Rise Up – Women and the Environment

by Andrea Newell, WMEAC Volunteer

Last summer, when we started planning this year’s Women and the Environment (W&E) Symposium, I think many of us thought that by February, 2017, we would be witnessing the historic first weeks of our nation’s first female presidency. And wouldn’t we have a lot to talk about during the symposium? Turns out we don’t have a woman president, but more people are talking, marching, calling their representatives and taking note of what is impacting our communities, environment, children and health than I can remember in recent history. Everywhere I look, people are searching for ways to be more active in their community, and be inspired. The Women and the Environment Symposium is one way that people can do that.

During past symposiums, topics have been wide ranging. They included social and environmental justice, race disparity, gender issues, clean water, climate change, healthy families, localizing food, workforce development, community activism, and faith. Keynote speakers in the past two years were nationally known female activists Nikki Silvestri and Jacqueline Patterson, who each brought a long history of activism to the stage. But one of my favorite parts of W&E is when we honor our own local environmental heroines.

Our organizing team spans generations and comes from business, nonprofit, and state government backgrounds, and each of us is motivated in a different way: from wanting to see the next generation become passionate about the environment, to wanting to start important conversations with their children, to wanting to dedicate the little bit of free time they have to environmental issues, to extending the sustainability work that they already do, to simply wanting to learn something new. What we all agree on? Is how inspired we feel afterward and ready to do something.

Anyone Can Be An Activist

Many people lead a life of dedicated service, like our keynote speakers. But many women that have accomplished amazing things were reacting to a situation in their community or at their job that affected their families and their neighbors. They felt they had to step up to make a change, and those situations changed the course of their lives.

In 2011, I interviewed Annie Leonard, founder of The Story of Stuff Project. During our conversation, I asked her if she had a real-life hero. She said,

“For me, the real heroes are the everyday moms who are just trying to get dinner on the table and get their kids to do well in school, who are standing up and taking a stand against corporate polluters. People like Lois Gibbs. She was the mother at Love Canal…It’s people like that, who, when life is hard enough, are able to still find the strength to stand up to the forces against us, and demand something better. They inspire me so much. I just feel like if they can do it, I can certainly do it.”

That answer has stayed with me ever since.

In 2016, LeeAnn Walters came to W&E and I really looked forward to listening to her speak. She is, literally, the “Lois Gibbs” of Flint. We all know how Walters also faced a health crisis that was making her family, neighbors and community sick, while local and state government refused to listen or act. She educated herself about lead poisoning and water, and kept speaking up for her community for more than a year. Finally, someone listened and the world rallied behind Flint.

Her message at W&E? That she’s just a mom. She took action because she couldn’t stand by while families were being hurt, but if she could do it, anyone can. If we all took nothing else away from her story, she wanted us to be inspired to get involved in our own community.

Here is video from her keynote – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMbvYZw4_Ok

Environmental Heroine Awards

Of course, we do have our own tireless activists right here in Grand Rapids. Come and hear their stories. The W&E Environmental Heroine awards shine a light on women in our community that have excelled in many roles, including working to safeguard our environment, to promote better access to healthy food, to teach children about environmental conservation, to ensure products are created that can be recycled at the end of life to reduce waste, to promote sustainability in healthcare, and more.

During the award ceremony we honor a Woman of Vision; honoring a woman whose vision and leadership helped to build a foundation for the furthering of efforts which resulted in positive impacts on the environment, a Woman of Hope; honoring an up and coming advocate, who brings hope, fresh voices, and diverse perspectives to the ongoing efforts to improve the environment, as well as a Woman of Inspiration; honoring a woman at the forefront of the current environmental movement. Do you know someone who fits this description? You can nominate them to be honored next year. Do you fit this description? Maybe someone will nominate you.

Keynote Speaker – Winona LaDuke

This year our keynote speaker is Winona LaDuke. She is nationally known for her work around the globe on climate change, renewable energy and environmental justice. In her own community, she founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project – one of the largest reservation-based nonprofit organizations in the country – that focuses on, among other things, sound land stewardship and community development. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and named one of America’s fifty most promising leaders under 40 by Time Magazine. There are many topics she might touch on, like sustainable development strategies, renewable energy, land conservation, community development or food. What will we take away from her words?

Where We Are Now

It looks like the U.S. could be poised to move backward on its stance on climate change, its participation in the Paris agreement, and goals for renewable energy. Environmental protections are being rolled back and there is talk of eliminating the EPA. On top of that, our own state government decided to take away the power of individual communities to pass plastic bag bans to try to reduce plastic waste. Enbridge’s Line 5 that crosses the Mackinac Straits is a ticking time bomb, threatening our Great Lakes with a significant oil spill by the same company who failed to prevent or stem the massive spill in the Kalamazoo River. And the water quality and infrastructure problems persist in Flint and several other Michigan cities.

It seems overwhelming at times, but we can still do so much here at home. It’s not only about what we can do, but how we can engage the very people affected by the topics we talk about.

At W&E 2015, Jeremy Moore, Spectrum Health Foundation, said, “Often the people most affected by inequity are the people with the best tools and ideas to solve them, but they lack any power.”

We need to hear from everyone. Recent events have showed us that individuals need to have power and be heard – that is the way we will find the best tools and ideas. The way we gain power is to come together. Marches, large town hall audiences, petitions and calls to leaders have all made an impact. We need to keep going.

Lisa Oliver-King, Our Kitchen Table, said that we needed to understand the solutions so affected people can learn to ask for help and understand how to advocate for themselves.

“‘Make a difference in my life, don’t just try to educate me. Address one of my problems and I’ll listen and participate. Then I’ll understand. Then I’ll be able to see the whole picture and my place in it,’” she said.

Don’t know how you can contribute? We’ll help you with some ideas. It can be as simple as donating a suit so someone has a nice outfit to wear to a job interview, writing a letter/email or learning something new. Maybe there is a local nonprofit you have never heard of that is right up your alley.

This year we are hosting several events during the week of Feb 23 – March 3. Kick things off with us at Green Drinks at Harmony Hall. Meet people, talk, listen. Come to the service event to learn about the work of nonprofits you might not know about, and also, do something for yourself. Advocacy is rewarding, but we have a long road. A little relaxation never hurt anybody. You want to do something, but what? Our advocacy workshop will explore the many avenues available and perhaps you’ll find one that speaks to you: food, healthy kids, environmental stewardship, water, recycling – the list goes on. Then, put your new skills to work. Stop by WMEAC and you can pitch in – right then and there – on issues in our community. Need more inspiration? We will be screening Arise and discussing it in both Grand Rapids and Holland. Our week-long event ends, of course, with Winona LaDuke. (Tickets are going fast for her keynote and reception.)

W&E 2015 keynote speaker Nikki Silvestri said, “Don’t be afraid to have the right answers. Consistently expand your understanding of the landscape.”

Come to W&E and be inspired. Take some action, no matter how big or small. We all need to see the whole picture and our place in it. Learn from President Obama’s farewell speech where he said, “Now [the presidency] is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.”

Step up, get involved, get engaged, get together, and demand change! Start this year with the Women and the Environment Symposium.

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