Fearless Fighter

Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo ’74; Photograph by Courtney AppleDr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo ’74 has never been afraid to take a stand for what she believes is right. As a young woman growing up in the Detroit area during the time of the 1967 riots, she showed her solidarity by volunteering at Black Panther Party-sponsored breakfast programs for children. As an undergraduate, she joined campus demonstrations against the racist apartheid government in South Africa. As a PhD candidate in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she worked with linguistics professor and part-time political critic Noam Chomsky and activist professor emeritus Willard Johnson on a controversial but ultimately successful dissertation on whether American newspapers can be used as tools of propaganda. Yet, for all of her previous experience, Coleman-Adebayo had no idea that standing up for human rights as an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency would lead to a fight that spanned more than 15 years, taking a toll on her health, her family, and her career. Then again, her battle would inspire and shape the first major piece of civil rights legislation of the twenty-first century.

In her new book, No FEAR: A Whistleblower’s Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA, Coleman-Adebayo tells the story of how she became a whistle-blower, how it led to the passing of the Notification and Federal Employee Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act (No FEAR) of 2002, and what it means to government workers today. “Whistle-blowers are the ambassadors of democracy inside federal agencies,” she says in a telephone interview. No FEAR helps the average government employee embrace that responsibility. The book also continues to bring to light the struggles of the people who motivated her, a community of South African miners who might otherwise have been a forgotten byproduct of industrial greed.

“They came to me complaining of green tongues,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “They told me about bleeding from every orifice. [As] husbands [they] could no longer perform…. There were reports of many dead and more dying. The company Vametco, run by a U.S. multinational, would not help.” They were black South Africans mining vanadium in a small community called Brits. Coleman-Adebayo first heard their stories in 1995, during a visit to South Africa as executive secretary of the U.S.–South Africa Binational Commission Environment Working Group, sponsored by Vice President Al Gore and South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki. “The goal of the Gore-Mbeki commission was to assist the Nelson Mandela government in transitioning from apartheid to democracy,” Coleman-Adebayo says. “Under the old apartheid government, ‘brown issues’—those that deal with pollution, poor water quality, substandard air quality, and waste disposal—were not addressed, particularly for the majority of the population. My job was to essentially help the South African government to work on issues that impact public health.”

The brown issue that seemed most pressing was vanadium. Element 23 on the periodic table, vanadium is primarily used to strengthen steel alloys used in things like car parts (pistons, rods, crankshafts), aircraft engines, and armor plates for military vehicles, making it very valuable to modern industry. Its properties have also been found to be highly toxic to humans, and the black South Africans who mined it were suffering without help or acknowledgement of obvious work hazards. Vametco was run by a U.S.–based company, and Coleman-Adebayo felt the country had an obligation to at least listen to the complaints of the miners. She pushed for EPA support and the agency responded, promising to fund initiatives that would study environmental issues in Brits, provide environmental education, and study the effects of vanadium. Then years passed with those promises left unfulfilled. Coleman-Adebayo continued to lobby for the miners, but the more she pushed, the more problems she faced at work.

If management had wanted someone who would stay silent for the sake of protecting U.S. business interests, they picked the wrong person for the job. Coleman-Adebayo told them as much before accepting the position. As an Africanist and political scientist, she says she knew well the sometimes ugly history of U.S. foreign policy with Africa. She also had personal ties to the continent: her husband is from Nigeria, and she has family and friends throughout Africa. “I actually told the director I wasn’t going to be a part of any policies or programs having a negative impact on Africa or its people,” she says. He worked to convince her that the agency’s intentions were in line with her own, that her passion was a plus.

From the beginning she felt a certain degree of hostility in the workplace at the EPA. Upon starting in 1990, she immediately noted disparities in the treatment of women or minority groups at every level of the organization. Early on, a coworker inviting Coleman-Adebayo to join a meeting among white male colleagues joked that she could be an “honorary white man”; when she complained, another manager referred to her as “uppity.” There was hope of change when Carol Browner was selected by Clinton to become the second female head of the EPA in 1993, but such progress did not, in Coleman-Adebayo’s view, extend to the rest of the organization. When she was ultimately removed from her position in South Africa, the harassment started to seem systemic. Not only was she being passed up for well-deserved promotions, she also started getting impossible assignments. Previously stellar performance reviews started to take a negative turn; she felt she was being set up to fail.

Eventually she filed a civil rights discrimination complaint against her employer in Coleman-Adebayo v. Browner. After a trial experience that reads in the book like a taut legal thriller, she prevailed in 2000. She calls herself a fluke—a member of the less than two percent of federal employees who have actually won cases against their employers. Being a fluke also made her a story, and her story struck a nerve. Suddenly employees from every corner of government, including the EPA, started sharing their tales. Those stories and others gave her a voice that could be used to change the system. She testified before Congress, and helped to get a whistle-blower’s protection act to pass unanimously in the House and Senate. In 2003, Good Housekeeping magazine gave her the top award for women in government.

No FEAR, signed into law in 2002 by President George W. Bush, does several things to make federal agencies accountable for employee complaints. New hires must be informed of their rights against retaliation and discrimination for whistle-blowing within 90 days of joining a federal agency, and reminded again annually. Every two years, employees should have training about rights and remedies. All federal agencies must openly report on data including employee complaints, court cases, and the amount of money the agency was required to reimburse for violations, and Congress must review the reports biannually. “This is huge data in terms of Congress taking a picture of the federal government,” she says. On any federal agency Web site today, visitors are one click away from this information.

There is also a new impact on the bottom line. When Coleman-Adebayo won her judgment against the EPA, the settlement came from a government slush fund. Today, such settlements come directly out of that agency’s budget. “That is not a small thing,” she says. “When I was fighting my battles, there was no concern from managers that they were going to be held accountable for anything.”

After her victory, Coleman-Adebayo continued on as a senior policy analyst at the EPA for many years. She was let go in 2008 in the administration transition from Bush to Obama (Carol Browner had been brought back in to oversee environment and energy issues at the time). Due to work-related injuries, Coleman-Adebayo had worked successfully the previous five years from an EPA-appointed home office. She continues to press the agency over her departure, and has filed a wrongful termination suit against the EPA. Her health is one casualty of her cause; her family life was another. “Even though I won in court, I lost so much time with my kids,” she says. Her two children are now attending college.

Coleman-Adebayo continues to be an advocate for whistle-blowers. She founded the No FEAR Institute, a nonprofit organization that educates the public about federal sector discrimination, and helps victims of discrimination. She also continues to spread the word about the plight of the vanadium miners. In 2003, she traveled back to Brits on a research mission with Barnard students from the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows and General Electric Fellows programs, including Hayley Holness ’05, Alexandra Severino ’05, Kendra Tappin ’05, and Alexandria Wright ’05; Barnard professors Diane Dittrick and Timothy Halpin-Healy; a contingent from Smith College; and a film crew. She also brought her daughter, Sade, who was able to see firsthand the struggles that consumed her mother. On March 25, 2004, the Barnard Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program sponsored a symposium about the trip; a visiting miner from South Africa stood up to tell his powerfully emotional story. The young women involved were as moved as Coleman-Adebayo herself had once been. In November, the Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters (BOSS) plans to have Coleman-Adebayo back on campus to discuss the research experience of Barnard students now chronicled in her book. “I think those are the kinds of experiences that can whet the appetite of young people,” says Coleman-Adebayo. “When they get that small taste of what it’s like to save a life…. They will say, I can do this, I can make a difference, I can change history.”

-by Melissa Phipps