(This 766th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 4, 2005.)
I sat down recently in his office cluttered with stacks of reports to talk with chemistry professor Joseph Gardella. Dr. Gardella is one of those University at Buffalo faculty members who makes important contributions to the welfare of the citizens of western New York: he and his students regularly collect and communicate to the public data about the quality of our environment. An indication of the importance of his work is Dr. Gardella's recent U. S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
Professor Gardella with Activists
But our conversation was not about Dr. Gardella's activities. Instead we talked about community members who have made and are making contributions and who receive for their efforts little praise and too often punishment.
These are the "little people": the housewives and parents, the office and plant workers, concerned citizens who work to better their neighborhoods. They don't have the power or the money or the public relations apparatus of those who too often oppose them; all they bring to their activities is a deep commitment to their cause.
We usually think of activists as national figures like Rachel Carson and Lois Gibbs, each of whom suffered painful attacks on their integrity and motivation. As Dr. Gardella pointed out, however, there are many who don't make the headlines but are as self-sacrificing and deeply committed to solving community problems. A few I was able to record as he ticked them off them are Rick Ammerman, Russ and Diane Radder, Tina Hovey and Karen McLeod, all of Hickory Woods; Donna Hosmer of Bellevue in Cheektowaga; and Ann Roberts and Amy Witryol of the Lewiston-Porter School District.
The problem many of these people face is that those to whom they must bring their problems often do not receive them well. Their concerns are deflected, their inquiries are not answered, their claims are not met. The governmental agencies or the industries or the developers don't listen to their concerns; rather, they seek ways to silence them.
The tactics their opponents employ are legion.
It needn't be this way. There are examples of better relationships that bring benefits to both sides. Dr. Gardella cited the Lewiston-Porter School District where contaminants have been identified near school buildings. There interim superintendent Don Rappold and buildings and grounds manager Alan Truesdale have been forthcoming and cooperative with concerned citizens and parents. One of them, Amy Witryol, is working closely with Paulette Kline of the Niagara County Health Department, who is serving as an independent arbiter and has obtained a Community Foundation grant to begin addressing these serious environmental problems.
Others should look to this lesson in community cooperation.
Meanwhile I offer kudos to our underappreciated activists and to Professor Gardella as well.-- Gerry Rising