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Jan 4, 2010

When toxic fumes from a neighborhood roof-tarring project started impacting the health of her daughter, Shelby Rodriguez sprang into action. A self described "stay at home Mom" at the time, Shelby took on the housing development with her "No More Tar Roofs" campaign - successfully halting the project and forcing them to switch to a more eco-friendly solution.  Shelby's story has since been published in People Magazine, the Sacramento News & Review, and Lifetime's "Remarkable Women" series. In addition, Shelby was awarded the first annual Mom on a Mission award from Healthy Child, Healthy World.

I recently had the opportunity to ask her about her campaign:
Shelby and Daughter Elise
RP: What motivated you to take action to stop the roofing project?
SR: My motivation for fighting the roofing tar project was my daughter, Elise (age 5). I had been diagnosed with intermittent asthma and was put on inhalers after being exposed to the tar fumes for several months. The symptoms I had were nose sores, twitching lungs, constant coughing, fatigue, nausea, difficulty breathing, and asthma.
 
I was living in fear. We couldn’t play outside, and I was forced to tape my door shut and close off air intakes, etc. On several occasions, the inside of our house was filled with fumes so badly that and I had to put a mask over Elise and leave the area to breathe. When Elise told me she had a sore throat I went into a productive panic because one of my first symptoms was a sore throat too. Finding out that the project was for three years and knowing that we had limited options financially I knew that I could not sit by and be a victim anymore. Elise deserved a safe place to live.

RP: What did you do to get the project stopped? (and how did you know what to do?)
SR: The first step in getting the project stopped was to research and learn everything I could about the project and the product. Once I knew what and who I was up against I began making contacts within the community, local government, the US EPA, grassroots organizations, and the Air Quality District to plead my case. In addition, I needed to find an alternative to asphalt roofing tar so that I was asking for a change that was actually realistic. The people I was asking help from respected that because I wasn’t just complaining; I had found a doable solution to the problem.
 
I actually didn’t know what to do! But I was very persistent and never took no for an answer. My first strategy was to try and force the Carmel Partners (owners of the community) to change to the alternative “cool” roof system. I learned that no one in local government was going to help me force them to stop because what they were doing was actually legal; so I had to change my strategy.

The combination of several things helped me change the project. I received great advice from helpful allies along with media attention. In addition, the help from the US EPA through their TASC (Technical Assistance Services for Communities) was a huge win for the community.  I also had the backing from SAQMD (Air Quality District). They are the governing agency and very kindly informed the owners of the repercussions should they use asphalt roofing tar and have the community fight back with the public nuisance law. I would say that was the ultimate reason the Carmel Partners opted to try the “Cool” roofs instead. I think it made sense to them to choose an easier route rather than to move forward against such opposition. It was a gamble, but I wasn’t going to give up.

RP: What was the biggest lesson you learned from your experience?
SR: The biggest lesson I learned was the power of one person to influence change. I was nearly discouraged so many times by people, who meant well, but who tried to squash my momentum by pointing out I was alone in my quest. They told me to give up for the sake of my own sanity, to know my place as a middle-class woman with no influence in our society. But the truth is, when you have the facts, and are truly dedicated and passionate, eventually others will take notice and positive changes can happen no matter who you are.

RP: Why did you choose Care2 for your petition?
SR: I learned about Care2 when the Sierra Club helped me author the No More Tar Roofs petition. I knew I needed to have a place online where people could sign the petition even if they hadn’t met with me in person.

What I like most about Care2 is the community of people taking action on issues that are important to them.  It helps bring awareness to issues not covered in the media, which is extremely empowering for the everyday person out there who knows change needs to happen but could feel powerless otherwise.

It’s based on the idea that one person can make a difference, which is what I’m all about! I love that when I visit the site I’m shown petitions to sign, there are blogs to read, and there is other good work to participate in. It was a positive influence in my community, throughout the country, and hopefully will be the catalyst for the human movement needed the help save the world for future generations.

RP: If Care2 members have similar environmental health concerns in their neighborhood, what would you recommend they do?
SR: My advice to others would be to pace yourself, know your stuff, make a reasonable plan, and don’t let your emotions overpower your will to succeed.

  • Do your homework— If you know who and what you’re up against you are more likely to succeed.
    • Create a flyer to hand out with a site they can visit with more information online. Also create a paper version and an online petition to document and empower others to join in on your cause.
    • Don’t just complain. Find an alternative to the problem in your community and mention it at every opportunity.
  • Find allies and contacts for advice and to spread your story.
    • Don’t be afraid to hit the pavement and respectfully knock on doors and talk to your neighbors to find out if they are having symptoms too. You can find help with your campaign that way and it also helps in knowing you’re not alone.
    • Write, call, and attend public meetings to get the attention of your local government or other local activist.
    • Don’t stop there. In my case the Federal Government was helpful as well.
    • Sometimes, you’ll need to bypass the staff and go directly to the person at the top of the organization or public office. You’d be surprised at how helpful the big wigs can be if contacted directly.
    • Take notes about advice and contacts. Contact everyone you’re directed to call. You never know who will be the right contact. I was able to get on the news because one of my new contacts knew a news reporter.
    • Be passionate, but calm and factual.
    • Make sure everything you say or write is true to the best of your knowledge. Sometimes retaliation comes in the form of threats of lawsuits for defamation or libel by your opponent.  As long as you can prove that you thought what you said was true at the time you said it they will lose (and they know that too).
    • Know your rights about freedom of speech. Talk to the local police to make sure they know about your campaign or any threats you’ve received, and so that you know the rules about campaigning on public and private property.
  • Just don’t give up!
    • You will hear more “No’s” than” Yes’s” during your campaign. Just know that people are used to business as usual. They have a job duty and protocol but when moved to act because of your enthusiasm and dedication they may eventually decide to help you. Just remember that in the confrontation between the rock and the stream, the stream always wins—not through strength but through persistence.

RP: Congratulations Shelby, and thank you for your courage, tenacity and for being such an inspiration!

Watch Shelby's story, below, as told during the Healthy Child, Healthy World award ceremony where she was named their first annual "Mom on a Mission."




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Posted: Jan 4, 2010 7:46pm

 

 
 
Content and comments expressed here are the opinions of Care2 users and not necessarily that of Care2.com or its affiliates.

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Randy Paynter
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Hillsborough, CA, USA
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