At 73, Faye Bush has dedicated 55 years of her life to the environmental justice efforts of the Newtown Florist Club. And now she’s receiving a bit of recognition for her service as a semifinalist in the national Volvo for Life Awards.
Bush joined the club when she was 18, and is now its executive director. Bush and others from around the country nominated in four categories are vying for the grand prize, which grants a $100,000 donation to a charity of the winner’s choice and a Volvo vehicle for life.
"They called me about a month ago and asked me to send them a photo because I was (among the semifinalists)," Bush said. "I was really shocked and really excited. I didn’t believe it was true."
Bush said the Newtown Florist Club’s grant writer, Dexter Wimbish, had signed her up for the award without her knowledge.
Originally started as a florist club, the organization has evolved into a group fighting against the industrial pollution it says is emitted from mills and factories in and around Newtown.
Bush has involved the community’s youth in documenting the air pollution through the Newtown Youth Bucket Brigade. The club also sponsors a Summer Leadership Program for young girls that teaches them about environmental justice and how to affect change through leadership. And in an attempt to catch the attention of college students, the media and politicians, the club holds Toxic Tours annually to show participants pollution in the Newtown community.
The organization has gained such a following that it has outgrown its office located in a rental house on Desota Street, and has recently moved into a larger Newtown residence.
Bush’s mother, Maggie Johnson, was one of 11 women who founded the Newtown Florist Club in 1950. The ladies of the florist club traveled door-to-door within the neighborhood collecting donations to purchase flowers for Newtown residents’ funerals. Dressed in white, the club members would attend funeral ceremonies and assumed responsibility for carrying funeral wreaths into and out of the church and then to the cemetery.
As they gathered funeral flowers over the years, the group of black women noticed there seemed to be an alarming number of deaths in the Newtown community, and Bush said there seemed to be too many residents dying of similar health problems. Compared to national averages, Bush said Newtown residents were disproportionately dying from throat, lung and colon cancers as well as lupus.
She and other club members have suspicions that residents’ diseases may be linked to the numerous factories operating in and around the Newtown area. Members of the predominantly low-income black community have blamed their diseases on the feed mills, poultry plants and scrap metal facilities that occupy the south end of Gainesville. Bush said 13 out of the 16 industries emitting toxic pollutants in the Gainesville area are located within a five-mile radius of Newtown.
And in 1990, the Newtown Florist Club conducted an amateur door-to-door survey on Newtown’s Desota Street, and found there to be six cases of throat cancers, eight lung cancers, five colon cancers, seven lupus cases, one brain tumor and more than a dozen cases of respiratory illness.
There’s also a junk yard in Newtown that Bush said typically operates — loudly — seven days each week.
"You can’t even enjoy your family," she said. "They come to visit and they say, ‘What in the world is all that noise?’ Sometimes it even jolts the house."
She added that it’s not uncommon to find a grainy dust enshrouding vehicles that has settled from factory and junk yard operations, not to mention the putrid odor that occasionally lingers in the area.
"Half the time you’re breathing it in and you don’t even know what it is," Bush said.
"It’s not that we chose to live in the community with all the factories, because we were here first," she added. "The houses were here first and everything else came after. It seemed like our government just turned their head."
Bush maintains the struggle against industrial pollution in black communities is not unique to Newtown.
"Every city I’ve gone to, I’ve seen it the same way in the African American community," she said. "I think it’s because they don’t have the power and the money to fight back."
Since the 1990 survey, Bush has been a leader in Newtown’s effort to stop the industrial pollution that the group says affects all its residents, including the children who play in a park adjacent to a factory.
Although Bush herself suffers from lupus and heart problems, she has made a significant effort to involve the youth of the community in environmental research and education and initiated the Bucket Brigade program in Gainesville.
The Newtown Youth Bucket Brigade is a group of 10 to 18-year-olds who gather random samples of air to be tested for pollution. The youth are collecting data to create local and statewide awareness of the ongoing industrial pollution Newtown residents observe daily.
"I think we deserve a better living condition," Bush said. "I believe we deserve to breathe fresh air and enjoy less noise. And I think if we don’t make a change now, it’s going to affect our next generation healthwise."
The Volvo for life awards are based on public votes, which can be placed online at www.volvo forlifeawards.com.
Votes will be accepted through noon Jan. 7 for awards in four categories: Safety, Environment, Quality of Life, and the Butterfly Award. Three finalists will be selected from the 10 semifinalists in each category from the results of the online voting. The finalists will be announced on Feb. 8, and the winners will be chosen by independent judges.
"I want to win it. ... I really want to win it because of the support our club would get from it," Bush said. "I’ve been out there on the battlefield for the environment, and I have no plans of stopping now."