Community Organizing at Its Very Best

08/30/2013 09:53 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

Three years of intense advocacy came to fruition last month, when we opened the Robert F. Kennedy Health Care Clinic in Jean Lafitte, Louisiana. It was a day of celebration and awe. RFK Human Rights Award laureate Stephen Bradberry led the charge along with the RFK Center and our partners on the ground and secured 105,000,000 in BP settlement dollars to bolster access to health care in seventeen parishes across four states along the Gulf Coast.

It was a momentous occasion, brimming with joy and tears--the successful conclusion of a battle waged by a small group of determined people.

Along with a delegation from the RFK Center, I joined Bradberry in Jean Lafitte on Barataria Bay in the spring of 2010 a few weeks after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, spewing 170 million gallons of crude and two million gallons of dispersants across the Gulf Coast.

Our host, Barataria Bayoukeeper Tracy Kuhns, was late. When she finally appeared, she apologized, explaining that her husband, a Gulf fisherman, had to be taken to the emergency room and the closest medical facility was an hour away. Tracy and her husband are lucky--they own a car. Many of their neighbors do not.

Tracy showed us oil soaked pelicans breathing their last, miles of ocean covered by black and rainbow slime and endless ribbons of bright orange and yellow booms--a paltry barrier placed to restrain the surface oil from reaching the wetlands and delicate estuaries along the shore. After viewing the environmental damage, Tracy took us to Boute's Bayou, overlooking the Barrataria-Terrebonne estuary, for fresh shrimp.

Everyone in town seemed to know someone with sudden trouble breathing, or suffering strange, unexplained lesions. As we travelled across the coast, we dozens of residents told us horror stories of unexplained illnesses, denial of health care, and fear of the consequences.

Outside Biloxi, Mississippi, we met a fisherman named Kwan who had suffered from openly bleeding rashes across his body ever since he served on a cleanup crew for BP. But the local health care facility was so over-booked, it took up to three months to see a doctor, and three more for a follow-up. So Kwan stayed home.

In a community east of Coden, Alabama, a resident explained that, "we can't afford to take a day off of work, pay for gas, and then pay up to $120 for a doctor's appointment." So people wait for the emergency room, and leave with a four-figure bill. Self-employed and uninsured, many of them had no idea how they'd pay.

Mayor Kerner told us that when the spill reached the coast, he asked all his neighbors in Jean Lafitte to pitch in. But now, so many of the people who had joined the relief effort had fallen ill, he was afraid of a long term community-wide epidemic. He wanted everyone in the town to get tested, but the nearest toxicology lab was sixty miles away, and few could afford the tests once they reached it.

We heard dozens of people across the region with similar stories. And we promised to help. We set out to establish a clinic in Lafitte-Barataria that would ensure care that was adequate, affordable, proximate, and available; and health care workers who were trained to diagnose and treat toxic poisoning, and who knew and respected this community.

Addressing the issue took a village. Mayor Kerner made an impassioned plea for help on behalf of all of the Jean Lafitte residents who had fallen ill. Tracy Kuhns focused on environmental and occupational health. But the greatest champion of the cause was Stephen Bradberry.

Building on a long career of assuring that those impacted have a say in the resolution of their concerns, Bradberry, and his new organization, Alliance Institute, reached health care providers, political leaders, residents, lawyers, and more. He invited the RFK Center to the region several times, and we, in turn, opened doors in Washington.

Three years later, the half the funds have been dispersed, and the first clinic is open. Bradberry insisted on the inclusion of community voice throughout all aspects of the program. The result: BP funds are being used to increase capacity for community organizations within the footprint of the project to influence decisions regarding access to, and services provided by local health care centers. Local stewardship will help assure long term viability and quality services.

What I witnessed that day was extraordinary. It was a community coming together in the wake of disaster and demanding their rights be respected. It was community organizing at its very best, empowering local residents to win control over their lives and neighborhoods. It was about democracy at work, civil society asserting itself and refusing to be cowered by the impossibility of success. It was change driven by the outsized dreams of one individual, Stephen Bradberry, who harnessed the resources and forged change.

Like all of our RFK human rights defenders, Bradberry is part of a global team of courageous leaders driven by Robert Kennedy's belief that one person can make a difference and that each of us has a duty to try. It's a network of change that stretches from the mountains of indigenous Mexico to the deserts of Western Sahara, from courtrooms in Cairo to AIDS clinics in Port-Au-Prince.

Last month, in an overlooked community on the Gulf Coast, RFK human rights defender Stephen Bradberry proved once again that a small group of determined people, with few resources beyond their own imaginations, can change our world.