In a 2013 speech to the San Gabriel Water Valley Forum, Erin Brockovich said that while growing up in the Sunflower State, her mother and father taught her “the greatest gifts we have are our family, our health and the right to clean water and good land,” a prescient sentiment that has shaped this Kansas native’s high-profile career.
Like many explorers, Brockovich was driven by a curious, restless nature. She briefly attended Kansas State University before earning a fashion degree from Wade College in Dallas, Texas, and relocating to Southern California. There, she was a Kmart management trainee, an electrical engineering student and a beauty pageant winner.
Her watershed moment as an activist arrived when she was working as a file clerk and learned that a gas and electric company had contaminated the public water supply of Hinkley, California, with a carcinogen. Her fight to protect families led to a $333 million public settlement and inspired the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, which received five Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress win for the actor who portrayed Brockovich, Julia Roberts.
Rather than retire on the $2.5 million she was rewarded for the case, Brockovich used the money to launch years of environmental activism. She fielded requests for assistance in groundwater contamination complaints in every state and several foreign countries, sought to hold corporations responsible for fracking-induced earthquakes in Oklahoma, and represented women whose health may have been compromised by a birth control device.
The New York Times best-selling author and former talk show host can currently be seen on Netflix in The Devil We Know: The Chemistry of a Cover-up, a 2019 documentary focused on a West Virginia community affected by the production of a chemical used to create Teflon. In August 2020, she published Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What WE THE PEOPLE Can Do About It with grassroots success stories and practical advice for community action.
Explorers are often thought of as people who go into uncharted territory—and that is exactly what Brockovich has done and continues to do. Not only as a file clerk who was unafraid to cast herself into the legal sphere, but as a savvy and meticulous researcher who plumbs the depths of documents. In a 2002 New York Times Magazine article, Brockovich discussed her approach. “Imagine getting hundreds of these boxes. You come to the 40th box, what does your attitude become? ‘Forget it. There’s nothing here,’” Brockovich says. “Well, I go through it paper by paper. You will see me in my office, on the floor, all the files around me, and I won’t talk to you, I won’t take phone calls.”
Committed to discovering hidden truths and dangers in order to protect communities, Brockovich’s work embodies the state motto, “to the stars through difficulty” and has inspired others to believe that perhaps they, too, are well-equipped to weather challenges in unfamiliar and sometimes hostile terrain.