Each award winner received $175,000 for their activism.
"Even when they called me, I didn't believe it, " recipient Phyllis Omido of Kenya told KTVU. "I thought it was a prank or something!"
Omido told KTVU she had never heard of the prize during years of working to shut down a smelting plant in her community.
It started with learning her own breast milk was contaminated, then uncovering widespread poisoning of the soil and water.
"When I started, I thought we would just write a few letters," she admitted. Instead, she and her supporters endured harassment, false arrest, even beatings.
"We were constantly under surveillance by the government and attacked by thugs at home," Omido recalled. "And the more they resisted us, the more that we felt that this was wrong."
Two other Goldman Award recipients, Myint Zaw from Myanmar and Berta Caceres from Honduras, successfully beat back proposed hydroelectric dams that would have ravaged important rivers.
Two other winners created marine protection areas.
Jean Wiener of Haiti became emotional thanking his family for their sacrifice over the years.
"The fool didn't know it was impossible so he did it," Wiener said to loud applause.
Speaking to a crowd of 2,300, the honorees vowed to continue their work and urged others to follow, saying that the environment remains under constant attack.
"Our marine sanctuary is a huge achievement," acknowledged Howard Wood of Scotland. "But we still need guarantees from the government there will be no dredging or trolling in this protected area. We will not accept a paper park!"
Months are spent winnowing hundreds of candidates to thirty finalists, then the winning six.
"It's incredibly hard to choose," Goldman Awards Executive Director David Gordon told KTVU. "But they all share the belief that changing the world starts at home. Something caused them to act."
Vignettes highlighting each winner's story were played on a big screen before each received a statue and made remarks.
One video showed tribal leader Marilyn Baptiste of Canada staging a one-woman blockade, preventing work on a mine that would have turned a lake into a waste pond.
She told KTVU that being onstage was more nerve wracking than blocking construction trucks.
"Slightly nervous, yes," she smiled. "But it is so important for the world to know."
And with the honor and money, come visibility and networking with other activists.
"Without our land, without our waters, without our future generations, who are we?" Baptiste observed. "No matter what race you are."
All of the winners expressed the hope that their successes will inspire other activists to persevere.
"When I started there was not much respect for what we were asking, but now when we talk, people listen," declared Obido.
The late Richard and Rhoda Goldman started the awards 26 years ago. Their children continue them today.