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Goldman Prize Winners: Making a Difference

It is easy sometimes to feel like the problems of the world are just too large for any one person to tackle. Whether it is a global issue like climate change or more local struggles against ancient coal plants polluting the neighborhood, it feels like there are always powerful interests standing in the way. That’s why I am thankful for the Goldman Environmental Prize because it shows us just how incredible a difference one caring person can make.

Founded in 1989 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman, the Goldman prize recognizes those environmental heroes who have worked tirelessly to safeguard the environment and improve the lives of everyone in their communities. It offers a chance for those who have gone unsung for years to get the support they need to take their grassroots vision of change further, as these problems are often far too common. I had the good fortune to hear three of this year’s winners speak recently, and all of their stories are incredible.

Kimberly Wasserman.
(Goldman Environmental Prize)

The first is Kimberly Wasserman of Chicago’s southwest side. A resident of the thriving community called Little Village; Wasserman lived much of her life in the shadow of two aging coal-fired power plants. The impact of these plants on the densely populated community of more than 100,000 was immense. A Harvard study found that the twin plants were responsible for 40 premature deaths, 550 visits to the emergency room and more than 2,800 asthma attacks every year. It was one of these asthma attacks that roused Wasserman herself into action.

After her 3-month old baby was rushed to the hospital for an asthma attack in 1998 caused by environmental pollution,Wasserman decided to fight back against the poisoning of her community. Organizing the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), she led helped foster the Chicago Clean Power Coalition and successfully pushed for stricter environmental protections. Now required to pay for the pollution they had caused, both coal plants closed ahead of schedule in 2012.

Rossano Ercolini.
(Goldman Environmental Prize)

Our second Goldman winner is Rossano Ercolini, a school teacher in Italy’s Tuscan countryside. After construction of a new incinerator was announced just two miles up the road from his elementary school, Ercolini began to educate his community about the hazards and alternatives they could pursue. Motivated by concern for his students’ health and the countless tons of material the incinerator would burn rather than recycle, Ercolini successfully mobilized his community and got the project canceled. A year later his city of Capannori had implemented a recycling system that recycles 82 percent of the community’s waste. This was hardly the last lesson in his curriculum though.

Ercolini has gone on to help scrap or shut down 40 incinerators, as well as get the city of Naples and 117 other municipalities to adopt zero waste policy goals. As he spoke of his work, Ercolini’s enthusiasm and passion was infectious and his vision only seems to be growing. Given the disproportionate placement of these incinerators in poor and rural communities, his example is one worth following here in the United States.

Nohra Padilla.
(Goldman Environmental Prize)

Our final winner has dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of recyclers, and the issue was clearly as close to her heart as anything could be. Since the age of seven, Nohra Padilla had been a recycler, picking through the trash of Bogota, Colombia to find the scrap her family needed to survive. As the years passed, Padilla became more involved with the street recyclers in Bogota, gradually helping them organize into larger cooperatives that could fight for their rights as workers. This path has been a dangerous one, with powerful economic interests attempting to bar her path, but Padilla and the recyclers have persevered.

Today, the Association of Recyclers of Bogotá is 3,000 members strong, and the National Association of Recyclers in Colombia can boast 12,000 members. Just in 2011 Padilla and the cooperatives won a major lawsuit, requiring all waste contracts to include informal recycling in their plans. Padilla and her partner both gave emotional speeches, offering a vision of how change in one country’s approach to waste management might just go on to transform an entire region.

Whatever the future holds for these three Goldman winners, I am certain they will greet it with the kind of energy and hope the world could always use a little more of.

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