Culture / Newsy

Erin Brockovich is Still a Badass — and Still a Champion for the Little Guy: Julia Roberts Movie Fame Never Changed This Houston-Bound Crusader

BY // 05.10.18

It was 1993. The days were hot and long in California. People were sick and getting sicker in the town of Hinkley. Erin Brockovich knew she had to get justice for the suffering community. She had to help, come hell or high water. Or really, hellish water — water contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a dangerous carcinogen.

She wasn’t a doctor, a lawyer, or a scientist. She was a single mother of two, and she’d only recently gotten the position of legal clerk. She came off ballsy, brassy, bold. The odds were against her, a beauty queen-turned-activist.

But Brockovich waged a war against the party responsible for the contamination, Pacific Gas and Electric Company. It took dedication. It took standing her ground. It took a class action lawsuit with 634 plaintiffs.

And she won. It was the largest medical settlement lawsuit in history.

It’s been 25 years since her triumph in Hinkley, and Brockovich will tell you that she’s grown up a lot since then. She was the dogged blond David going up the colossal corporate Goliath. Not that much has changed.

In the intervening years, the 57-year-old Brockovich has championed new environmental causes and written two novels and a memoir. The Oscar-winning movie Erin Brockovich came out in 2000, earning Julia Roberts an Oscar and affording Brockovich a much bigger platform to speak up and speak out. She runs Brockovich Research & Consulting now, guiding several high-profile law firms whose causes align with hers and she has created a digital environmental impact map.

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Erin Brockovich has joined the speaking circuit, traveling the country to share insight into combating environmental issues and personal insecurities.

And that’s brought her to Houston, to speak at the Blue Cure Lectureship Series Luncheon on Friday. The Blue Cure Foundation is committed to preventing and reducing the risk of prostate cancer, and improving the outcomes for those living with it. Brockovich will speak to the intersection between cancer and environmental factors, including chemical exposure.

A mutual friend introduced Brockovich to Blue Cure founder and president Gabe Canales

“We naturally gravitated toward each other,” Brockovich tells PaperCity. “I work a lot with trying to take a closer look at environmental issues, people reporting illnesses. I’m on the same path Blue Cure is. We’re just not going to find solutions and cures if we don’t look at what might be the cause.”

Brockovich is excited to come to Houston to speak at Blue Cure. She’s been to the city before. “I think the people are wonderful. The food is great,” Brockovich says.

But she’s not blind to H-Town’s downsides. “It’s muggy,” she laughs. “But as I get older, my skin should be thankful for the source of moisture.”

Erin Brockovich’s Fearless Might

The environmental activist has investigated causes and stared down those responsible for decades. She’s taken up the mantle because so many people are afraid to.

“We all live under some form of suppression and are oftentimes afraid to speak up, because we think we shouldn’t, because of this reason or that,” Brockovich says.

Her reason for not giving way has been with her since childhood. “Being dyslexic always created a lot of anxiety for me because I was put in a box. I was labeled. Just because somebody is different or learns differently doesn’t mean they’re inferior,” Brockovich says. “But what I thought would be my downfall has become my gift.”

“How I dressed… I dressed. It was hot out there, I was younger,” Brockovich laughs.

In a way, her dyslexia has shaped the way she engages with the world around her. “I kind of work backwards,” she says. “The problems we have today didn’t just show up yesterday. They’ve been going on a long time. I instinctively go back in time to tell me what happened there. So I know how to move forward.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy, especially when she started out. Hinkley was an incredibly empowering experience — and an incredibly frightening one.

“Internally, it was scary. I wasn’t a lawyer, I wasn’t a doctor, I wasn’t a scientist,” Brockovich says. “I don’t think you have to be, to be a human and to care about one another.”

But you don’t truly get a sense of her self-doubt, watching the Erin Brockovich movie. “The dyslexia may not have been as represented,” Brockovich says. “I don’t know that people really saw my own personal fear, and how I had to fight for that as well.

“I think the movie presents me as, I don’t know. Some foul-mouthed, inappropriately dressed badass.”

Erin Brockovich doesn’t deny that she can be a total badass, but she makes it clear that that persona only comes out when it needs to come out.

“That person comes out and about in a badass way when I think you’re lying to me. That kind of irritates me. Or when I think you’re suppressing me. That’s usually a sign you’re being dishonest with me,” she says.

“I didn’t get my work done in Hinkley because I was mean. I got it done because I cared, because I was compassionate, because I was kind.”

Not to mention her passion. “My mom taught me stick-to-it-iveness. Dogged persistence and determination,” she says.

Erin Brockovich Julia Roberts
Julia Roberts played her in a movie and Erin Brockovich’s life was never the same.

The movie may not have been too nuanced. But that’s not to say the costume designer was totally off base. “How I dressed… I dressed. It was hot out there, I was younger,” Brockovich laughs.

She was scared to death, and she dug deep insider herself to say no matter what the outcome, she could do it, Brockovich says. And that strength came from numbers, from those she was standing up for.

“I was a support for them. They were a support for me,” she says. “That struggle with dyslexia, and the suppression that was put on me because of it because I was different — that’s precisely what got me to rise in Hinkley. Because I saw it happen to others.

“When we don’t feel isolated, we rise. A lot of my speaking, it’s about self-empowerment, not being afraid to be different.”

Brockovich is tackling environmental issues at their source, and she’s taking the same approach with those who attend her talks. “The movie gave me the opportunity to write the books I have and to be out on the speaking circuit,” she says.

Most of the people who are drawn to her talks are looking for permission to be OK with themselves. “And I’m going to give you permission to do just that,” she says. “Then you can give yourself permission.”

Self-esteem is the same as any environmental cause. It starts with the individual taking that first step. No one’s going to solve your problem, or a water crisis, for you.

“We keep looking for some hero to come save us,” Brockovich says. “The hero exists within yourself. We pivot based on those critiques and criticisms. Be honest with who you are. Get behind yourself. Get behind your choices and decisions. Then you’ll find that the hero you’re looking for is right in front of you.”

She loses sight of hers, sometimes. The movie ushered in some criticism of  Brockovich too.

“It was mostly positive, but any time you become a public figure and put yourself out there, it changes things,” she says. “I don’t like to be criticized, but I’ve gotten a thicker skin.”

Activism’s New Faces

Brockovich has seen a change in the world. Activism is coming to the forefront, no longer waiting at the fringes. She can’t pinpoint an exact trigger. But she can tell there’s been a disruption.

“Everyone always feels disruption is bad. I like disruption because it gets us off the couch. It wakes us up,” Brockovich says. “It’s #MeToo, or the Women’s March, or in Parkland, Florida where the kids are rising up about guns.

It’s things that have been around, but for some reason we were either comfortable or we got complacent. Or there was a false sense of security. I’ve waited my whole career to see this moment.”

Because this moment means change. “Hinkley is everywhere. We can all be impacted,” Brockovich says.

Erin Brockovich speaks at the Blue Cure Lectureship Series Luncheon this Friday, May 11 from 11:30 am to 130 pm at the Houston Hilton Post Oak. For more information and tickets, click here.

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