I know a number of women environmentalists in the West Michigan area from my work as a nonprofit environmental professional and consultant. These women have been at it for many years. They’re good at what they do, very important to the communities they serve, and deserve credit for their dedication. What better time than Women’s History Month to get to know and honor these women who work on behalf of the environment, for us and for future generations?
Kathy Evans has been an effective leader of the Muskegon Lake recovery effort for decades. At present, she is the environmental program manager for the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, coordinating numerous multi-million dollar projects aimed at restoring habitat and cleaning up pollution in Muskegon Lake.
Jamie Cross worked with me at the Lake Michigan Federation, now the Alliance for the Great Lakes (Greatlakes.org), where she manages the Adopt-a-Beach program. Out of an office in West Michigan, Jamie works with thousands of volunteers on cleanups throughout the Great Lakes. She is passionate about her work, and uses the data collected to advocate for better policies and cleaner beaches.
Cheryl Kallio and I also worked together at the Federation and after that on projects as part of her current position, Associate Director of Freshwater Future (Freshwaterfuture.org). Cheryl has a very distinct and positive way of approaching her work, which serves her well as she helps to provide strategic support to grassroots environmental groups throughout the Great Lakes and pushes for improved environmental policies.
I’ve known Julia Chambers, president of A Few Friends of the Environment of the World (Affew.org) in the Ludington area for so long, it is hard to recall when we first met. She recently retired from her job as an art teacher and has expanded her volunteer work of informing and involving her community on environmental issues. Right now, the group is working toward acquiring coastal dunes within a sand mining site near Ludington State Park.
My acquaintance with Alison Swan came about due to her passion for Lake Michigan dunes. We met when she and her partner were launching a fight to protect Saugatuck Dunes State Park from a proposed water intake and treatment facility, planned for the middle of the park. That was successfully held off and the organization (Concerned Citizens for Saugatuck Dunes State Park) was a founding member of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance (Saugatuckdunescoastalalliance.com), which works to preserve the unique character of the Saugatuck/Douglas area. The group has been focused mostly on keeping inappropriate development away from the mouth of the Kalamazoo River. Alison is also a talented and eloquent poet and writer.
According to Cheryl, women are key to the environmental movement. “Women absolutely have a special role to play in protecting the environment (and all social justice issues for that matter),” she says. “Throughout history, because of our gender, women experience power differently. Many, if not most women have had to navigate their way through life being in less powerful positions. Yes, women have engaged in direct confrontation when advocating for change. However, throughout history we have found ways to pressure for change against large, powerful, actors in ways other than direct confrontation, which at the core is peaceful change – an incredibly powerful niche women bring to the table.“ Cheryl references the recent Women’s March as a significant and peaceful event. “Often women leading change around the world are not covered in the press,” she notes. “We [women] have played a unique role and need to learn about it to capitalize it and continue to make strides in the environmental movement and other social justice issues.” Kathy sees this quality in women also. “Women pick up on when things are not fair or unjust. They are also good at bring people together, listening, and finding common ground,” she says.
Julia’s group has traditionally had more women members, although men do participate. “It seems like more women start environmental groups as they have an environmental problem that is right in their backyard,” she says, and recalls how she and co-founder Kate Love were concerned about “loved ones with cancer” and decided to start a group to educate on environmental issues.
These active and inspirational women encourage other women to get involved. Alison recommends in-person contact. “Please know that the most important work gets done via one-one interactions, on the phone and in person,” she says. “This does not come easily to everyone, but it is a skill that can be acquired.” Passion is important, according to Kathy. “Identify an issue you are passionate about,” she says, “and then you will follow through, because there will be obstacles.” Jamie suggests strength and an open mind are assets, and says, “Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe, but also learn to listen and try to understand all sides of an issue.” Cheryl urges women to appreciate their value. “Learn about women-based movements and what makes them powerful,” she says. “Capitalize on this in your work and never take for granted that women throughout history have sacrificed dearly to provide you the opportunities you have today.”
Advice for the future? According to Jamie, more is needed to support communities of color. “I believe the environmental community failed Flint,” she says, “Everyone should have an opportunity for clean available drinking water, no matter the costs, especially here in the Great Lakes.” Alison believes broader involvement is needed also. “In the immediate future, American ‘enviros’ need to stand with Standing Rock and Flint,” she says. “In the longer term, we need to get money out of politics. And most importantly of all, each one of us needs to get really familiar with the other-than-human living world that’s right outside our doors. Otherwise, it is going to go away.”
Tanya Cabala is a lifelong resident of the White Lake area in Muskegon County, and has been an environmental and community activist for over 25 years, working to restore White Lake and aiding efforts to protect the Great Lakes. She is also an elected city council member, freelance writer, and consultant. Readers are encouraged to contact her via www.tanyacabala.com.