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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Goldman Prize Winner: Ms. Kory Johnson

Air Date: Week of

Every year the Goldman foundation of San Francisco awards six 100-thousand dollar prizes to environmental activists from each of the five continents and the island nations. The young woman who joins us now is Kory Johnson, of Phoenix, Arizona where is a freshman at Arizona State University. When she was only nine years old, she started a children's’ crusade for environmental justice after her older sister died. It's suspected her sister's death was caused by dirty well water contaminated by nearby industries.


CURWOOD: A Colombian tribal leader who's fighting to stop oil development from scarring the forest homeland of his people. A Japanese labor organizer who's fought for 25 years to preserve the birthing ground of a rich fishery. A South African who's organized a multi-racial campaign against pollution in the city of Durban. These are three of the winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize. Every year the Goldman Foundation of San Francisco awards 6 $100,000 prizes to environmental activists from each of the 5 continents and the island nations. Also among this year's recipients are an Italian woman who has risked her life to end bird poaching in Sicily; and activist from the Caribbean island of Dominica, who successfully fended off a new copper mine; and the woman who joins us now, Kory Johnson of Phoenix, Arizona. Ms. Johnson is a freshman at Arizona State University. When she was only 9 years old, she started a children's crusade for environmental justice after her older sister died.

JOHNSON: We found out that the wells where we live are contaminated, and they had high nitrates. And there was a lot of kids there with leukemia. All of my sister's friends around her age passed away of heart problems, leukemia, or cancer.

CURWOOD: Tell me a little bit about your sister, Kory.

JOHNSON: Well, my sister Amy, she would always do a lot of volunteer work whenever she could, and she would organize little groups and stuff to do arts and crafts in the hospital with all the kids. But she really didn't ever consider herself being terminally ill. And she was born a blue baby and always had a hard time breathing, and her lips were blue and her fingers were blue because her blood didn't circulate correctly.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

JOHNSON: So, you know, I knew Amy just until -- well, she died when she was 16 years old (clears throat) and I was 8 years old. So the age was kind of far and distant. But being in the hospital so much together, you know, just hanging out, we really got to know each other.

CURWOOD: And this was such a sad thing, such a personal tragedy.


CURWOOD: But is it Amy the one who taught you to be an activist? I mean, when she died and you saw all the volunteer work she had done, did you say okay, I'm going to do something now about her death?

JOHNSON: I really didn't understand what she was doing until definitely after the fact. Because, you know, I was just trying to be a little kid and go out and play or get out of the house. And when she would save money, raise money and donate Disney videos to the hospital, I really didn't understand or I kind of like -- I wasn't focused on what she was doing. But after she died, just receiving letters and everything from the people who she did help and, you know, touched, it realized to me that it did make a difference.

CURWOOD: Your sister dies, and you become an activist on the environment at first.


CURWOOD: What prompted you to do that?

JOHNSON: Well, it was after my sister died in 1988. My mom met one of her old friends from high school, and she was in a group called Mothers of Maryville, where we lived. So my mom became educated to find out exactly what happened, and I was always being dragged along to the meetings. And I'd sit in the back and do my homework, and then on the way home I would ask my mom, well, why did he say this at the meeting and is that true? And then I started going to a bereavement group with kids in my neighborhood who had lost brothers or sisters or, you know, their mother or father. And we realized that we needed to turn our tragedies into something good, and that we always shouldn't come to our meetings and cry. And so, what I did is I organized a group called Children for a Safe Environment.

CURWOOD: How did your community respond to your crusade?

JOHNSON: I had a bit of trouble from my teachers. One of my -- my science teacher, as a matter of fact, told me, "If you keep this up, there's not going to be a college that's going to accept you. You know, you're going to have a radical record, and -- " (laughs) And then I was a vegetarian and she always, she said, well I had to sit right in front of this sign that said "Seven days without meat makes one weak," and, like, all this really, like, bad stuff.

CURWOOD: So how did you deal with this negative teacher? How did you --

JOHNSON: Well, in the beginning I kind of just, you know, shrugged it off, because I thought, well, I know what I'm doing is a good thing. And then I started thinking about it, and I was, like, you know, because she's supposed to be an adult, and I was a young child. And I started thinking about it and I was like well maybe I shouldn't be doing this. Because in the beginning, our environmental work, I really liked it. And then I didn't understand, I told my mom, "Is it over yet? Is it finally over? Can we go shopping now?" You know, I just wanted to hang out, can we go to the movies? Greenpeace, their office was in my house for 2 years, and so I had all these people living in my house. I'd wake up in the morning and have to come out into the living room and crawl over these people just camping out in my living room. And then after I became educated myself, I realized that this is my way of life and I'll never -- I'll never be out of the environmental issues. You know, once you're in it, you're in it for life. I'll see a truck driving down the street and I'm like I wonder what's in there. You know, I question everything.

CURWOOD: What's it been like to -- well, I guess, kind of lose your innocence about the corporate world and what goes on in terms of pollution in this country? You're suspicious if a truck drives by, you wonder what's inside.

JOHNSON: Mm hm. Well, I'm very happy that I was able to get that, you know, to be educated about and to be able to question authority and stuff like that. I really am a strong believer in standing up for what you believe in, and if you think something's not right, you know, question it or figure out what's going on. You know, I had to learn about politics at a very young age. You know, 8 years old, 9 years old, wondering, you know, why is our government so into money and why aren't they protecting us and why do we, why are we being, you know, paid off to just shut up and not say anything? I'm very happy that I was raised that way. That makes me a better person today, and I'm not afraid to stand up for what I believe in.

CURWOOD: Kory Johnson is the founder of Children for a Safe Environment, and a winner of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize. Thanks for joining us, Kory.

JOHNSON: Thank you.



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