One Small Step: Teaching Coke to Live in Perfect Harmony
Illai Kenney, Jonesboro, Georgia
Cofounder, Georgia Kids Against Pollution, age 15
"My environmental sense comes from my mother. She worked on civil rights issues before she got involved with an environmental group in our area. She would bring home pamphlets and talk to me about what she'd learned. We live in a low-income community where a lot of people don't know their rights or what they can do to positively affect what's going on around them. They don't know they have choices. My mother is a strong person. She raised me to be strong and told me that I'm never helpless to change any situation.
"When I was 12, I cofounded Georgia Kids Against Pollution. The first thing we did was make posters. Then we went to Savannah and did a little protest and held a press conference. It was nerve-racking! There were police, reporters, a television camera. But after I got over the first nerves, it was a smooth ride. We talked about carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury pollution. Maybe we didn't know as much as we should have, but we knew it wasn't right to pollute our communities and that's what we said.
“After that, I was invited to Johannesburg, South Africa, for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. At 13, I was the youngest delegate. I talked from a youth point of view about sustainability and how we can achieve it.
"Right now I'm working on Coca-Cola and its water practices in India. In two places, Mehdiganj and Plachimada, villagers accuse Coke of pumping groundwater— dangerously lowering the water table — and then selling it back to the villagers in bottles as Coke, Fanta, and water. I consider this a U.S. issue because I live near Atlanta and that's where Coca-Cola is headquartered. To have an effect you have to change people's minds where you live, help them see what's going on.
"I play sports and go to the movies. I do the regular things. I guess it's just that I have more opportunities than a lot of my friends, so I feel like I have to take advantage of them. There are so many problems in the world. I just hope to work hard enough to make a change that has some substance and relevance and can affect the world in a positive way." — interview by Marilyn Berlin Snell