The Pioneer: An Interview With Jerome Ringo

The new head of the National Wildlife Federation has always been a pathbreaker.

| Mon Apr. 25, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

Jerome Ringo is used to treading on new ground. As a child, he was the first and only African-American ranger at the world's largest Boy Scout camp. In 1998, he was the sole African-American delegate at the Global Warming Treaty negotiations in Kyoto. And earlier this April, he was sworn in as the Chairman of the National Wildlife Federation – the first African-American in history to chair a major conservation organization.

Ringo’s commitment to the environment dates back to his early childhood in the Bayous of Southern Louisiana, and was strengthened by his experience working in Louisiana's petrochemical industry for over two decades. He saw firsthand the harmful effects of that industry on local communities, which included many of his own family members. When his company offered him an “early retirement” in 1994 at the age of 39, he took his 22 years of experience and expanded his pursuit of environmental activism into a full-time affair.

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Ringo believes that real success—in energy security, public health, environmental protection, social justice—will come when a broadly united environmental front is able to sit down together with industry to work out a plan for the future together. His position puts him in a unique place in history, one that he hopes has us perched on the edge of a new movement in environmentalism, one that gets everyone involved.

Mr. Ringo talked to Mother Jones from his home in Louisiana.

MJ: Where did your environmental ethic originate?

JR: I grew up around the Bayous of Southern Louisiana and many people in my community lived off the land—we hunted and fished for food. Not that we were solely dependent on hunting and fishing, but it surely was a major supplement to us as well as wonderful sport. So as a result, I was well connected with my natural surroundings growing up.

I got involved in Boy Scouts when I was really young and eventually ended up working in a scout ranch in Cimmaron, New Mexico, which was the word's largest scout ranch. I was the first African-American Ranger there, and I taught kids all about survival. So when I was young, I was really able to become connected and have a deep appreciation for the beauty of nature.

MJ: I read in your biography that after college you worked for the petrochemical industry, and that led you to draw some conclusions about the industry that spurred you into activism.

JR: Yes, I worked for the petrochemical industry for quite some time. The industry is one of Louisiana's largest employers--we border the Gulf of Mexico where the bulk of American drilling takes place. I worked on the platforms as well as on land at the refineries that process the fuels. Many of my relatives lived just across the fence line from these industries so I saw the impacts first hand, and felt the impacts very close to home.

MJ: What kind of impacts did you see?

JR: Well, of course, high levels of cancers and respiratory diseases, many problems that people who did not live in close proximity simply did not face. It was pretty obvious in my area in particular and when you look across the country there seems to be a disproportionate amount of cancer and toxic related health problems closer to industries.

MJ: So you got involved in environmentalism while working in the industry. How did that begin?

JR: Every day I'd have to drive through these communities to get to my job. So I came to learn that the companies that I was working for were contributing to environmental problems—there was no denial about that. This is not to say that all the industries were terrible environmentalists or did not care about the environment, but the reality is that industry discharges chemicals—it’s just a reality. And so I felt the need to help educate people within those communities how to work the process to try to stop the discharge of chemicals—not to shut the plants down— but to lobby the state legislature on environmental laws and show up at public hearings and to speak up as a community and express their fears and concerns.

So I was organizing communities while still working at the petrochemical plant. That sort of mixed like oil and water. (laughs) Usually you're either one side or the other, yet I was comfortably able to do both. I don't know how comfortable the industry was with me with me doing that, but because industries want to at least project themselves as being friends to the environment, they surely were not going to fire me.

So what happened was that I was transferred to Malaysia, and I can't say that was a direct result of the pressure that I was giving, but personally I think that it sure gave some relief with me out of the country. I was very outspoken. At the same time, when I returned to the United States from Southeast Asia in 1994, there were offerings of early retirement to some employees. I was offered an early retirement, took it, and committed my life full time to working on behalf of people outside the fence line.

MJ: How old were you at that point?

JR: Well, I'm 50 years old now…

MJ: That’s a pretty early retirement…

JR: I retired at, I think, around 44 years old. No, I was younger than that! This is 2005. Oh my goodness! I must have been 39!

MJ: Do you think that your activism had anything to do with that, or was that fairly common?

JR: No, it was not common, and I'm not going to say that my outspoken nature was the deciding factor, but I'm sure that they were relieved to see me out of the picture.

MJ: Did having worked in industry help or harm you as an environmentalist?

JR: I certainly don't think it impaired me in any way—what I had received in knowledge and wisdom from 22 years in the industry is something that can never be taken away. It's valuable in that I can represent people outside the fence line with a clear understanding of what goes on within the fence line. I took that experience into the communities, educated them, organized them, empowered them, and I still often refer to the experiences I had while in the industry to help me educate people and start building bridges with the industry.

We cannot always focus on shutting down the plants. We need the product that the industry produces. We need the jobs that the industry produces. But we need to empower people to demand that industry acts in a more manageable way in respect to environmental practices.

MJ:What victories were able to achieve in your community activism against the petrochemical industry?

JR: We were able to accomplish quite a lot. Much of what we did revolved around organizing members of affected communities to rally together and speak up against issues on Capitol Hill and in the State Senate. The reality is that many of the important decisions are not made locally – so we needed to get out to address them. We gave a voice to these issues that was sorely needed.

Of course, when the representatives came back to their own districts we needed to have a presence there as well. So at the grass roots level we were able to make our presence known – representatives need to see the concerns of the community where they live.

One of the results of this is that we were able to fend off many of what are called "regulatory takings" bills. In effect what would often happen is the industry would attempt to lobby the government to pay for the cost of environmental cleanup with the hope that when faced with the bill, the government would simply deregulate – rather than spend the cash. When industry got its way, the environmental cleanup would never materialize. We took on and won cases against these sorts of takings in over 15 different states.

MJ: Is it fair to say that because of your background in the petrochemical industry and your personal interaction with the people that were affected that this is perhaps the greatest issue for you as an environmentalist?

JR: Actually, no. The single greatest issue for me as an environmentalist is climate change. I'd have to say that climate change is the single most important issue facing the environmental community and communities as a whole today. Its going to require a global effort to reduce greenhouse gases and hopefully derail some of the adverse impacts that we are experiencing today and the devastating impacts that we are going to experience in the future as a result of global warming.

MJ: How do you define yourself as an environmentalist?

JR: Well, first off, I think that environmentalists have been terribly misunderstood over the years. I believe that anyone that cares about the earth is an environmentalist. People that make a decision to not throw garbage out on the street because they consider the possible impacts. That's environmentalism in its most basic form.

I am more of a conservationist, myself. And people have come to me and said, "Wow, you're an African-American conservationist!" And my response is, "No, I'm a conservationist who happens to be black."

I believe that all of us in the conservation movement – even many of the people that work in the petrochemical industry who love to hunt and fish – we love the environment. Unfortunately there are folks in corporate headquarters who are driven solely by profit do not give full consideration to environmental impacts. That does not apply to every company but there are those that are discharging, know they are discharging, know the impact that they are having, yet they don't act on that. The National Wildlife Federation is on a mission to educate people at all levels and to come up with more reasonable and innovative approaches for energy production and consumption.

MJ: You spoke just a moment ago of being a conservationist who happens to be black. There’s a popular stereotype that environmentalists are white and wear fleeces and that the roots of environmentalism date back to the 1960s. But I think environmentalism is far broader historically, ideologically, and culturally.

JR: Well, you go back in history—the National Wildlife Federation was formed in the 1930's when many of the conservation organizations were first organized. FDR was a conservationist; he was a president that truly promoted conservation. He was also a sportsman. During that time, the majority of environmentalists/conservationists were sportsmen. Those folks that were members of organized conservation and environmental organizations were those folks that I say that would fish to hang on the wall.

People that fished to put the fish on the plate, didn't join clubs! They fished to eat. So therefore, the organized movement was mainly made of those sportsman did not include people who couldn't afford to join clubs and who were off feeding their families. And unfortunately, that was many people of color and poor people. Over the years, the movement has evolved to where those sportsmen now recognized the impacts of their actions and society's actions on their sporting and lifestyle. If the air is dirty or the water is dirty there are surely less fish and deer and animals to hunt.

So there has been a marriage between sportsman, environmentalists, and conservationists, because we all focus on pretty much the same thing, and that's protecting the earth for generations to come. Now, the National Wildlife Federation as well as many other conservation organizations realize that they will not be successful in their future if they don't build broad coalitions that involve African-Americans, Native-Americans, Hispanics… This country's a melting pot – we all drink the air, we all drink the water, therefore, we should all be involved in the process.

I am the first African-American chairman of any major conservation organization in history. That's a big step. I'm pleased in that although we're not where we want to be, surely we're not where we were. That means that we're making progress towards diversity in the movement.

MJ: Environmentalists in general have been talking about broadening their reach among different groups and interests around the country. Do you have a plan to reach out to people of color around the nation and get them to be involved at a higher level?

JR: Yes, there are several things going on here. One is the fact that I am blessed enough to have been elected chairman of the National Wildlife Federation which is going to be a great example for young people of color that these opportunities are available to them. Just by virtue of my being in this position there's a positive impact.

The second thing is that building coalitions means building relationships and meeting people where they are. The National Wildlife Federation has programs that are reaching into urban and minority communities. We have schoolyard habitat programs, we have a program called Earth Tomorrow, which focuses on minority kids in elementary, middle schools, and high school in urban communities. We also have internship programs, college outreach programs, and campus ecology programs where we reach out to historically black colleges and universities and minorities on college campuses. We're reaching out to educate people on why they should be involved and the importance of people – all people being part of the process to save wildlife and wild places for generations to come.

A critical aspect of these efforts is our partnership with other organizations. I have been able to help build bridges with organizations like the African American Caucus Foundation and 100 Black Men of America – organizations who have the ability to reach massive numbers of people. We work with their interns to take our efforts and, like I said, meet these people where they are at. The National Wildlife Federation would not be nearly as capable of achieving our goals without them.

MJ: Because you've been with the National Wildlife Federation for a while, I imagine that these goals are not new for you. Now that you're chairman, how are you planning to shape the agenda on increasing diversity within the environmental and conservation movement?

JR: We're in the process of developing a strategic plan that fits several goals I've laid out on the issue. One of our primary objectives is to lead by example. As the nation's largest conservation organization, our efforts to diversify our staff and our board – which is a very diverse board of directors – sets an example for other environmental organizations and affiliates throughout the country.

MJ: I imagine that when you reach out to different people that you have to reach out in different ways. Does it require a different approach to reach out to the African-American community or other communities of color and get them involved?

JR: One of the challenges of educating especially poor people of any color on conservation and environmental issues is that poor people have a list of priorities that are more immediate quality of life issues. Poor folks are more concerned about how to pay next months rent, how to keep their kids off crack, how to get health insurance, how to keep their family fed. Environmental issues are not priority issues but yet the polls show that people of color care about the environment.

What I have been working to do—and I believe that our organization can do—is help people re-establish that list of priorities to where they recognize the importance of environmental and conservation issues as quality of life issues. What I share with people down at what we know as the infamous "cancer alley" in Louisiana – where there are hundreds of petrochemical plants with communities between each plant, and super high cancer rates – is I say, "Folks, what good is next month's rent if you're dying of cancer?"

MJ: We've talked a bit about creating broader alliances within certain communities. Are there any industrial alliances or other activist communities that you think that environmentalism would be better served by joining with?

JR: Absolutely, and I believe that there is great potential there. There are many companies that have proven that they have a real interest in maintaining their production and meeting the needs of America's appetite for energy but doing it in an environmentally friendly manner. We've got to sit down at the table with the major producers of energy and encourage them and help them to find more innovative solutions for satisfying America's appetite for energy.

I believe that proposals like those to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are not the answer to satisfy our energy needs. When we can sit down with the industries in Detroit and with the industries in Louisiana and come up with more innovative ways to meet the needs of America's appetite for energy in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way, then we'll be on our way to finding real solutions.

We have the technology to put man on the moon, we surely have the technology to produce energy in a more environmentally friendly manner. I don't see any reason why we can't get this done too.

MJ: Are there any positive signs or examples that indicate that things are moving in the right direction?

JR: There are many industries in the Northwest that have gone to a zero- discharge policy where they actually discharge no waste into the atmosphere. That's one example. Look at coastal Louisiana – its coastline is diminishing due to rising ocean levels and increased coastal erosion as a result of global warming. The EPA's America's Wetlands program is now generating interest on many issues including the loss of coastlines due to coastal erosion. The program is supported by a very diverse base of supporters, many of whom are from the petrochemical industry.

This issue has major implications not only for the environment but also for homeland security. Pipelines that are normally subsurface have been exposed because of coastal erosion. Those pipelines, if they come under any form attack or exposure to a hurricane, could shut down the entire east coast. So industry's role in this whole process is critical to any kind of success on this issue.

MJ: Who are your role models?

JR: Dr. Martin Luther King is definitely a role model. Dr. Martin Luther King in the presence of obstacles and people who did not believe, stepped up to the plate and persevered, never sacrificing his vision. Any time you are a history-maker, a trendsetter, the first of anything, you pay a price, so that people in the future don't have to pay it. Dr. King paid a price with his life.

I'm treading on new ground. And I hope that this helps create opportunities for others to be for example, the chairman of an organization like the National Wildlife Federation – where maybe they wouldn't have had that opportunity in the past.

MJ: What about within the environmental movement; is there anyone who you looked to for inspiration or hope?

JR: We've got a young lady in Atlanta, Na'Taki Osbourne. Na'Taki works very closely with kids in urban communities to promote conservation and conservation education – and has been extremely successful in that process. She is a role model; people like her spur us all on.

Some of my greatest role models are the young children who ask the right questions – who will sit down and share their concerns. They're not just learning from me – they're educating me. That's what drives me. I see the passion in the eyes young people who are involved in programs to clean up the communities. Some of the native people of Alaska – you see them tear up when they think about the possibility of more drilling near their homes. These people care about not only their heritage, but about protecting the Earth, which is a cultural issue for them in itself.

So these are role models for me and I'm surrounded by many – I'm just fortunate to be chosen to be a role model for other people. I think that as an individual and as individuals in general, if we can't leave the earth feeling like we left something that someone in the future can use then I don't feel like we've served our purpose on this earth in an effective manner.