Not long after the BP oil spill, Cherri Foytlin, a part-time journalist in a small Louisiana town, hitched a ride with a fisherman into the Gulf of Mexico to see for herself the damage caused by one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history. As they pushed farther out from shore, Foytlin started to notice gooey brown sludge bubbling up along the surface of the ocean, and then she saw something that changed the course of her life: a pelican, covered in oil, gasping for its life. Foytlin yanked the bird from the water, and it died in her arms.
"When I pulled that pelican from the water, I realized I couldn't stand on the sidelines any longer," Foytlin says. As the wife of an oil worker who has spent most of the last decade on the Gulf Coast, Foytlin speaks from a position of authority, noting that for all the money Big Oil sops up every year, precious little ends up in the communities that are the backbone of the industry. "We're a battered woman that keeps going back to the aggressor," Foytlin says. "We still have oil in our marshes, fishermen are out of work and it seems like everyone knows someone with cancer. It's time to take the blinders off and see what this industry is doing to us."
Fed up with Washington's feeble attempts at clean-up, Foytlin walked from New Orleans to D.C. to raise awareness about the ongoing environmental problems related to the spill. Since then she's expanded her activism, chaining herself to the gate of a Keystone XL pipeyard to delay the project and organizing protests and rallies from Texas to Florida. She's been arrested four times, had a brick thrown through the window of her car and listened to death threats against her and her husband. She blogs about her experiences on a website called Bridge the Gulf Project. "When I introduce myself to people, I say, 'I'm a mom with six kids,' because the message I want to put out there is that normal, everyday people have to take up this fight," Foytlin says. "It's too easy to think someone else will do it for you."