Written by Ingrid Ockert
Nothing could have prepared Linda Richards for her visit to the Navajo Nation in 1986. The landscape was littered with piles of uranium debris. Signs warning of radioactive contamination were hung on playgrounds and living areas. The water wasn’t safe to drink. Families were living in homes made of radioactive materials.
“Many of the people who spoke to me that week were elderly widows whose husbands had died because they were uranium miners,” says Richards, “but many of the Navajo didn’t speak any English. They didn’t know what they were mining. They weren’t alerted to any of the health effects.”
At the time, Richards was a journalist traveling across the United States with the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament. After she spent a week listening to the Navajo elders, she was inspired to dedicate her life to educating others about nuclear issues.
“When I listened to the elders speak,” Richards says, “they asked me to tell people about what I had learned about their disproportionate exposure. They wanted to have a voice in discussions about nuclear issues.”
Over the past twenty-five years, she has worked to raise global awareness of the importance of nuclear fallout, the mining of indigenous lands and nuclear disarmament. Her visit to the Navajo Nation ultimately inspired her to pursue a doctorate in the History of Science Program at Oregon State University.
“My whole goal,” Richards explains, “is to open a space for indigenous people to speak in their own voices about their experiences and their own feelings.” To help that happen, she wants to organize national and global conferences to build connections between indigenous people, environmental historians, scientists and educators. Richards hopes to use her role as an educator to start conversations about nuclear issues. Already, she has used her passion for social justice to break down historic barriers and unite people across the divide of nuclear politics.
Today, Richards is finishing her doctoral degree by writing a dissertation on the disparities in radiation safety and environmental justice. In addition, she is teaching a class on science and politics and developing a curriculum to teach undergraduates about nuclear history.
Human rights, she says, are intimately connected to the history of nuclear technologies. “I want to bring these subjects together, because, in people’s lives, they are connected,” she says. To Richards, it is especially important that college students learn about nuclear history, so that they have the knowledge to make decisions about issues such as disarmament, waste disposal and energy.
Safe Space for Dialogue
Richards recognizes that, as an academic and an activist, she holds a certain set of beliefs on nuclear issues. As a teacher, she strives to create a safe, open atmosphere for all of her students. “My approach has always been that I want to make a safe space to hear from everyone,” she says. “As a teacher, I feel very comfortable saying who I am and listening to other people about who they are and what they think. I want people to feel comfortable and valued.”
Indeed, over the years, Richards has connected to many people across the political spectrum in her work towards world peace and environmental justice. “I’ve found that you get a lot more done when you work with people who aren’t of the same mindset as you and when you learn from people.”
In 2007, as part of her master’s capstone course in non-profit management at Southern Oregon University, Richards worked with Major Travis Lee to establish a veteran’s resource center at the college. The Ashland community was surprised to see a peace activist collaborating with a soldier, but Lee and Richards were connected by their compassion for veterans. That year, Oregon U.S. Rep. Greg Walden awarded them the Outstanding Citizenship Award.
Richards has also worked closely with scientists and engineers at OSU’s Radiation Center. “I have had really wonderful relationships with people at the nuclear engineering department, and I value those relationships because I learn so much,” Richards says. “The nuclear engineering department sponsored one of my favorite seminars, ‘Getting to Zero’, where they invited nuclear experts in to discuss disarmament.
“I really believe that all of us have the best intentions here,” she adds. “We might think there are different ways to get to the same goal, but figuring out how to work together so that we can move forward is very important to me.”
Richards serves as an active member of the Nuclear International Research Group, an academic organization with public policy makers, historians and environmental scientists. And she continues to work with members of the Navajo community to raise awareness of the uranium contamination on Native American lands. She has traveled to three Oregon universities and to Arizona with three Navajo people: Elsie Mae Begay, an elder; Perry H. Charley, a uranium contamination scientist and professor at Diné College; and Oliver Tapaha, an OSU Ph.D. graduate (ABD) in Education. Together, with filmmaker Jeff Spitz, they speak to audiences about the contamination of Navajo lands, as seen in the film “The Return of Navajo Boy.”
A Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leadership Fellow (awarded locally by the Oregon University System) and an American Chemical Foundation Doan Fellow, Richards also has attended international meetings in Europe, Japan and Canada and visited communities, such as Hiroshima, that are still affected by nuclear issues. For her extensive research in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Special Collections at OSU, she was been named a Resident Scholar. In November, Richards and fellow OSU Resident Scholar Mina Carson will travel to Paris to deliver their papers on Ava Helen Pauling and the nuclear fallout controversy.
Despite all of the sickness and suffering she has seen, Linda remains amazingly positive. “We are all trying to create a world that we can live in and we are proud of,” she says. “History brings us all to the table, so we can talk. It’s not judgmental. I think if you bring in a lot of the different histories that people have created, you can find a way to move forward.”