Then and Now: Environmental Activists

Over the years, Minnesota Women’s Press has talked to many environmental advocates. A lot has changed since our first conversations with them — and a lot remains the same. From the perspective of a climate activist, how are we doing?

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Patty O’Keefe: From MN350 to Sierra Club

When Patty O’Keefe was interviewed in 2015, she was working at MN350, a climate justice organization, supporting students, faith leaders, and public employees in running fossil fuel divestment campaigns. “The goal of the divestment movement was/is to take away the social license of the fossil fuel industry to pollute with impunity,” O’Keefe said.

Today, O’Keefe works as an organizer at the Minnesota Sierra Club supporting communities in encouraging Xcel Energy to ditch fossil fuels and embrace a just transition to clean energy. “And by just we mean supporting more local and distributed energy, like community solar that prioritizes community wealth over corporate wealth,” she says.

O’Keefe says she has a mix of good and bad feelings regarding our current environmental state. “I feel frustration at the continued lack of political will to address the issue at the scale the science demands. Optimistic because in the last ten years I have seen a dramatic increase in public awareness, concern, and action being taken. And solidarity with racial and economic justice issues that are at the heart of the fight for climate justice,” she says.

In order for climate justice efforts to be successful, O’Keefe says, they need to be intersectional.

“I once heard that we are in the situation we are in because certain people, certain communities, and our planet as a whole are treated as disposable,” she says. “The exploitation of people, and particularly people of color and the poor, is directly connected to the exploitation of the planet. It is the same destructive mindset. That’s why it is not enough to change fossil fuel companies into clean energy companies and call it good. If we switch to renewables but the same racist and classist power dynamics are at play, then we will continue to harm each other and the natural world.

O’Keefe adds that we are at a point where we need both individual action and collective action to stop climate change. Individual actions are about finding ways to reduce personal impact on the environment — biking more, reducing plastic consumption, buying used, eating less meat. Collective action can look like volunteering or donating to an organization or progressive political campaign, attending marches and protests, supporting Indigenous land rights movements, or asking legislators to support climate justice.

“Sharing your individual and collective actions with family, friends, and on social media will help others take action, too,” she says.

It is easy to feel grief, fear, and hopelessness when it comes to climate change, O’Keefe says, but she maintains hope by practicing good self-care and taking actions that make change in her immediate community.

“The more I have done those things, the more hopeful I have become,” she says.


Amy Freeman: Boundary Waters

Amy and Dave Freeman during the Year in the Wilderness Expedition

When Amy Freeman was first interviewed by the Minnesota Women’s Press, she had just completed Paddle to D.C., a 2,000-mile journey by canoe to raise awareness about proposed sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“Since then, we spent a whole year in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the same cause. In both instances, we were supporting the work of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. That was 2015-2016,” she says. She wrote a book about the experience A Year in the Wilderness: Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters (Milkweed).

Now she and her husband Dave spend time in Ely, guiding dog sledding trips in the winter and canoe trips in the summer.

“We spent about a year sailing from Lake Superior to the Bahamas and then Nova Scotia. Like most people, we made a major pivot in 2020,” Freeman says. “Future sailing plans were put on hold. As schools shifted to virtual learning, we saw an increased demand for virtual school assemblies, which we had been offering through the educational nonprofit organization that Dave and I have run (Wilderness Classroom Organization) since 2007. We have been doing a lot of virtual assemblies drawing on our human powered expeditions in various places around the world.”

Regarding the current state of our global environment, Freeman says she feels a mix of optimism and overwhelm.

“We have a lot of work to do, but it is encouraging to see some progress. For example, the cause Dave and I have dedicated years to — protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from upstream sulfide-ore copper mining — is finally making progress,” she says. “Keep tabs on H.R. 2794, the Boundary Waters Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, introduced by Betty McCollum.”

Freeman says she wishes more people understood the significant role that wild lands play in combatting climate change. Each acre of terrestrial boreal forest, she says, stores an average of about 180 tons of carbon in its vegetation and soils, and soil carbon levels in wetlands are nearly double the level of those in terrestrial boreal forest.

The best way to learn about and teach others about the environment, Freeman says, is simply to go outside. “Get outside, and take young people with you,” she says. “I think it is incredibly important to instill a love of wild places in as many people as possible — especially young people. The more interactions people have with nature, the more respect they have for it.”


Kristel Porter: Climate Change

Kristel Porter (they/she) was interviewed by the Minnesota Women’s Press in 2020, which was not that long ago. But they were busy — kicking off their second year of the Power North Program and engaging residents in North Minneapolis about the Solstar Project — and we wanted to make contact again.
As executive director of MN Renewable Now, Porter is wrapping up this year’s Power North Program and has been able to transition 173 households to wind power, 33 households to community solar gardens, and connect 82 households with energy efficient audits and installations for their homes in North Minneapolis.

“We are also completing the applications for our Solstar program recipients and will be bulk buying the solar panels, materials, and supplies for 24 properties in North Minneapolis,” they say. “We are super excited to get these households solar arrays while increasing the value of their properties, saving them money, and lowering North Minneapolis’s carbon footprint by 150 metric tons of Co2 annually!”

Although Porter has seen a lot of progress made around Minneapolis, she says she is worried about our current state as a nation.

“We just suffered a pandemic, which drove people to fear reusable containers, the bulk section in our grocery stores, restaurants were forgiven for using styrofoam containers and were using much more due to no enforcement and the demand for carry-out food doubling,” they say. “Not just that, but since people were staying inside more, they were ordering more common household items online which required a lot more packaging. I also live in a community where the participation rate in recycling is low and the littering rate is high, so I could be a little biased.”

However, they say they feel hope in other ways. Because of the pandemic, Porter says we had an entire year without “black billowing clouds left behind by school buses, and more people getting outdoors and reconnecting with nature.”

“I was so excited to see the Climate Justice Movement I had been waiting for my entire life led by youth across our entire country,” Porter says. “Later, I was deeply saddened and dismayed to see it come to a screeching halt once those youth were separated and sent home prematurely due to a global pandemic. I think that the pandemic hindered the movement for environmental justice in many ways, yet offered some very positive pieces to it as well.”

For the first time in her adult life, Porter says she was given the opportunity to pause, think strategically, reflect on her own growth, and offer aid to other movements such as the Line 3 movement, tree planting initiatives, and collaborations with organizations doing similar work.

“Instead of throwing events and conferences, we went to work, making real change such as getting folks to switch where they sourced their energy, getting their homes updated to prepare for the high temperatures we are experiencing today, and getting actual solar panels installed onto the homes owned by families that would have otherwise never been able to afford them,” they say.

Though climate change once seemed like an intangible, signs of the climate crisis are all around us, Porter points out.

“Have you seen any mosquitos yet this year? I know it feels good, but think about the many animals that depend on that as a food source. Have you noticed fruit trees such as the mulberry trees ripen an entire month early? Have you noticed the lack of rain? More than 50 percent of the United States is experiencing anywhere between severe to exceptional drought, which is projected to have long term effects,” she says. “This is serious. Short term effects impact agriculture and grasslands, however long term effects will impact our ecology and hydrology. Which means that right here in Minnesota, we may see our landscape change indefinitely.”


Shalini Gupta: Ecological Justice

The last time Shalini Gupta (she/her) spoke to the Minnesota Women’s Pressshe was executive director of the environmental justice research and policy nonprofit the Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy. Now, she is an independent consultant and strategic advisor for integrating a racial and environmental justice lens into policies and strategy for philanthropy, individual donors, government agencies, integrative BIPOC artist-led projects, and grassroots community based organizations. She also is a commentator and writer of children’s books focused on ecological justice.

“The moment we are in around racial justice is shining light on multiple systems of oppression, including the pollution industrial complex that is harming communities of color and white working class communities across the country and here in Minnesota/Twin Cities,” she says. “There is much hope in this awakening of the repressive toxic policy structures [industrial zoning, permitting, land access, who does and does not have the right to have access to clean air and water] that we need to critically interrogate.

“Stopping extractive profit-only driven actions that extract land and people are linked and have never been tenable. I worry about my kids future, who will be in their late thirties in 2050. I worry about the relatives I have back in India, and the local and global sacrifice zones being created by not being serious about climate change and who is most impacted,” she says. “The urgency is great, an all-hands-on deck moment — where movements come together for real change.”

Gupta says she wishes more people recognized that solutions to our multiple societal woes [climate change, compromised water quality, stress, low wages, racial injustice] exist right now — not in the future.

“We must acknowledge and rectify the deep injustices to our Indigenous brothers and sisters, and the level of hurt to the land, to move forward. We must ensure the benefits of the green economy are grounded in those that have borne the disproportionate harm of pollution [largely BIPOC and white working class communities],” she says.

Gupta says the best way for people to become more aware of climate change and to connect with nature around them is to learn about the trees and animals nearest you.

She also recommends getting engaged to make sure candidates with an environmental and racial justice lens and a track record in community work are elected in November. Groups Gupta suggests donating to Minnesota-based environmental justice organizations like Community Members for Environmental Justice, Honor the Earth, Dream of Wild Health, the Urban Bird Collective.

“Healing, around multiple facets, is what’s needed — a consciousness of integrating intent, policy, investments, and action,” Gupta says.