontario.
Fifty-two million litres of raw sewage dumped condoms by the dozen, hypodermic needles, and feminine hygiene products onto the normally pristine beaches. Fourteen million gallons of raw sewage rushing past the island, downstream to the St. Lawrence River, meant Kingston’s sewage was on display for all the world to see.
Since the 1970s, the City of Kingston has admitted to the Province of Ontario that it has a “problem”with its sewage system. But since admitting its problem a generation ago, Kingston has made little real progress in cleaning up its waterways and revamping the century-old system.
So what makes the recent sewage spill so “scandalous”? Why are area residents confident that this time, things will be different? The answer: One set of facts and a powerful story.
On April 4, 2005, Wolfe Island resident Colin Mosier noticed condoms and needles lapping ashore on his property. Colin, with no specialized training in environmental work, but as a long-time volunteer with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, knew that the nearby City of Kingston regularly dumps its raw sewage in the spring and worried that there might be a connection. Because Colin was informed and aware, he spotted a potential problem instantly.
Colin immediately contacted Waterkeeper, who was three hours away in Toronto, and then telephoned a live call-in radio show. His concern rallied the community, who took turns notifying the appropriate government officials and local leaders. While he waited for the government and press to arrive, Colin and his family and friends documented the sewage spill, taking numerous photographs and videotape recordings. His father-in-law, Christopher Mattson, offered to take water samples for Waterkeeper, collecting them from the river and the shore well, and delivering them to our local laboratory.
Quick-thinking volunteers proved what scientists and activists have not had the opportunity to prove before: sewage spills have a real impact in the Kingston area.
It sounds silly. Who doesn’t know that sewage spills are bad? But in a historically polluted area like Lake Ontario, evidence to support common sense is often hard to come by. Let’s see what Colin’s actions proved:
1) Because he called the authorities right away, Colin proved when the spill had occurred.
2) Because Colin and his friends documented the contamination extensively, they proved the magnitude of the spill.
3) Because Colin invited the media, he gave the world the images it needed to understand the impacts of sewage dumping.
4) By taking water samples right away, Colin’s family also proved that the river and his drinking water well were contaminated with E. coli. (A second set of samples taken after the spill was cleaned up confirmed that the river and shore well were once again clean.)
Those are the facts. But what makes them so powerful? Why did Colin’s quick-thinking prompt a series of front-page news stories, province-wide editorials, and an investigation by Ontario’s environmental police force?
The simplest answer is that, because Colin documented everything he could, his story is indisputable. Colin’s story resonated with government, media, and community members because he’s a regular guy who let the facts tell his story. Colin’s plight could be anyone’s plight, a truism that gives his experience a unique power. It’s common enough among the grassroots and it’s our greatest strength as a movement.
Volunteers and other individuals who speak out about personal, factual experiences of pollution in their communities offer one thing that no PR firm can manufacture and no spin-doctor can conjure up: credibility. Their stories, like Colin’s, are straightforward and poignant. Even the most jaded observer can sympathize and decide they never want it to happen in their community again. And that is a powerful step to winning back our waterways.