Prove your humanity

In 1969, the Group Against Smog and Pollution, or GASP, was formed in Pittsburgh, to tackle the city’s famously sooty air. Since then the organization has worked on air pollution issues from idling school buses and wood burning stoves to the persistent emissions from industrial plants like U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works

This fall, GASP named a new executive director: Patrick Campbell, replacing long-time director, Rachel Filippini. Campbell was raised in western Pennsylvania, and left the area to attend divinity school at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Now he’s back, and The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with him about his new role and the future of this mainstay of clean air advocacy in the region.

LISTEN to the interview

Kara Holsopple: How did you get interested in the environment and working on environmental issues? 

Campbell: After my Master of Divinity, I was pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in Hickory, North Carolina. I was there for a little under seven years. There were a couple of really interesting things about this community. They had a history of doing some advocacy kinds of things, like being very concerned with developing food pantries and protecting those people who were most vulnerable from economic shifts in the area. 

This congregation, interestingly enough, the land purchase to build the actual church building sat on a small plot of land that was used as part of a farmer’s field. It was only about 10 acres of land, but since then it had been wooded and gone back to grass, aside from the actual footprint of the church. 

So, as I was talking with the church governing board, we were becoming more and more interested in how we might better use the land, and be better stewards of the land. We established some raised garden beds particularly to get children and youth within the congregation interested in the environment. 

All of this kind of came into being from my interests. I was lucky enough that my parents were really intentional about making sure my siblings and I spent time outdoors. We were nurtured with a great love of being outside and so I brought that with me. 

Then in divinity school you put some theological language around that, you know, about being better stewards of the environment and the world of which human beings are an inextricable piece. 

You Have These ’70s Activists to Thank for Pittsburgh’s Cleaner Air

Kara Holsopple: You worked at another environmental nonprofit in southwestern Pennsylvania before coming to GASP – Protect PT, which stands for Penn-Trafford, in Westmoreland County. What did you do there? 

Patrick Campbell: I was the project and outreach coordinator, so my role was both administrative, as well as working with community members and our volunteers around our various campaigns. Protect PT is an environmental nonprofit that works to educate, empower and help residents facing unconventional oil and gas development in their neighborhoods. 

I did a lot of things like grant writing and internship management, but I also was able to work with Protect PT’s environmental scientists, working on setting up noise studies and different things like that around potential well site development. I was able to talk with community members, and hear how these well sites and fracking sites impacted their daily lives. 

Holsopple: What did you learn there that you’re bringing to this new role?

Campbell: I was really fortunate to be able to work there. I learned things like zoning ordinances. I learned how to navigate the unconventional oil and gas program at the Department of Environmental Protection. I learned how to analyze permits for well sites. 

All of those kinds of things are not always 100 percent transferable to GASP. However, it starts to give you a language and a foundation to be able to build on those skills as they particularly tie to air quality, of which GASP is a regional leader.

Holsopple: I know you’re just settling into your role there, but what are some of your priorities for the organization? 

Campbell: My predecessor, Rachel Filippini, and the board of directors at GASP have really done incredible work digging into and exploring what might be a good strategic plan for GASP. The results of their work has been to develop the three year strategic plan of which we’re coming up on finishing the first year. 

One of the things that the board has highlighted is the need for GASP to better be involved within the communities that we are advocating on behalf of – GASP being more involved within neighborhoods that are most bearing the burdens of pollution. 

We’re seeking to develop partnerships with neighbors, with individuals, with community organizations, with faith organizations – whoever might want to do this community development work. That’s one of my top priorities as the new executive director. 

The other one is making sure that GASP continues to deliver the kind of expertise that GASP has done for 52 years, letting residents know how air quality impacts every part of their lives and how we might partner together and leverage the resources GASP has, leverage the reputation GASP has in order to continue to address these serious air quality issues in the region. 

Holsopple: Like how? 

Campbell: What we’re particularly working on is focusing on environmental justice communities. We’re working on partnering with individuals and community organizations within those environmental justice communities to apply continued pressure to the Allegheny County Health Department, the existing operators, and Allegheny County Council. 

We are looking at expanding our service footprint. We are looking for where it makes sense to partner with organizations that are addressing water quality issues, that are addressing cancer and environmental health. We’re looking to share our expertise with those organizations so that we don’t remain siloed. That way, we make sure we are bringing our part of the solution forward. 

It’s often easy for an environmental organization to be written off as an environmentalist group. This is our niche. We are always going to be pushing for better air quality. It is far more difficult to ignore the voices of residents who bear the burden of air pollution. We want to leverage our platform, our GASP platform, in order to ensure those residents are able to speak to those regulators and they become far harder to ignore when an entire community says we demand better air quality.

Patrick Campbell is the executive director of GASP.