Green Grrrls

They are Ph.D.s and college dropouts. They work in academia, the nonprofit sector, corporate America. They wear Birkenstocks and stilettos. What these six Minnesota women have in common is their passion for the environment and their dedication to preserving it.

Acting locally
Karlyn Eckman has worked on community development in Somali refugee camps, and headed up the U.N.’s Women, Irrigation and Nutrition (WIN) project focusing on Cambodia, Nepal and Zambia, to name just two of her international projects. In fact, she’s spent much of her life living halfway across the world-but Eckman, a scientist and community organizer, is as dedicated to helping conserve Kasota Ponds (“they are the only remaining natural ponds in the middle Mississippi watershed”) in her own St. Anthony Park neighborhood as she is about studying the impact a massive dam to be built on the Mekong River will have on southeast Asia. Eckman is an adjunct professor (and on the staff of the Office of Water Resources) at the University of Minnesota. In discussing the Kasota Ponds project she said, “Volunteers make this project work. … [St. Anthony Park Community Council] has an outstanding environmental committee.”

Eckman believes strongly in citizen involvement. “Local community councils and neighborhood groups always need help, and you can learn so much. Watershed districts, other commissions, the Met Council, park boards-all have citizen advisory [components] that anyone can join.

“You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to make a difference,” she said.

Legislating change
Ellen Anderson has worked on environmental issues at the Legislature since her election 15 years ago. “It’s been a struggle,” she confessed. “Even six or seven years ago renewable energy was thought outlandish. I had a difficult time getting my colleagues to support it.”

That was then. Today, under Anderson’s leadership, Minnesota has the nation’s strongest renewal energy standards law in the nation, signed into law in February 2007. It requires most of the state’s energy companies to generate 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025; the state’s largest energy company, Xcel Energy, will have a higher standard of 30 percent by 2020. “This year things shifted so much,” Anderson said. “Suddenly renewable energy was mainstream. It was like watching a cultural revolution.”

The change in the composition of the Minnesota Legislature was part of that shift, Anderson said. “The utilities came to the table for the first time … after the election, they knew we had the votes.” Anderson worked with both sides to negotiate a compromise, “And used up every bit of political capital I had. I’ve passed a lot of legislation I’m very proud of, but if I had to retire now, I would feel that I’ve made a real difference with something that will transform our future.

“I’m very proud of it.”

Corporate environmentalist
When Gigi Abbadie, global marketing director for hair care at Aveda Corporation, took on organizing the Earth Day program for Aveda, it was, she said, “A little bit of a joke. We did not have a very large marketing team at the time. It was passed to different people. But I really wanted to take it on.”

The program lacked consistency and focus. Abbadie created a program that was implemented in thousands of salons throughout the world, with a theme that changed yearly. Her work paid off: In the six years she ran the program, it raised $6.1 million. Last year’s campaign was the largest; $1.5 million was raised to help save endangered species.

Today, Abbadie is knowledgeable about the environment, but she said it hasn’t always been that way. When she was in school for her MBA, she ran a café that used Styrofoam cups. And her primary qualification to run the campaign that became known as Earth Month was her enthusiasm. The program offered her the chance to learn and grow as an environmental leader. While 2006 was her last year leading Earth Month, she continues her environmental activism. “I speak to groups, from middle school to business school, mainly concentrating on high schools,” she said. “My personal goal is to make it cool for high schoolers [to be environmentalists].”

From Somalia to south Minneapolis
Zainab Hassan came to Minnesota in 2001 planning to get her master’s degree in public health at the University of Minnesota. The native of Mogadishu, Somalia, has an undergraduate degree from Old Dominion in Environmental Health. “And then I got involved in activism and organizing and I went to the Humphrey Institute [of Public Affairs] instead,” Hassan said.

After completing her work at the Humphrey Institute, Hassan worked with the nonprofit Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota (EJAM) as a Human Rights Fellow. She organized south Minneapolis residents in the “Arsenic Triangle” (areas with soil contaminated with high arsenic levels) but she is most passionate about her work on hazardous and nuclear waste dumping in Somalia. “Firms are illegally dumping hazardous and nuclear waste,” she said. “They have absolutely taken advantage of the chaos there. It’s much cheaper to dispose of this waste in Africa.”

It’s not only Somalis who are imperiled, Hassan said. Illegal fishing occurs in Mogadishu, and she fears contaminated fish are being marketed around the globe. “The international community should do something in terms of cleaning up. And those responsible should be brought to justice.” She is determined to make it happen through community organizing and presenting her findings at public events.

From academic to advocate
When J. Drake Hamilton made a career change 11 years ago, she thought she might miss teaching. “But I’m teaching every day,” said Hamilton, who formerly taught environmental geography and energy policy at George Washington University. “Now I’m teaching policy makers and educators” as the science policy director for Fresh Energy, a St. Paul-based nonprofit.

Hamilton, a nationally known expert on global warming, thrives on the variety her job offers. Recently she worked to get the mayors of Edina, Mahtomedi and Winona to support an aggressive environmental stance. She’s also worked with faith leaders, state legislators and celebrities to educate and advocate. One of her favorite projects is working with the Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). “Architects are part of the solution, designing really beautiful buildings that are very energy efficient-showing that conservation isn’t about freezing in the dark,” she said.

In addition to working with state legislators, Hamilton is involved with Minnesota’s Congressional delegation. She gives top marks to Sen. Amy Klobuchar and members of Congress Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison. “[U.S. Rep] Michelle Bachmann gave a speech saying global warming isn’t real,” she noted. The rest of the Minnesota’s Congressional delegation fall somewhere in between.

Hamilton thinks women have an important role “in pushing global warming solutions to the top of the agenda. We can credibly say, ‘What kind of legacy are we leaving our kids?’

“We can’t stop global warming. We can slow it down and prevent irreversible damage … and I see [working toward that] as my obligation.”

Pit bull with a vision
“I’m considered a pit bull of the environment,” Annie Young said proudly. “I’m not the most popular person when I’m in a struggle. I walk into a room and people know I’m going to be looking for action.”

Though she has been a community organizer for more than 30 years and a activist for even longer, Young’s biggest struggle-and victory-was in working with other residents of Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood to block Hennepin County’s planned construction of a garbage transfer station in Phillips. A supporter asked the residents what they would do with the land if they won. It was Young who came up with the answer: She went to sleep one night and dreamed of a glass building heated with solar panels.

The residents won and today a nonprofit economic development organization called the Green Institute occupies a glass building with solar panels on the roof. Young, who was the start-up coordinator and an early staff member, works today as environmental justice coordinator in north Minneapolis’ Harrison neighborhood, working on issues as diverse as cleaning up Bassett Creek and getting rid of abandoned gas stations. She is also an elected official; Young was elected to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board 18 years ago, and has been re-elected four times.

“You think you have a great success and will never top it,” Young said. “But in my case, it just keeps getting better and better.”

Get Involved / Learn More

Earth Month Campaignhttp://aveda.aveda.com/protect/you

Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota, 612-302-3100

Fresh Energywww.fresh-energy.org, 651-726-7566

The Green Institutewww.greeninstitute.org, 612-278-7100

Sierra Club, Northstar Chapterwww.northstar.sierraclub.org, 612-659-9124

Friends of the Mississippi Riverwww.fmr.org/participate, 651-222-2193

Great River Greeningwww.greatrivergreening.org, 651-665-9500

Minnesota Environmental Partnershipwww.mepartnership.org