No Dream Too Big Nor Journey Too Long

Adrienne Hollis shares her story about how organizer Dr. Mildred McClain inspired her to become a project attorney at Earthjustice.

Dr. Mildred McClain
Dr. Mildred McClain speaks in an EPA video. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

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Earthjustice—in recognition of Black History Month—is sharing articles and videos each Friday of February about African Americans who have made contributions to the environmental movement. In addition to recognizing the courageous work of others, Earthjustice’s own African-American staff also share personal stories about how they became involved in environmental issues.

My name is Adrienne Hollis. I’m a project attorney at Earthjustice, based in Tallahassee, Florida. I have always been passionately interested in working with people disproportionately affected by environmental toxins.

It started when I was a little girl, living in Mobile, Alabama.  Back then, we could always smell the rotten egg scent coming from the nearby paper mill. At that time, adults would tell us that it was the smell of money. I later learned though that what we smelled—while perhaps motivated by the desire to make money—were actually environmental pollutants. It was then that my interest in the environment began. 

I have been doing environmental work, in one form or another, for more than 20 years. Both my postdoctoral studies and my work with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) involved working with communities on environmental issues. 

However, my defining moment in doing environmental work occurred while working as an associate professor at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. I had the opportunity to develop the environmental and occupational health track at the university as part of the Institute of Public Health. When interviewed for the position, I requested that I be allowed to take my students out of the classroom and into the community. That was the only way they would develop a full appreciation for the environmental challenges many people faced daily. 

I worked directly with communities impacted by environmental contamination, and I took my students out into communities struggling with various aspects of environmental pollution. My work focused on empowering minority communities and those of low socio-economic status. I provided education and data analysis, and I even had a project that allowed students to live in a minority or low-income community for a short duration during the summers.

My students started saying that they were developing into mini “Erin Brockovich’s.” We were even caught in situations that required stealth and agility in our efforts to uncover unsafe environmental practices. Late one night as we were visiting and photographing illegal burning activities at a coal-fired power plant, we saw a shadowy figure wielding what appeared to be a rifle headed our way.  I don’t recall telling my students to run, but I do know that they were shouting “drive, drive” as they pulled the last student into our van.

I regularly checked with the communities to make sure we were meeting their needs to whatever extent we could. The one common thread from each community was the need for someone to help them navigate through the legal arena—preferably someone who looked liked them or understood what they were going through. They needed someone to inform them of their legal rights, and they needed someone to help them pursue legal avenues when necessary.

That is when I decided that I needed to go to law school. While it was always a dream of mine, I felt like it was too late. After all, I was already a professor, tenured and settled, but the lack of information available to communities and the suffering that ensued as a result only motivated me more to want to help. It took 10 years, but now I am helping communities impacted by environmental threats become healthy communities.

One of the community organizations I have particularly enjoyed working with and learning from is Citizens for Environmental Justice in Savannah, Georgia under the leadership of Dr. Mildred McClain. Dr. McClain is passionate about environmental issues, and she never asks anyone else to do more than she will do. Most importantly, Dr. McClain emphasizes the need to include youth in the environmental movement. Children need to understand environmental issues because they are our future. Dr. McClain was a regular guest lecturer in my classes, and she gave students the gift of sharing her strong belief in the need for a healthier environment.

To learn more about Dr. McClain and how she first became involved in the environmental movement, I’d like to share this short EPA video.

In addition, here is a link to an interesting article about the Citizens for Environmental Justice and Dr. McClain. 

I’ll end with my favorite quote, which I always share with my students:

“Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”– James Baldwin

Adrienne was an attorney in Earthjustice's Florida regional office in Tallahassee.