What should a beauty queen pack when she travels to Washington, D.C., for a chat with her members of Congress? Evening gown? Tiara? High heels?
None of the above for Krystin McCauley, the 2012 Miss Black Atlanta. McCauley set off in early May of 2013 with just two essentials: an inhaler and the story of how she and millions of other Americans suffer respiratory afflictions because of air polluted by industrial sources in their communities.
And McCauley wasn't alone on that four-day trip. More than 100 citizens, with similar stories from every state in the nation, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, joined with her—an army of citizen lobbyists invading the halls of Congress and the offices of representatives—determined to let these leaders know that dirty air is stealing their health and their lives.
Some congressional representatives encouraged the invasion, officially known as 50 States United for Healthy Air , because it was crucial to show Congress and the Administration that clean air and environmental concerns and activism have a face and a name and are not confined to the mainstream environmental movement.
But while lawmakers like California Senator Barbara Boxer flung their office doors open to the Ambassadors, others like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe—a notorious climate change denier—berated their constituents and escorted them out … a harsh reminder that industry lobbyists got there first, never go away, and bring buckets of cash when they tell their stories.
Not that political realities daunted the Clean Air Ambassadors. After all, these are people toughened by encounters with daily life. They are community activists, doctors, nurses, and leaders in the labor, social justice, faith and environmental justice movements; many carry illnesses or have friends and family members who suffer the effects of industrial excess.
McCauley hardly knew what asthma was until, as a young woman, she moved to Atlanta, breathed the air, and developed the disease.
"It was a total shock to learn that I had asthma," she said. "I just didn't know I could get it as an adult. When I started doing some research, I learned that air pollution can have a huge impact on how we breathe." She also learned that Atlanta is notorious for its dirty air.
Clean air is a heartfelt issue for Susan McGuinness, a registered nurse from Painesville, Ohio, who teaches at Case Western University.
"Two of my grandchildren were diagnosed with asthma. It's heartbreaking to see that they have to stay in the house on bad-air days. No one should ever have to watch any child struggle to catch their breath," McGuinness said.
Also a registered nurse, Ambassador Phillip Bautista lives in California's San Joaquin Valley, where the air is thick enough to choke on. "As a lifelong resident of the valley, I have lived in an area with poor air quality my entire life," he said. "The air quality is visibly poor on many days here. The ability to inhale a deep breath of fresh air should not be based on where you live."
The Clean Air Ambassadors weren't in the nation's capital just to complain—they want Congress and the Obama administration to protect the health of millions by adopting strong air pollution standards and preserving the Clean Air Act. They want the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize pending federal regulations for coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal that continues to threaten hundreds of communities near coal ash dumps and landfills. They want cleaner cars and trucks through stronger fuel standards, and they want stronger standards for carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, both existing and new. Together, these plants are responsible for more than one-third of the nation's carbon pollution.
Perhaps most important, they want President Obama to live up to his promise to respond to the threat of climate change.
In 2011, 76 Ambassadors at the first 50 States United event helped clear the way for the EPA to finalize important rules to clean up toxic air pollution from power plants. The Ambassadors continued to put pressure on decisionmakers back home, speaking to the media, attending public hearings, organizing, educating and fighting for clean air.
Two years later, the event grew to 117 Ambassadors, partnering with the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement , National Association for the Advancement of Colored People , National Latino Coalition on Climate Change , American Nurses Association , Hip Hop Caucus , National Council of Churches , and Physicians for Social Responsibility .
Says Andrea Delgado , an Earthjustice lobbyist who helped facilitate the 50 States United event: "Our legislators serve at the pleasure of the people, and that's what we need to remind every American—that they own that capital and every single building in it, whether it's the Senate or the House. It's their money that's gone to build that house of power."
"Our legislators should be all eyes and ears to hear from the people that put them there in the first place."
First published in the Summer 2013 issue of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine .