Text of the talk given at the April 22 Earth Day rally by Ken Hemphill, Open Space Advocate and Southeast PA Sierra Club Executive Committee Member:
There are two axioms that have inspired me in my involvement to save open space. The first is Margaret Mead’s point that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. The second is that we should think globally but act locally. And both of these were certainly true the first time I got involved fighting with a small group against the destruction of a local place known as Beaver Valley on the DE PA border.
A politically connected developer wanted to build 450 ticky tacky houses in a 325 acre publicly subsidized wildlife refuge that had been open for public use for 40 years. In late 2012, when the plans were introduced, things looked really grim and our mood reflected that. Few in the group believed we could win. Some were just hoping to scale down the plans and make them less egregious and reduce the traffic impact. Everyone thought it was a done deal since the supervisors in Concord Township were advocating for the development in various newspapers.
Nevertheless, a few of us felt that we could fight city hall and save Beaver Valley. So we formed a second group called Save the Valley and we hunkered down knowing it would be a long fight. We held rallies and protests. We built a massive Facebook presence. We published dozens of our own articles. We sent mailers. We put flyers on windshields all over the Brandywine Valley. Grew our email list. We canvassed. We got in the newspaper, on the radio, and TV. We flooded public meetings, at one point turning out 1,000 people to a meeting in May of 2013. We were everywhere and relentless. And we won. We didn’t settle for a smaller development. We didn’t settle for a little less traffic. We saved all of it. Five years later, that wildlife refuge in Beaver Valley will be added to the First State National Historical Park and will be permanently protected.
With that success showing what was possible, someone mentioned to me what Toll Brothers wanted to do to Crebilly Farm right down the road on 202. I went to a meeting at Stetson Middle School and I dove in head first with Neighbors for Crebilly. As many of you know, Crebilly Farm is one of Chester County’s most iconic farms and a place that saw action with Hessians during the Battle of the Brandywine on September 11, 1777. During WW2, German POWs built a barn on the property. And yet all of this history and beautiful open space would be lost if Toll Brothers were to plop 317 of their plastic houses on this hallowed ground. But Toll didn’t expect people to organize and fight back. And that’s what Neighbors for Crebilly has been doing for the last year and a half. The fight now heads to court and we’re in this for as long as it takes to save Crebilly Farm.
If I could boil my involvement with open space advocacy down to one common truth it would be this: you don’t have to take it. You can fight back against corporations and a government that enables them. Small groups are having an impact and effecting change all over this country. If you think that your voice won’t be heard, that you’re too small to fight back just remember that one woman saw the damage that DDT was doing to our environment and she did something about it. But she didn’t just write Silent Spring cataloguing the harm of a pesticide, she devoted herself to seeing its use banned. And the movement Rachel Carson started was successful in having DDT banned.
To invoke John Kennedy, don’t ask what others are doing to protect YOUR environment. Ask what you can do to help. You can join Sierra Club volunteers working to circumvent the federal government to get municipalities to commit to 100% renewable energy. You can join Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety fighting Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 dragonpipe. You can sign up with the Don’t Spray Me group organized to stop the unneeded spraying of toxins in our communities. You can get involved with the group fighting to clean up the old Bishop Tube site in East Whiteland. You can join Neighbors for Crebilly and fight for our landscapes and history. Or you can organize your own group to fight some other environmental injustice.
But, remember, we lose the right to complain about things when we refuse to get involved. When we refuse to become part of the solution, we are part of the problem. But, if you’re willing to work, you can win. We won in Beaver Valley and we will save Crebilly Farm. And you can win, too. But you just have to put your shoes on and get involved. You don’t need your entire community to support you. It only takes a small group of thoughtful people to change the world. Nothing is ever a done deal.