by Jenny Coyle
No wonder Steve Gerritson and his wife Michele Spector haven't had a
chance to scuba dive in eight years. She's a veterinarian and he runs his own business as
a clean-air consultant, helping government agencies and private companies find ways to
reduce air pollution. On top of that they rescue and care for injured animals (at the
moment they have two dogs and five cats), work on local political campaigns and volunteer
with the Sierra Club's Human Rights Campaign. Gerritson was introduced to the issue in
1975 when, as a grad student, he worked as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Zambia.
"I delivered textbooks to rural schools and negotiated with villagers over the
location of wells that were being provided for them by the U.S. government," he says.
"It was a one-party dictatorship in that country, and dissent was not allowed. You
could go to jail for criticizing the president." He joined Amnesty International and
says it was a logical progression when, just over a year ago, he extended his involvement
to stand up for those whose rights are violated while fighting to protect the environment.
"These activists are putting their lives on the line, doing what every single one of
us should be doing every day: bringing attention to corporate skullduggery when it comes
to the environment. When they get arrested for it, that should move everybody to
The Rev. Ben Axleroad, a retired Episcopal minister, believes his work on
human rights issues helps fulfill Jesus' commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself.
"I've always believed that human rights are something we're entitled to by our
creator," he says. "If you're going to be a spiritual advocate for people,
you've got to remember we're body as well as spirit. You can't ignore the body's need for
- and right to - clean air, for instance." Axleroad has been a minister for 55 years,
24 of which were served in Philadelphia. He worked on clean-air issues for the Sierra Club
beginning in 1983. His ministry has also led him to work with troubled youths and in city
hospitals as an advocate for the underprivileged. Axleroad's activism on international
human rights violations was limited to letter writing and lobbying until he moved to
Virginia and got involved with the Club's Mount Vernon Group. Since then he has
demonstrated against the Nigerian government's and Shell Oil's oppression of the Ogoni
people, and against the Chinese government for its plan to build a giant dam on the
Yangtze River. "I find this kind of activism very uplifting," he said.
"It's a good idea to commit yourself to something that's well-organized and can have
an effect on a bad situation."
Rebecca Johnson knows there's more than one way to save a tree. She
started a club called Eco at her high school in Ohio, mainly to increase recycling on
campus. During their meetings, members would sew cloth lunch bags using scraps of fabric
from home, and then sell them to fellow classmates. Johnson - national organizer for the
Sierra Student Coalition's human rights campaign - is now an environmental science major
at Oberlin College in Ohio. She co-founded an SSC chapter on campus with David Karpf,
who's now the SSC's national director. "We started with six people, and from that we
had to come up with a list of officers and campaign heads in order to get funding from the
student finance committee. Everyone was working on everyone else's campaign," Johnson
says. Now, two years later, the group has an e-mail-alert list of 100. Johnson wrote
letters for Amnesty International back in high school, so her transition to human rights
work in the SSC came easily, she says. "I believe people have a right to fight for
the environment. It's part of my personal philosophy," she says. Her main duty for
the SSC human rights campaign is preparing campaign packets as a resource for chapters
around the country. In her spare time she works three jobs: campus tour guide, student
union bookkeeper and research assistant for an author.
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