Work Samples

African American Studies Scholar Makes History as Whistle Blower

May 4, 2007

By David Driver
Used with permission

Workers who mine the metallic element vanadium in Brit, South Africa, are paid $1.50 per hour. The continental average for workers is $1 per day, says Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a scholar in residence for Masons African American Studies program this semester.

But the higher pay miners receive in South Africa comes at a price. "They sacrifice their lives to make $1.50 per day. Once you become ill, there is no safety net. The risks are very high," says Coleman-Adebayo.

Some miners, for example, get green tongues as their bodies are exposed to mining dust. Their life expectancy is greatly reduced, and if and when they die due to hazardous work conditions, their dependents are left with little income to support the family. Coleman-Adebayo also reports that vanadium is used to build weapons such as those used by the United States in Iraq.

Coleman-Adebayo detailed this information in "Vanadium Poisoning in South Africa: A Global Call to the Beloved Community," a talk she presented several times at Mason this semester.

In 1990, Coleman-Adebayo began working for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an African affairs specialist. While serving the Gore-Mbeki Commission, she reported that an American company was generating toxic waste that was poisoning African workers. Instead of being praised for her findings, she was removed from the commission.

Coleman-Adebayo, who first went to South Africa in 1999 and has been there four or five times since, received death and rape threats when she exposed the mining conditions in Brit. She was awarded $600,000 in compensatory damages after a federal jury determined the EPA was a "hostile environment" for her. She is currently on leave without pay from the federal government.

Her ordeal inspired the "No FEAR" Act (Notification of Federal Employees Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation), which President George W. Bush signed in 2002, making Coleman-Adebayo known as the "mother" of the first civil rights law of the 21st century.

According to the No Fear Coalition web site, the "No FEAR law requires federal agencies to use their own budgets to reimburse the Department of Treasury Judgment Fund to pay for successful discrimination claims. In addition, the No FEAR law requires federal agencies to notify its employees of their legal protections under law and to report to Congress the disciplinary actions taken against discriminating managers. In accordance with the No FEAR law, agencies must provide statistical information on discrimination and whistle blower complaints."

Coleman-Adebayo plans to return to South Africa this summer and may be joined by doctors who would study some of the health problems plaguing mining workers. She hopes that as a result of her time at Mason, there will be a core of Mason students who will continue to educate the university about the risks to vanadium miners in South Africa and elsewhere. Eventually, she would like to be able to take a group of Mason students to South Africa.

Coleman-Adebayo will take part in a special commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the "No FEAR" Act to be held on Capitol Hill May 15. Invited guests and participants include congressional members, Charles Ogletree, professor at Harvard University Law School; actor and director Danny Glover; comedian Dick Gregory; Elaine Jones, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; and Joe Madison, a radio activist.

"It will be the largest gathering of whistle blowers and civil rights workers ever in this country," says Coleman-Adebayo. "Once you blow the whistle in the federal government, you are targeted." More than 50 whistle blowers are expected, according to a press release.

Coleman-Adebayo is to be the subject of a film, "No FEAR: The Marsha Coleman-Adebayo story," expected to be released in 2008 or 2009. She is a producer on the project, which involves Glover, who is also a social activist.