It’s the one and only Erin Brockovich, and she’s back in a big way, talking about what it’s like being called a verb. “To Erin Brockovich something” means to investigate and advocate for a cause without giving up. Photo compliments of Erin Brockovich
If you don’t recognize the name, Erin Brockovich, her acclaim might have preceded your birth. In 1993, she used her pit-bull determination to help residents of Hinkley, California win a massive arbitration against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The company was found liable for dumping chromium-6—a carcinogen used to suppress rust formation at the Hinkley gas compressor station—into an unlined pond in the 1950s and 1960s. The chemical seeped into the town’s groundwater. The company hid the problem and misled the community on the effects of that specific type of chromium and its link to local health problems.
But the story doesn’t end there. The environmental activist was extolled in the 2000 biographical film aptly titled, Erin Brockovich in which actress Julia Roberts won an Oscar dramatizing Brockovich’s true story. Since the film, her name has become a household word—even a verb. “To Erin Brockovich something” means to investigate and advocate for a cause without giving up. And that’s exactly what she has continued to do with the nation’s water crisis. Today Hinkley is known as the “Erin Brockovich town.” But whatever happened to the real Erin Brockovich? This year marks the 20th anniversary of the film that made her famous, but she hasn’t slowed down. She’s back in a big way with a brand new book titled, Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis And What WE THE PEOPLE Can Do About It, written with writer Suzanne Boothby. I had the distinct honor of sitting down with this amazing woman. I asked her where she got her spunk to take on the big guns, inspiring so many to never give up personal and professional quests.
Bryan Robinson: I understand you grew up in a Republican family in Kansas.
Erin Brockovich: My Republican father taught me the value of the land, air and water. He promised me in my lifetime that water would be a commodity—more valuable than oil. He’d sing me little songs like, “See the water trickling down the stream. Enjoy it because someday it might not be seen.” It never dawned on me that people would be surprised, “You’re a Republican?” I don’t feel that you need to be on either side of the aisle to appreciate, care for and understand the importance of water in our environment.
Robinson: Tell me what led you to write about this particular subject.
Brockovich: Starting at a young age I had dyslexia and was perceived in a certain way, put in a box. I never liked that and realized to break out of it, I was going to have to do it myself. My parents were always there for me. They gave me the power of believing in myself. Having that stick-to-itiveness. This is a very powerful word—the propensity to follow through in a determined manner, dogged persistence born of obligation and stubbornness. And I took that to heart and applied it to everything I did. I also learned that Prince Charming isn’t coming either (laughs). There’s been a divorce or two in my life.
Robinson: Hinkley is best known as the “Erin Brockovich town” in which your dogged persistence and stick-to-itiveness paid off big time.
Brockovich: I was always looking for that Prince Charming thinking that would make it right. So over the past 20 years after Hinkley, weaving in and out of these communities, I saw the looks on people’s faces when we would say the EPA or the law firm isn’t going to get involved. It dawned on me that Superman’s not coming to fix this. We’re going to have to. And that’s were it was born. My whole life, whether it be a learning disability that pushed me into a box and realizing I’m going to get out of here. Or through my own personal relationships and marriages. I grew up with these ideas that Prince Charming is coming to fix this, right? In the environmental world, we always think there will be something there that will magically make it go away, fix it or change it. But it’s not going to happen. The missing component is you and me and we. And we don’t need to search for that hero. We can BE IT. We’re here, and that’s what it’s going to take because Superman’s not coming. But there is something we the people can do about it: be involved, understand it, learn how to better protect ourselves. It’s an important message, and once you realize we’ve got to get busy and fix it, that Superman’s not coming, you shift course.
Robinson: I’m not so sure people realize that.
Brockovich: You’re right. I’m thinking some might be waking up to it, but they might not. I think there’s an underlying theme with Superman. Yes, it’s the environment but it’s really born out of me because of my disability. What I learned in Hinkley is that we’re often perceived, labeled, judged, put into a box, don’t fit into the square or the way somebody else thinks we should be doing something. Looking to ourselves, realizing who we are, not by what we have but who we are.
Robinson: You’re talking about fortitude, internal strength.
Brockovich: My internal guttural mechanism has always been kicked on. It got kicked on in Hinkley when I was told you’re not a doctor, lawyer or scientist. Why should we believe you? Okay, because I’m standing here, looking at a two-headed frog in green water, and that’s not right. And I stayed with that. I know what I saw. All these people see these kinds of things everyday. That’s not my story. It’s theirs, and when they see that, they know it. You’re not going to knock them off of what they’re seeing and experiencing. And when they own that, they get involved with neighbors, the community and start making phone calls and start digging. Low and behold, nine times out of ten they find something out. And they just keep going. Empowerment is contagious.
Robinson: What would you say to someone reading this who doesn’t have that stick-to-itiveness?
Brockovich: I learned from my mom that you’re not born with stick-to-itiveness. You have to develop the habit of persevering even if you don’t want to and you’d rather give up. It takes a moment of trying to persevere, and you get beaten down and when you do, you pick the ball back up. It’s the process of going out there with determination. I visualize a Superbowl game where everybody’s watching you. You pick up the ball and run 10 yards and get slammed. You don’t throw the ball down and walk off the field. Imagine if we saw that, we’d be going, “Boo!”
Robinson: That’s a great metaphor.
Brockovich: Be prepared that you could get pushed back five or 10 yards. But also be prepared when you pick that ball up again you could rush 30 or 40 yards. It’s a process, and it doesn’t happen on the first try. In the book, it took the ladies of Hannibal, Missouri three years to get the ammonia out of their drinking water, but that dogged persistence that loyalty to your cause, that stick-to-itiveness is a process. You’ll have moments when you get pushed back but you’ll also have moments when you push ahead. And that’s what you need to remember. I’m a huge believer in mindfulness because it’s a matter of what your mind is saying to you and how you deal with that voice.
Robinson: That negative voice that everybody has is not really who we are. It’s just a part of us.
Brockovich: I have a name for her. I call her “Negative Nancy.”
Robinson: So what do you do when you hear Negative Nancy?
Brockovich: I tell her to shut up. It takes years to even recognize it. Where did that come from in my head? Even acknowledging it. We normally won’t talk about stuff like that because people might think we’re crazy. You know what I’m saying?
Robinson: Do I ever, yes. What do you do when you’re overwhelmed?
Brockovich: I go somewhere I can think and hear myself whether it’s sitting at the ocean or swinging in my backyard on a late summer’s night. Or just stopping to appreciate (ahhhh) the smell of rain. Or feeling a breeze across my face. It’s the environment I connect to, and I can hear myself think. That’s my recharge and I need that to find motivation to go out the next day and go at it again. Each time you stop, you can hear yourself think and that’s where I have a moment to breathe and say I’m okay and know I can get through this. I have something outside of me if something goes wrong I will still be okay. And that person is me. When I hear that negative voice, I recognize it and say, “Yep. Nope, not today. Buzz off. Shut up.” I can almost feel that gear in my head click and go. I’m not listening to that, and I am going to hear what my gut’s saying to me, to believe in what I just saw happening. I am going to follow that little voice that says, “Hmm, I think you should look into this further.” And then you’re going to get the other voice that says, “Oh, you’re crazy. You can’t look into that. You don’t know what you’re doing.” That’s when I tell it to go away.
Robinson: It’s been 20 years since the film came out. A lot of people, especially the younger generation, might not have seen it.
Brockovich: That’s very true. There is a message about the environment. But the deeper message is that nobody’s coming to save you, and that can be a lot of things whether it’s Prince Charming or anything else in your life that you think you can’t do. I tell people you don’t have to look any further for the hero than in your own mirror because you’re standing in front of yourself. And I think the key for everybody is that moment you recognize, “I’ve got this. I can do this.” Superman’s Not Coming was such an evolution for me, and I think it is for all of us. We’re always looking to somebody else to fix it. And it’s you. The message is to find and believe in you. That’s the deepest message of all.
Robinson: You’ve had a huge impact on this country. What’s it like being a worldwide verb?
Brockovich: (laughs). I never thought of myself as a verb. For a long time, I didn’t know what to make of any of this. It came because of the film that woke everybody up. I went to the theater by myself and sat in a corner, listening to people as they walked out. They’re like, “I wonder if that’s happening to us.” And somebody else said, “Well I think it could be.” Then someone else thought, “You know what, I’m going to look into that.” Another woman said, “Gosh, I wish I could be like her,” and her husband said, “You already are her.” That’s all I ever wanted. It’s not about me. It never was. It’s about all of us. But if my name, Erin Brockovich, represents to somebody that they, too, can find their own strength and personal empowerment, then that’s pretty cool. Go, because I will be your biggest cheerleader.
Erin Brockovich joins Resiliency 2020 on Zoom September 10, 2020. You can register for the free live-streaming webinar at resiliency2020.com.