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Marylee Orr is the Executive Director and one of the co-founders of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) and has been leading the organization for over 30 years. LEAN focuses on using community empowerment to solve environmental problems within vulnerable communities. She was inspired to begin advocating for environmental justice when her son was born with a severe respiratory problem as the result of the air pollution in her neighborhood.

Getting Started

Marylee was a real estate agent in Baton Rouge, but things changed after her son was born with a severe respiratory problem. In 1984 she began Mothers Against Air Pollution. She and five other women advocated against the release of PCBs in North Baton Rouge and helped stop the burning of PCBs in the majority African American neighborhood of Alsen. This region is part of the infamous “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, where air and water pollution are so ubiquitous that at least 10% of households have family members who have died from cancer (ProPublica; The Bitter Southerner). In 1986, Marylee helped organize LEAN. Their first grant was the first given by the Catholic Church specifically for human development and social justice. Unfortunately, the organization ran into difficulties when their office burned down and their first director quit. Marylee and one of her fellow co-founders stepped up to co-direct the organization and helped shape it into what it is today, almost 40 years later. Unfortunately, the other co-director died at the age of 39 from cancer, which strengthened Marylee’s belief in their cause. It wasn’t always easy. Marylee acknowledges that it’s hard to start an organization that runs on grants and donations. She had to make sure she could support her two children and for a while she depended on child support. But she believes those difficulties helped her gain the skills necessary to do things like organize disaster relief for her community after Hurricane Katrina (as well as other major storms), as well as granting her more empathy for the struggles of her neighbors. “People think I’m crazy or something to have stayed in this position for so long,” Marylee says. But she doesn’t think that way. “I was a realtor, taught head start, had an art gallery, and most importantly, I’m a mother. I’ve stayed in this position because I found my purpose and had faith. I’m not religious, but faith in this cause and in myself.”

The Work

Marylee reflects on the early years of organizing by remembering that “it was mostly women, meeting in someone’s kitchen or living room.” The community organizing was driven largely by mothers, who saw the impact pollution was having on their children and family. Once Marylee began to push for reform in the legislature, she often found herself to be one of the only women in the room. “There was no mentoring back then, it was every woman for herself.” Marylee helped join environmental interests and labor unions in the 1980s. She focuses on marginalized and underserved communities in LA, with the goal of removing power imbalances between these communities and decision makers in government. In particular, she has worked to help communities along the Mississippi River who are exposed to large amounts of pollution from the petrochemical industry. She notes that “we can’t vilify the workers who work in petrochemical plants and other factories. Workers are exposed before communities. They are also victims.” Recently, Marylee has been excited about the creation of a center to honor community members who have participated in LEAN organizing over the last 35 years. “It really shows that it doesn’t matter what race, color, creed, or religious we are, we can work together.” The online version of these materials can be found below. Finally, Marylee stresses that “this type of work requires patience.” She worked on a landfill project for over 20 years. She is worried about the lack of young people who are active in organizations like LEAN. “There are many older women who are truly inspiring,” she says. “One woman I knew went from not being able to read or write and working at a landfill to serving in the legislature.” But that same dedicated, long term passion seems to be rare in younger generations. “Almost every family I know can talk to you about a member who has addiction issues. I think there has to be something wrong with a society where so many people are more willing to numb themselves than be active.” She believes that there need to be more resources for people in crises. “Everything is about purpose. I feel lucky that I can put my values into my work, but so many people can’t find their purpose. The politics and people are enough to drive me out at times. It’s very easy to get discouraged, so I have to remember that I’m ultimately answering to my children and my community.”

“The environment is our foundation. All the other issues are the walls of the house. If our air is poisoned, how much will other things help?”

Environmental Justice

The difficulties Marylee encountered as an advocate and mother in the early years helped her hone the goals she wanted LEAN to have: “We serve communities in a holistic way. We’re not just focused on environmental issues.” She says that they got negative feedback during COVID for raising money for masks and thermometers to hand out, since it wasn’t directly related to the environment. But she argues that storm relief and public health issues are directly related to environmental justice. There is an area near Baton Rouge, LA which is nicknamed “Cancer Alley.” The health issues in communities living in this region are numerous, from respiratory to cardiac to cancer, all the result of heavy industrialization and pollution. When these communities are hit by a major storm or impacted by a pandemic, they are going to feel the effects of these disasters more than communities which have access to clean air and water. When Hurricane Katrina hit, LEAN worked 7 days a week for almost 6 months, handing out 12-15 thousand pounds of food a day. “And not just food, but medicine, cattle feed, anything these people didn’t have access to.” “LEAN has been in the same communities for over 30 years,” Marylee emphasized. “There are some organizations which go into communities to raise money for a cause, then leave.” This action, known as “parachuting,” can be extremely exploitative, even if the cause itself is just. Marylee believes that environmental justice requires you to consider all aspects of a community’s environment, not just the obvious ones like green spaces and pollution. However, she does believe that environmental health is the most important: “The environment is our foundation. All the other issues are the walls of the house. If our air is poisoned, how much will other things help?”


Marylee gave four pieces of advice for people who want to get into environmental justice work. 1)Never underestimate the power of one person on a mission. No one knows your community better than you. You don’t need to be knighted to start a mission or make your community better. 2)Bring people into your cause, particularly women. There is a lot of untapped potential in every community. 3)Pray and persevere. Listen more than you talk and educate yourself about the people around you and the issues they face. 4)The chapters in your life can be enriching. Even if no one else acknowledges it, you can make a difference. No one else is going to save you, you have to do it for yourself. Empower people to find their best gifts and become their best self, no matter cause that develops into: homeless issues, AIDS, transgender youth, etc.

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Sources Cited

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