Posted on 12 December 2009 by Jill Watanabe
One bright fall day Kimberly Flynn addressed a small crowd in downtown Manhattan. In the shadow of the badly damaged Deutsche Bank building, they waved brightly colored handmade signs in English, Chinese and Spanish, demanding recognition and treatment for ailments they believe are related to 9/11. Enlarged print-outs of bar graphs and numbers conveyed the results of a limited community survey, an attempt to quantify the physical and emotional turmoil of their lingering illnesses.
“Congress and Mr. President, hear our call for responsive legislation,” Ms. Flynn urged, clutching an old microphone and peering out over black, thick-rimmed glasses. “Take responsibility for this continuing public health disaster.”
It is a scene that Ms. Flynn, a one-time actress, plays out across the city in community meetings, rallies and hearings. Her script – demanding proper clean-up, recognition and treatment of illnesses that appeared in the wake of 9/11 – holds the words she has come to live by. In the years since that September day, lower Manhattan has embarked on an arduous recovery, rebuilding new office towers, businesses and lives. Still, Ms. Flynn insists, the recovery is far from over.
A decade ago, Ms. Flynn worked as a dramaturge, alternating as an actress, drama professor and theater consultant. Between work on projects like Anna Deveare Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, Flynn volunteered with ACT UP New York, an AIDS social justice coalition. It was only New York’s aggressive 1999 pesticide campaign against the West Nile virus that sparked Flynn’s initial foray into environmental activism.
That evening began like any other. Ms. Flynn finished up dinner and left her Upper West Side apartment for a nightly stroll along Riverside Drive. But as she walked through the park, she paused at the odd sensation of a tightening in her chest. “I’d been keeping track of the spray schedule, and I thought to myself, ‘are they supposed to spray Riverside Drive?’” she recalls. “Then I thought, ‘no, they weren’t.’”
Joggers got drenched in the pesticide, she said, and parents and nannies pulled their kids from the sandboxes and fleed the park. Shocked, she called the city’s office of emergency management. She says all she heard was “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” followed by: “What are you gonna do about it? Sue us?”
She did. Ms. Flynn joined the No Spray Coalition, a group opposed to the pesticide campaign, as a paralegal and research assistant in its lawsuit against the city. By September 2001, Ms. Flynn had gotten a strong-enough introduction to the nuances of environmental justice that she began to set her sights on other issues. She worked with colleagues from the No Spray Coalition to order private lab tests of the World Trade Center dust. When those tests revealed toxic levels of asbestos, Ms. Flynn and her colleagues sprang into action, educating the community about the dangers of the dust through fliers and meetings.
Even without any close personal ties to the disaster, Ms. Flynn says she simply reacted as many New Yorkers did. “I feel like there was such a dire need to step in and offer whatever skills we had,” she says. “I would have been useless removing rubble from the pile. But what I did know how to do was to organize the community.”
Eight years later, Ms. Flynn remains at the front of an environmental movement facing dwindling funds and shrinking ranks. Now a petite 53-year-old with fading, gray-streaked brown hair, Ms. Flynn readily acknowledges these challenges. She blames them on what she calls “compassion fatigue.”
But her own fatigue is something else entirely. Asked to estimate the number of hours she devotes to 9/11 each week, Ms. Flynn draws an anxious pair of hands to her temples. She runs through a list of roles at 11 different community groups and settles on 40 hours. Her days are filled with phone calls, meetings, research, drafting fliers and legal testimony and planning outreach, events and agendas. When pressed, she admits the workweek often creeps upwards of 50 or 60 hours.
“She lives and breathes this fight,” says Esther Regelson, secretary of the 9/11 Environmental Action committee that Flynn founded in 2002. “She’s given up quite a lot to do this, and she will see it that way if you point it out to her, but she tries not to stop and look at that, because it will interfere.”
Ms. Flynn balks at any discussion of her sacrifices because she believes they will never compare to those of individuals directly affected by 9/11. Still, the ones she will discuss are hardly trivial. Nearly all of her 9/11 work is done on a voluntary basis, meaning she’s lived without a steady salary for over eight years. So as the money from her theater days has been running out, she’s taken on debt and adjusted her standard of living.Recently relocated from the Upper West Side to an apartment building blocks away from Ground Zero, Ms. Flynn lives on her own and admits her dedication has left little time for social life.
Despite Ms. Flynn’s dogged commitment, the question of what, exactly, her efforts have yielded remains. Rob Spencer, who co-chairs a community advisory committee with Ms. Flynn, calls her “a pivotal player” in the fight for environmental justice.
“There’s no doubt about that,” he says. “I think she’s ensured that the struggle will move forward in ways very few other folks have.” He points to her role in the successful battle to ensure a safe demolition of the Deutsche Bank building. Ms. Flynn, he says, was instrumental in raising awareness of the dangers standard demolition posed and convincing key community players to get involved in the issue.
But Mr. Spencer also acknowledged that tangible victories seldom emerge in her chosen causes. “It’s very difficult in some of these struggles to look at the victories as ‘We won this,’ “ he says. Instead, Mr. Spencer contends that the victories are in the process, and largely about raising awareness and strategizing the most effective ways to demand change.
And by Ms. Flynn’s own admission, victories are rare and nearly always fleeting. They are the times when a protest outside a taping of the David Letterman Show caused the talk show-host to cross-examine former Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman on the agency’s post-9/11 policies. Or the release of the 2003 Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General’s Report, which reflected the inadequacies of the agency’s response to 9/11 that Flynn and others had pointed to for nearly two years. “But she definitely won’t stop and take a breath,” says Ms. Regelson. “She’ll be celebratory, but she’s always ready to move on to the next thing.”
Ms. Flynn is now focusing the bulk of her attention on the launch of the 9/11 Pediatric Outreach Project. Flynn’s goal is to increase awareness of 9/11’s impact on the health of children and adolescents, and the resources WTC’s Environmental Health Center at Bellevue Hospital can provide for pediatric patients. She’s hoping they’ll be able to secure grant money for the initiative, which would provide her with some kind of income, no matter how small or temporary.
If not, there will be more debt to incur and new sacrifices to be made. But Ms. Flynn is undeterred. “I don’t know whether you can still call it an obsession,” she says. “People still have that fire in their bellies from the first flame of outrage. It’s not hard to ignite that again.”