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Photo of Whitlynn and Destiny Battle Local Heroes
Page 4

The Lead Lady
by Tara Hulen

Whitlynn Battle's transition from ordinary single mom to crusader for environmental justice began in a Birmingham, Alabama, doctor's office.

As she waited with her daughter, Destiny, for the girl's two-year checkup, Battle read a magazine article about the dangers of childhood lead poisoning that hit too close to home. Those most at risk of learning disabilities and other health problems caused by lead poisoning, she learned, were poor African-American children under six living in houses built before 1978 (when lead paint was banned).

"I remember thinking, 'This is like having a ghost in your house,'" Battle says.

The doctor dismissed her concerns, but Battle wasn't having it. "I threw one of those first-time-mommy fits, and she decided to test my kid just to get me out of there," she says. As it turned out, Destiny did have an elevated blood lead level, but not high enough to warrant help from understaffed local public health agencies.

In disbelief that so little was being done to treat such a preventable problem, Battle did her own research and found grant money earmarked to start a lead-education workshop in Alabama. But the grant had to be given to a local nonprofit agency, not an individual. So Battle made a somewhat sneaky plan. She invited parents and public health, housing, and education leaders to a meeting of a childhood lead-education group, and after the fifteen attendees settled into their seats, Battle made an announcement. "I told them they were the board for this new organization, 'Come up with a name for it.'"

Few of the new board members had any background in grassroots activism. Battle's only advocacy experience was joining a campaign and lawsuit that had kept a garbage transfer station out of her neighborhood. "Nobody was trained to do this work," she says. Yet five years later, Citizens' Lead Education and Poisoning Prevention tests about 3,000 kids a year and helps families find safe housing and abate lead problems in their homes. Battle, forty-four, is its volunteer executive director. Though she has debilitating lupus, she keeps the effort moving even when she herself is bedridden -- making calls to help families work through red tape and holding government officials' feet to the fire.

"We've created activists, we've created technical people living in this community," she says. "We're not waiting on the cavalry to come and save us. We took the lead, decided what we needed the cavalry to do, and gave them their roles instead of the other way around."

The Long Hauler
The Image Maker
The Airess
The Wind Reaper
Easy Rider
The Bodyguard

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Photo: Steve Gates

OnEarth. Fall 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council