Mother Knows Best

Robina Suwol, founder, California Safe Schools 

Robina SuwolOn 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.

California Safe Schools