The Center for Health, Environment and Justice was founded in 1981 by Lois Marie Gibbs. The organization began as an information clearinghouse for environmental health issues and developed into an organization that focuses on raising awareness for environmental health concerns and assisting communities, organizations and individuals faced with environmental threats. CHEJ publishes a quarterly newsletter, Everyone's Backyard, and works on campaigns that raise awareness of significant environmental threats to communities across the country and abroad. CHEJ works by conducting conversations with community leaders about their problems and provides advice, leadership training, education and assistance. Through this approach they are able to address a large number of environmental threats and empower communities to take action on their own.
The Center for Health, Environment and Justice was founded in 1981 by Lois Marie Gibbs under the name Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, Inc. (CCHW). The organization grew out of Gibbs’ experience organizing her community in Love Canal, New York. The Love Canal experience taught her to fight for information and support after discovering her son's elementary school was built on a toxic waste site. Gibbs' experience as a community activist led her to create CCHW to help other citizens in similar situations through grassroots organizing. The early efforts of the organization helped people obtain information and access to tools that would allow them to organize and motivate their communities, resolve their problems, receive compensation and government aid, and understand scientific data in layman’s terms.
In their first two years, CCHW performed site visits and developed publicity programs. These programs included films, the Everyone’s Backyard newsletter, and direct mail campaigns. In order to understand the issues facing unique communities, they developed a Community Health Profile survey that was circulated to communities exposed to toxic wastes. Membership campaigns and fundraising efforts financed the growth of their organization and led to the creation of leadership development conferences. CCHW hosted these conferences in several states around the country to promote activism and leadership skills around environmental issues.
As CCHW continued to establish itself, it operated as an information clearinghouse for hazardous waste issues. Through their main office in Virginia, they focused on providing topical information on environmental hazards, fundraising practices, and grassroots organizing. They distributed this information through Everyone’s Backyard, Action Line and Fact Packs. In 1986, they set up field offices in Texas, Georgia, and Virginia. These field offices coordinated site visits, reviewed Community Leadership Development Grant applications, and kept in contact with local organizers as they worked on projects affecting their community. In these site visits, CCHW staff attended local meetings and offered information, training, scientific analyses, and support. These field offices closed in the early-1990s and the main office absorbed these functions.
In 1997, CCHW changed their name to Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste: Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. In 1998, they shortened the name to Center for Health, Environment and Justice. The organization consists of a Board of Directors, an executive director, a science director, and staff for daily administration and project management. The Board of Directors has overseen CHEJ since 1984 and is comprised of community leaders and professionals. They provide supervision of the executive director and review financial and large project efforts. Lois Gibbs is the founder and the executive director. As of 2013, Stephen Lester is the Science Director and he oversees the analysis of test results and research. The science department under his prevue distributes relevant hazardous waste information and CHEJ’s interpretation of the research to communities through their informational network. Administrative staff supports the grassroots network through grants, leadership training, communications and correspondence, and conventions like those held in 1989, 1993, and 1997.
CHEJ has led several national campaigns to inform citizens about hazardous waste threats, to put pressure on governmental agencies to affect change, and to increase community involvement in environmental issues. These nationally led campaigns support already established grassroots efforts by raising common issues to a national audience. These campaigns include Landfill Moratorium Campaign in 1984, Toxic Merry-Go-Round Campaign in 1985, McToxics Campaign in 1987, Kick Ash Campaign in 1988, Stop Dioxin Campaign in 1995, Child Proofing our Communities in 2000, BE SAFE Campaign in 2002, and the PVC Campaign in 2004. CHEJ also established partnerships in the environmental activist community that helped create new organizations including Health Care Without Harm.
Following Gibbs’ success with the 1980 Superfund legislation, CHEJ continues to influence federal policy regarding environmental health, justice and safety issues. Their McToxics Campaign led to McDonalds ceasing the use of Styrofoam packaging. The Stop Dioxin Campaign raised awareness about dioxin in a national public forum which resulted in increased political pressure for federal change. CHEJ continues to support grassroots activism and networking to promote citizen involvement in improving the health and environment of their communities.