Monroe Gilmour is a community activist based in Black Mountain.
What issue or event drew you into community organizing?
Having worked mostly with service-oriented nonprofits (CARE and Peace Corps in Lesotho and India), I became motivated, in 1984, to shift my emphasis to structural change. Thus, I was the first staff person for Knoxville-based Solutions, working on low-wealth and racial discrimination issues.
After moving here, the city of Asheville began, in 1987, clear-cutting its 22,000-acre water source near our home. I got involved and applied the same methodology we used in Knoxville. We stopped it, twice, in 1989 and again in 2002. I came to realize that social justice and environmental organizing are one in the same. In fact, one is often challenging the same organizations, even the same people. “Well, duh!” Yes, but I’m glad I gained that understanding.
How has environmental activism changed since you first became involved?
Back in the 1980s, one could feel a bit alone. I remember the chair of the water authority erupting into anger when the mayor introduced me to him, flinging his arm out and yelling, “Nobody’s going to listen to you, you’ll just be dismissed as a troublemaker.”
Today, that would not happen so overtly — plus, society is much more attuned to and engaged with environmental issues that affect both the environment and the people impacted. That reality makes our struggles easier in some respects but harder in others.
One other crucial change is the presence of social media and the many ways those platforms can be used to further a cause.
Looking back, what advice would you give yourself regarding environmental activism?
I would, first, get myself more quickly oriented to the social justice/environmental justice unified challenge we all face. I would also advise myself that I was on the right track employing basic community organizing principles and methodology as laid out in the Midwest Academy’s Organizing for Social Change. Key is to listen, work closely with the people most impacted and be persistent yet respectful. Model the change you want to see. Be a friendly bulldog.