his way to kindergarten 10 years ago,
Nicholas Suwol turned to blow a kiss to his
mother at the moment when a man in a hazmat
suit sprayed the schoolyard’s hedges. “It
tastes terrible,” Nicholas wheezed as his
mother, Robina, watched from the car. The
exposure triggered a debilitating asthma
attack, and Suwol phoned the school’s
administrators to ask what made their garden
so lush. “They said, ‘Wow, thank you!’ and
told me about Princep,” Syngenta’s brand
name for the toxic herbicide simazine. Suwol
still remembers the terror in Nicholas’ eyes
when he asked whether it would happen again.
“I promised it wouldn’t,” Suwol says.
“That’s been the driving force in my work.”
Suwol, a native of Portland, Oregon, was
raising sons Nicholas, now 15, and Brandon,
20, on an actor’s salary when she founded
California Safe Schools in 1998. She wooed
parents, school officials, and teachers into
influential coalitions, never filing nor
fielding a lawsuit, never stalling in court.
In the first year she persuaded the Los
Angeles Unified School District’s famously
sclerotic bureaucracy to ban all pesticides
without demonstrated safety records. Eight
years later, California extended that same
rule to schools statewide.
“Tell the truth,” Suwol advises aspiring
world-changers. “People often halt their
dreams because they don’t have the right
dress or degree. But if you’re honest and
dedicated, help comes.”
Image by Cathy Blaivas.