Kristen Bryant

“You can be a really small organization and—even in the Deep South—as long as you’re advocating for the right thing, you can make headway and end up exposing some of the corruption which exists.”

Bio/Background

Kristen Bryant has been an environmental justice advocate for over twenty years. She began attending meetings of the Alabama Conservancy—the state’s oldest pro-nature organization—during her undergraduate years at the University of Alabama. In fact, her volunteer work with the organization exposed her to role models whose “dedication and passion for all things related to the health of our planet” re-directed her professional path. Moreover, it brought to her attention that “you could not [at the time] buy organic produce or eco-friendly clothes anywhere” local. With the goal of making commercial practices more environmentally friendly, then, Bryant went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in merchandising with a minor in marketing. In addition, she continued volunteering with the Alabama Conservancy—later renamed the Alabama Environmental Council (AEC) even after she graduated. She later became the program coordinator and, eventually, the executive director of its state office. In 1995, the AEC bestowed the Bob and Mary Burks award for service on Bryant. She also served for a time on its board of directors. Since 2009, she has worked as the outreach director of the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP).

Build a Constituency from the Ground Up

Bryant played in an important role in the creation of the Duggar Wilderness Preserve. Alongside AEC board members and volunteers, Bryant worked to gain the trust of local landowners whose support was critical to protecting the Duggar Wilderness. Without broad backing from such stakeholders, it would have been impossible to gain the Republican votes necessary to create a new preserve. On this note, Bryant comments,

“Alabama is one of the most conservative states in the nation, with some of the most conservative elected officials. But with perseverance, dedication, and patience, we were still able to get a wilderness bill passed by Republicans in the Deep South. And now, thanks to the commitment of these people, we have the Duggar Wilderness Preserve.

“It takes a long time and significant dedication to accomplish this kind of thing. In the Duggar Wilderness case, it took approximately fifteen years. The AEC had already been working on this effort for a long time, but it really started to ramp up its advocacy about four years before the bill which created the Preserve passed. It did so literally by going door-to-door, canvassing for about four-to-five years.”

Mobilize Networks and Coordinate Efficiently

Bryant was also central in organizing a network of citizens alarmed by the connection between toxic water discharge and rising rates of cancer in their community. Together, they convinced Alabama’s state government to set aside the extra resources needed to investigate and ameliorate this issue.

“We built a coalition of organizations throughout Alabama which worked together—communicating and networking—for years with perseverance, dedication, and patience.

“These people came together even though they were originally focused on very different things. We had people worried about landfills in their neighborhood, we had newspaper editorial boards, we had water recreationists. The key was to create a network of people who had
experienced a reduction in their quality of life due to environmental degradation, particularly from water pollution.

“They pooled some of their resources and got a small grant, which they used to hire a coordinator. It is very important to have someone who can pull all these engines together.

“We were successful in getting Alabama to address its increased cancer risk because a majority of environmental management commissioners—the people who oversee Alabama’s environmental agency—voted in favor of doing so. And the reason they voted to do that was because of this network of individuals around the state which identified what policy change was necessary and essentially lobbied these commissioners to make the right decision. They got this rule passed by working together.

Use Social Media to Leverage Impact

Bryant’s current organization, GASP, has only two full-time employees and one part-time employee. Consequently, it relies heavily on volunteers to accomplish its goals. To this end, Bryant stresses the importance of a top-notch website and active social media engagement in recruiting a sizable volunteer community:

“I think our website and social media presence make us seem bigger than we really are. And the fact that they are so professional-looking also suggests that GASP has a higher budget than we actually do. We’ve gotten a lot of our volunteers from people who find our website or our social media pages and contact us.”

Build Trust

Through GASP, Bryant has strengthened North Birmingham’s environmental justice community and increased local support for its work. She has been especially successful in creating coalitions between different environmental groups concerned with the health risks created by local coal coking activity. In fact, the prevalence of coal coking in North Birmingham means that the risk of getting cancer as a result of air toxin exposure is significantly higher there than anywhere else in the city.

Yet before
it could work to address this issue, GASP had to gain the trust of North
Birmingham’s residents. According to Bryant,

“It took probably two-to-three years before we’d gained the trust of the North Birmingham community. And that trust came from attending numerous meetings where we didn’t even say a word … It’s not a matter of just
making a phone call, or going to one meeting and giving your pitch. It takes years of attending meetings and making phone calls to make people understand that you are there to work with them and to help, and not try to take over.”

Accept that Not All Communities Respond Alike

Although GASP’s efforts in North Birmingham have been largely successful, its work in the neighboring community of Tarrant has faced far more pushback. When asked to elaborate on the reasons for this, Bryant highlighted the adversarial role played by Drummond Company, Inc., a heavyweight in Tarrant’s coal industry, and a major source of local pollution. Specifically, she notes,

“We had accomplished some positive things in Tarrant before anti-environmental sentiment grew really strong there. Back then, though, Tarrant wasn’t a place where GASP had invested too much time; their community in general really wasn’t engaged with environmental issues.

“And there were other complicating factors, too: there had been some class action lawsuits and gag orders were in place. Drummond has a reputation as being mean. If you opposed them, you could have your windows smashed in, or be threatened by someone on the school board. They have a reputation of just not being messed with, so in Tarrant it’s a lot harder to organize people around the cause of environmental justice … Had we had a bigger budget or a fulltime organizer, we would have made significantly more progress in coordinating the residents of Tarrant.”

Do the Right Thing and the Stay the Course

Due to its advocacy, GASP rapidly found itself on the wrong side of Tarrant’s political heavyweights. Alongside the Drummond Corporation, then-Alabama state representative Oliver Robinson (an initial supporter of GASP), and then-state attorney general Luther Strange, forged a powerful alliance against GASP’s environmentalist efforts. And Bryant sensed that there was something more sinister at play than mere differences of political opinion:

“Here were all these classic, anti-environment Republicans coming out against us … And we knew something corrupt was going on because the language they were using to oppose us was very similar to the phrasing then being employed by Drummond Coal—which just so happens to own one of the coking facilities we found suspicious.

Fueled by denouncements from the Drummond Corporation, Robinson, and Strange, Tarrant residents’ opposition to environmental advocacy grew. Anti-EPA yard signs became popular with many residents, as did an anti-environmentalist Facebook campaign. Even the mayor became involved, by sending a letter to all citizens in which he warned them against enabling any environmental justice work.

Despite these difficult circumstances, GASP persevered. And it finally “caught a break:” in mid-2017, a slew of indictments—for, among other things, bribery, conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and the misuse of public office—were issued by Alabama officials. Among those convicted on criminal charges were Drummond Company’s vice president of government affairs, David Roberson; two of Drummond Company’s attorneys, Joel Gilbert and Steven McKinney; and state representative Robinson. It turns out there was a corrupt conspiracy to sink environmental advocates’ efforts, just as Bryant had suspected.

In the end, then, GASP’s years of struggle in Tarrant left a concrete, positive legacy. Further, they affirmed for Bryant the importance of acting on moral principle regardless of the strength of one’s opposition:

“It was eye opening for us. Because, you know, there we were: a two-and-a-half staffed organization with only a five-person board. Yet our efforts ended up leading to the indictment of three executives and one state official. To me it’s a lesson learned. You can be a really small organization and—even in the Deep South—as long as you’re advocating for the right thing, you can make headway and end up exposing some of the corruption which exists.”