“This is a moment for my generation to step up and recognize that there are people in charge who want to steal our children’s future, and we need to take it back.”
On October 1, Abigail Dillen will become Earthjustice’s president, replacing retiring president Trip Van Noppen. Abbie joined Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office in 2000 and went on to lead the organization’s climate and energy program. We’re pleased to share these excerpts from a recent conversation with Abbie.
What inspired your passion for environmental protection and environmental law?
As a kid in Sacramento, California, I lived in a new development that was paving over retired farmland. I could ride my bike to fields where there were still animals. You could find dens and nests. It was a world apart from new sidewalks and houses, and it was disappearing. Later, in college, I worked in Yosemite’s high country and fell in love with that place and the whole notion of public lands. At the core, I’m still interested in the tension between the human drive to exploit our environment and our potential to protect and restore it.
I was sold on Earthjustice as soon as I arrived in Bozeman, Montana, as a summer clerk in our Northern Rockies office. I was so inspired by the ability of a very few people, lawyers and clients, to shape the future of that amazing place — to ensure that grizzly bears survive in the lower 48, that bison have room to roam, that our last unroaded forests are preserved as wild refuges. Now I’m equally inspired by how our work can force action on climate change and combat pollution and toxic exposures that are poisoning people, most acutely in low-income communities and communities of color.
© Thomas D. Mangelsen
Photo courtesy of Tom Murphy
Photo courtesy of Terry Glase
What insights have you gained from your years at Earthjustice?
How powerful the law can be as a tool for change. When we forge deep partnerships with clients and allies and pair legal work with great communications and political advocacy, together we can achieve wins in court that shift the balance of power away from powerful corporate interests, and at the same time build the public support and engagement that delivers durable victories. No organization in the world does public interest environmental legal work at the scale that Earthjustice does.
Talk about the moment we’re in with the Trump administration, and Earthjustice’s role.
There have been times before where our politicians in Washington have taken aim at core values of the American people, from clean air and water to protection of our most iconic places. But we have never seen anything as bad as this. The whole enterprise of environmental protection is under attack, and at the same time, this administration is fueling unconscionable attacks on people of color, on civil rights, and on access to justice. This moment challenges Earthjustice not only to work at a new scale at a relentless pace but also to center justice in our work in a way we have never done before. It’s past time to confront the environmental injustices that we and the mainstream environmental movement have ignored and perpetuated.
What will be your priorities as president?
We have to mount the most robust defense possible against assaults on our bedrock environmental protections and our access to the courts. At the same time, we have to leverage every opportunity to push forward progress, especially on climate change, in the states and in rule-of-law countries where good lawyers make a difference.
For Earthjustice as an institution, my top priority is to carry forward Trip’s vision and help us to become the diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization we need to be.
What are you hopeful about?
Young people and clean energy! This is a moment for my generation to step up and recognize that there are people in charge who want to steal our children’s future, and we need to take it back. When I meet young politically awake people who understand the stakes for the environment and their future, I see the intensity of purpose and the talent to help us get to where we need to go.
Can you give an example of work that gives you hope?
There are too many examples to choose from! We’ve had a run of court victories this summer that vindicate safeguards the current Environmental Protection Agency would eviscerate — protections against chemical disasters, a ban on the poisonous pesticide chlorpyrifos, and standards to prevent water contamination from coal ash, to name a few. These wins deliver critical health and safety benefits, and they also remind us that no one is above the law. Meanwhile, there is so much good news in the states as the essential shift to clean energy gains momentum, often with help from Earthjustice.
What do you want to say to Earthjustice’s donors?
I feel deeply grateful to our donors for understanding and supporting our mission. This organization can’t succeed without their partnership. At this time when the assaults on our environment are relentless, to see our donors stepping up to help us do more is a source of incredible inspiration and courage for our staff and for me.
Every week there’s good news about what we’re winning. We can’t forget that we’re right about what the law requires when it comes to protecting our communities and our natural world from harm, and the courts are affirming that. Our bedrock laws are meant to protect us from unchecked greed, and with the support of dedicated individuals standing with us, we’re enforcing those laws.
By Denise Bergez
Originally published in the Earthjustice Insider, Fall 2018