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February 08, 2014

Environmental Activist Encourages Students

by Mike O'Sullivan

The activist Erin Brockovich was the subject of a film starring Julia Roberts about a town that rallied against a power company for leaking a chemical into their drinking water.  The environmental crusader remains an activist and is using her personal story to inspire students.

Standing at the front of a lecture hall, Erin Brockovich told students she had no science background and only learned about law while working for a lawyer.  The story was recounted in this film from 2000 called Erin Brockovich.  Julia Roberts won an Oscar for the title role as the single mother who went to work for a law firm.

In 1996, Brockovich helped win a $333-million settlement with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company for leaking the chemical hexavalent chromium into the drinking water of the town of Hinkley, California.

Today, the environmental campaigner still pursues reports of pollution and problems with medical devices, which some believe are linked to their health problems.  She is not without critics, who question her use of data, but even they say she is a force to be reckoned with.  Brockovich explained her work to several hundred high school students, who were visiting the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, to learn more about science.

“It was difficult for me growing up because I have a learning disability.  I was very often told that I couldn’t do this and I couldn’t be that.  And I bought everyone’s party line.  It wasn’t until later in life that I realized that, by seeing myself, trusting myself, believing in myself, that that became the real game-changer,” she said.

For 15-year-old student Samantha Magallanes, the story of pollution struck close to home.

“In our community, it was kind of the same, what she’s talking about.  Our soil was kind of poisoned as well,” she said.

Some of these kids hope for careers in science or related fields, like Seleni Rivas, who wants to become a midwife and help deliver babies.

“Right now, I’m taking chemistry and I already took biology.  So hopefully next year, I’ll take more science classes,” said Rivas.

Computer science teacher Steve Scanlan wanted the students to hear from Brockovich, who has made an impact on her community.

“Somebody who is so important in pushing environmental issues, and really kind of a common person that brought herself up by her boot straps, a real inspiration for the kids.  So it’s a very good story,” he said.

The message inspired student Jerome Caco. “Do what you like to do best, and one person can make a difference,” he said.

Brockovich said she was also suggesting that students ask difficult questions and look for the answers themselves.