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July 13, 2023

Grantee Partner Spotlight: Alaska Community Action on Toxics

by Pam Miller

The Ms. Foundation is proud to support our grantee partners, who are at the forefront of organizing and creating solutions that improve people’s lives and bring us closer to achieving a true democracy. The insight and perspective they provide is invaluable. The Q&A below was generated by Pam Miller, Founder, Executive Director and Senior Scientist of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

ACAT works with communities, implementing effective strategies to limit their exposure to toxic substances and to protect and restore the ecosystems that sustain them and their way of life. ACAT is an Activist Collaboration & Care Fund grantee partner.

What brought you to this work? 

I grew up in the shadow of Dover Chemical Corporation in Dover, Ohio. DCC produces vast quantities of some of the world’s worst chemicals. My mother was a nurse and a fierce advocate for her patients. She taught me my first lessons about the harms chemical pollution can cause. 

When I came to Alaska to work with Greenpeace aboard the USS Rainbow Warrior in 1989, I was approached by rural residents concerned about radiation, mining, and oil drilling. And then the Exxon Valdez oil spill devastated Prince William Sound, its water black with oil, seabirds, seals, and salmon dying, and cleanup workers calling me to describe their symptoms from inhaling oil fumes and volatilized dispersants. I couldn’t leave. I had to help. Eventually, I started Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) so I could help more people. The phone calls for help have never stopped so I’m still here – but now I’ve got a great team of people as passionate as I am.

How do you connect/collaborate in your community? Who are your key partners? 

At ACAT, we have limited resources so we have to be strategic in what we do and how we do it. As a matter of both practicality and principle, we bring together the power of community organizing and scientific research to achieve our goals. We teach Alaskans from dozens of communities across the state who are concerned about toxic pollution how to organize their communities, develop leadership skills, and plan how to achieve their goals. We work with all Alaskans, but especially the groups who are most vulnerable to toxic exposures – Alaska Native peoples, women, infants and children, workers. 

Today, ACAT has more than 150 partners and allies who collaborate with us to achieve environmental justice and create a toxic-free future at the local, state, national, and international levels.

What are you learning or what are you teaching? 

One of my favorite things is teaching community members how to collect water and air samples to find out whether the environment in their communities is polluted. It is very empowering for them to take charge of this important part of the effort to eliminate toxic exposures that are harmful to their health – and the information they collect is vital to solving the problem. Science plus grassroots people power is a very powerful combination.

I’m a believer in lifelong learning, both for myself and others. Right now, I’m learning everything I can about the lifecycle of plastics from production to disposal. This will prepare me to be a powerful advocate for human health and the environment as a member of the negotiating team that is tasked with developing a new U.N. treaty to rein in the plastics industry, which is currently mostly unregulated worldwide. 

Tell us about a recent victory or something you’re proud of.

I’m especially proud of ACAT’s role in winning a global ban on PFHxS in 2022. With our partner, International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and its 600 homegrown environmental justice organizational members in 120 countries, we successfully advocated to stop the emerging threat posed by one of the most toxic of the PFAS chemicals. Fortunately, we were able to get out in front of this particular chemical threat and stop its proliferation before it invaded all corners of the earth, especially the Arctic (including Alaska). 

I’m hopeful that this quick action taken on PFHxS represents a change in the speed and decisiveness with which the world’s nations are willing to act on toxic chemicals that are wreaking havoc on human health. I’m proud of the ACAT team and our Arctic Indigenous Women’s Caucus – and so glad to know that, with the support of the Ms. Foundation and other funders, the caucus will continue its important work.

What can philanthropy do better and/or how can individuals be helpful allies?

I am grateful for the shift in the last few years toward trust-based philanthropy and simpler processes for grants that do not overburden grant seekers and get the funds into their hands more quickly to do their vital work.

It’s important for a greater percentage of philanthropic dollars to be committed to small grassroots nonprofits whose members are on the frontlines, who are most directly affected by the problems they seek to address, and whose voices are far too often ignored. They have great ideas on how to solve those problems quickly and efficiently. We should listen to what they have to say, let them take the lead, and make sure they have the resources they need to do their work. 

But perhaps the most important shift philanthropy could make is to recognize that no matter what issue they seek to solve, it is going to take time. Grantees are unlikely to solve homelessness or child hunger – or eliminate phthalates or PFAS or leaded aviation gas – within the space of a typical one-year grant term. Multi-year grants are incredibly helpful, as are general support grants rather than project grants.

What gives you hope?  

Two things give me hope. The first is being outside in the natural world. After a walk in the woods, I feel reconnected and ready to continue the work to protect our planet and its people from the harm being caused by toxic chemicals.

The second thing is the people ACAT works with. The people who call with concerns about pesticide spraying in their neighborhood or PFAS contamination in their drinking water and all the others like them or Alaska Native women worried about the contamination of their traditional wild foods and what that’s doing to their children. These people who never wanted to be environmental activists are stepping up to protect what’s important to them. They inspire me and give me hope that we can achieve our mission.

As a scientist myself, a second group of people is also inspirational to me. All over the world, scientists are collaborating with communities to collect the evidence that shows the links between toxic chemicals and health harms – evidence we need to achieve policy changes that protect human health. Scientists themselves are sounding the alarm and calling for action to address the issue of toxic chemicals. It’s hopeful that ordinary citizens have these amazing allies in this struggle to protect their families.