Acceptance Speech

I am truly humbled. Receiving the Profile in Courage award is the greatest honor that has ever been bestowed upon me. This award is very meaningful to me because I have always admired President Kennedy and have the deepest respect for his work. His dedication and commitment to public service was a catalyst for many of us to enter into the field of politics. He was an inspiration to me personally, and he restored hope to so many others that had lost faith in government.

President Kennedy has always had an impact on my life. In fact, a few years ago I was asked by one of my local airports to donate something meaningful to me, including a quote, so that they could display it for public view. I selected a quote by President Kennedy because it is so compelling to me as a public servant.

“Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

I am proud to have been selected for this prestigious award because of my work on environmental justice issues - a life long passion of mine.

Justice is not available to all equally; it is something that many of us must struggle to achieve. As an elected official, I know that fighting for what is just is not always popular but it is necessary; that is the real challenge that public servants face and it is where courage counts the most. Without courage, our action or inaction results in suffering of the few and injustice for all.

Sometimes working on issues of justice can be emotionally painful. When I feel defeated, I remind myself of the tremendous struggle for justice that Cesar Chavez, the late President of the United Farm Workers, endured throughout his life. As Cesar eloquently stated:

"We are confident. We have ourselves. We know how to sacrifice. We know how to work. We know how to combat the forces that oppose us. But even more than that, we are true believers in the whole idea of justice. Justice is so much on our side, that that is going to see us through."

Members of President Kennedy's family, Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, family and friends, I am honored and privileged to accept this award on behalf of the families and children who suffer every single day of their lives from negative environmental hazards. Today, they will not suffer alone, their plight has been recognized nationally, and maybe now we can work to provide them with hope, protection and most of all, justice. I share this award with them.

I am especially honored to be joined by Senator Kennedy who is the champion of working families in our country. Thank you for being the voice of homeless America, impoverished America, disabled America. You are an inspiration.

When I received a call from Caroline Kennedy informing me that I had been selected as the recipient of this extraordinary award, I was absolutely astonished. I was stunned and surprised to receive a personal telephone call from Caroline, who is every bit as graceful, charming and remarkable as most of us only read about.

When Caroline conveyed to me that I was the first woman to receive this award, I felt even more inspired for what this symbolized for women, especially, women of color. Women often face multiple barriers in their professional life, like racism, sexism, and discrimination. As we overcome these barriers, my belief in democracy, equal protection under our Constitution and liberty for all is reinforced. It gives me great hope to see women of all races and backgrounds, not only breaking the glass ceiling, but shattering it.

As I think about the challenges women must face in politics and their emerging roles in our government, I am reminded of the words of President John F. Kennedy:

"What really counts is not the immediate act of courage or of valor, but those who bear the struggle day in and day out - not the sunshine patriots but those who are willing to stand for a long period of time."

Women are entering into the field of politics in larger numbers and their impact on policy can be seen in so many different ways. Protecting battered women, addressing childcare issues, and improving the work environment for women, are all areas they have had an enormous impact on.

It is critical to hear the voices of women in our policy making process. Many women leaders fight for these causes and incrementally, change does happen, it just takes a long period of time.

As the first Latina ever elected to the California State Senate, I represent a community that has been historically disenfranchised and sometimes used as political scapegoats for the benefit of a few. I serve as their voice and as such, I have been embroiled in some of the most controversial issues facing the nation; raising the minimum wage, protecting immigrants from sweatshop enslavement, and affirmative action. Now, I am fighting for environmental justice.

What is environmental justice? Actually that is the first question that I am asked when people hear I received this award. So, what is it? What does it mean?

Environmental Justice is "the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

The need to address environmental justice is exemplified not only in California, but also throughout our country. In 1994, President Clinton signed executive order 12898 which requires the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to address issues of environmental justice.

Nationally, one in seven Americans who live below the poverty level, live within two miles of a medical waste incinerator.

California has had the highest number of toxic chemical accidents in the nation.

In the community that I represent, there are numerous examples of environmental hazards. If you were to take an aerial tour, it looks like a war zone. The mining industry has created enormous gaping holes, including a 500 acre pit, which from the air, makes the cities I represent look like Swiss cheese.

My district is home to 5 major landfills including the largest landfill in the Western USA; our water basin has been a Superfund site for over two decades; and there are over 17 mining pits in the region that contribute to high levels of air pollution. The environmental hazards are devastating and create real health hazards to the residents of these communities.

I first introduced legislation to address environmental justice back in 1997, knowing that I would face stiff opposition from business. The influence of industry was so powerful that the legislation was vetoed by California's former Governor.

Two years later, California elected a new Governor and I saw a new opportunity to reintroduce new environmental justice legislation. It was not going to be easy, but I had to try again. The oil companies, mining companies, and other business organizations had a sophisticated and well-financed lobbying campaign against my bill. They argued that my proposal would hit at the core of our state's economy and drive jobs out of the state.

The opposition was creative in their arguments against my bill. They called it a "Job Killer.” But the most original slogan was 'The Inner City Job Killer."

After months of negotiations, no compromise was reached. I reluctantly decided to wait another year before we would try to move the bill forward. With such fierce opposition, the outcome of the legislation was in jeopardy.

As I returned to my district, I saw again the immediate need for environmental justice. I asked, why should these communities have to wait another year? I made the critical decision to move the bill forward. I met with all the interested parties and stated that I wanted the bill to be sent to the Governor this year, for his signature. I was going to push forward, with or without their support.

After several hours of deliberations a compromise was reached. The bill was not as strong as I wanted it to be, but I knew the importance of getting a bill on environmental justice passed. Though the opponents felt that the compromise was still not acceptable, they formally removed their opposition. They, of course, would have preferred no legislation. In the end the Governor signed the bill.

As a result of these efforts, a monumental change occurred in California. Senate Bill 115 became the first environmental justice law in California. It will pave the way for more laws on this issue in the future. The new law requires the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to adopt environmental justice standards. It also identifies the Office of Planning and Research as the coordinating agency for the entire state.

Has California solved our environmental justice problem? No, but state agencies can no longer ignore the issue again!

Environmental justice has yet to be achieved. We have not won the battle. Landfills are still being proposed in these communities. Many families in poor neighborhoods continue to have polluted water. Our children continue to breathe polluted air.

Since the enactment of my legislation, there have been several new bills introduced in California that either directly or indirectly relate to environmental justice. We have gone a long way, but there are still many challenges ahead of us. This award has given the issue of environmental justice the recognition it deserves. For that, I am grateful.

I want to take this opportunity to thank my family, especially my husband, my parents, Raul and Juana Solis, and my sisters and brothers for all of their support over the years. They have always believed in me and have been my source of strength.

My parents came to this country as immigrants and taught me my values and commitment to issues of justice and equality. They told me to fight for what I believed in and to never give up. I attribute my success to them.

Again, to the Kennedy Family and Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, muchisimas gracias, I am truly honored for this award.

Remarks delivered by California State Senator Hilda L. Soils at the 2000 Profile in Courage Award Ceremony, May 22, 2000.