Selma Rubin, mother to Earth Day dies at 96

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Selma Rubin, co-founder of Earth Day and 44 non-profit organizations. Photo: ©2012 IsaacHernandez.com

How one person impacted the entire planet… (and you can too)

March 28, 1915 – March 9, 2012

Selma Rubin, co-founder of Earth Day, died last night at her home in Santa Barbara, California, where she’d tirelessly fought for the rights of nature, long before being green was cool. She worked for social justice, human rights, and the environment, appearing on countless committees, boards and political events, usually in one of her famous hats. She blended Jewish social liberal tradition with sixties activism and a very Santa Barbara kiss of sunshine. Absolutely beloved in the town she called home since 1964, she founded and participated in more than 42 non-profit organizations, remaining active on the boards of six up to her final days. She was a local celebrity. She was almost 97.

She served as a great example to countless other environmentalists and social justice workers who came after. She never rested on her laurels. It was all about fun. She kept working for what she stood for, going on 57 years without pause. If there was land to preserve, or rights to protect, Rubin was there.

Selma Rubin grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and served in the Navy from 1943 to 45. When she and her husband Bill arrived in Santa Barbara in 1964, they thought they’d just stay on vacation from public life in this beautiful beach town. When their African American friends had their tires slashed in front of their home one night, their plans changed. “My husband and I decided, “vacation’s over.” They joined the local ACLU, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and several other organizations, where Selma’s skill as a bookkeeper and Bill’s as a plumbing engineer (“he had a lot of talent with a pencil,”) kept them both in local demand.

On January 28, 1969, an oil platform off the coast of Santa Barbara began dumping crude into the Pacific Ocean. By the time the spill was contained 11 days later, 757,000 liters of oil had turned the Santa Barbara Channel into a black inferno. Thousands of birds, dolphins and seals died. There was Selma, ready to clean the oil however possible… and to prevent a tragedy like this from occurring again. In the aftermath of this disaster, an ecological movement was born, and so was Earth Day, and the Community Environmental Council. Selma’s participation was key, and for this she’s known as one of the parents of Earth Day.

When a developer wanted to build 1,535 condominiums in 1970 on the pristine Gaviota Coast, Selma Rubin did something unprecedented. The planning commissioners had approved the project. The Board of Supervisors approved it next. There was nothing else in the way. Selma and Anna Laura Myers got 12,000 signatures on petitions in a few weeks to get a ballot initiative before voters, which they then won overwhelmingly. This was before the California Coastal Commission. There were no environmental laws then. She was even accused by the developer of forgery and election fraud, facing 28 years in prison; but even the prosecuting attorney didn’t want to win this case against two nice ladies (and the entire community)… She was 55, and Anna Laura Myers was 79 at the time. The judge ordered the charges dismissed for lack of evidence.

She managed to work out a compromise with the Gaviota coastal land, and it became a natural preserve, with a private campground nearby, El Capitán Canyon Resort, with luxury cabins and camping. They made Selma her own special bench there, with a view all up and down the coastline she helped to preserve. If that land had been developed at the time it would have served as a domino effect, and the entire Central California coastline would be developed now.

In 1970, she co-founded the Community Environmental Council, one of the first conservation organizations in the world. She would continue to fight for the rights of those less represented. Basically every Santa Barbara organization on the political progressive left has been founded, served, or supported by Rubin, including the Environmental Defense Center, Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN), PUEBLO (an immigrant-rights organization), The League of Conservation Voters, the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee, the Fund for Santa Barbara, the Homeless Coalition, the Sierra Club, and many others.

U.S. Representative Lois Capps commented today:

“Her tireless efforts have made our community a better place to live, work, and raise a family. I know of few people who gave as much to their community as Selma did. Her lifetime of service – fighting offshore oil drilling, preserving the Gaviota Coast, or encouraging women to get involved in their government – will live on for generations in the countless people she helped along the way. I will deeply miss her friendship, her wisdom, and her enthusiasm for life.”

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