More Women Leaders—For the Sake of the Earth
April 12, 2007
Kathleen Rogers, the clear, straight-talking, passionate head of the Earth Day Network (EDN), was emphatic: “No, there aren’t enough women in environmental leadership roles.” Citing our global climate change crisis, she remarked,“51% of the world’s perspective is missing.” Involving more women at every level, especially in leadership roles, will make a real difference, she stressed. “Women have a different way of looking at things.” To make her point, she referred to women, the gatherers, who had learned through the ages to anticipate and plan ahead while men hunted in spurts and thought about survival in the short term, or “quarterly,” as she put it. “Women are hard wired to think about the future. We are solution-focused, understanding children and strategy.” Climate change, she said, is long-term and intergenerational, something that women can deeply grasp. The network originated with the first Earth Day, April 22,1970. Today it encompasses 15,000 organizations in 177 countries and, in the United States, is active in virtually every community and school, large and small. Rogers, an environmental lawyer, became president of the EDN in 2001, just before 9/11. The quiet that followed gave her an opportunity to rethink the network’s goals and direction. She inherited a membership that was largely white with an average age of 51 to 55. It needed rebuilding and new life: environmentalism for the 21st Century. And she began shaping that—moving from an environmentalism equated with conservation of land and protection of endangered species to a concept of environment as “surroundings”—physical, social and cultural conditions affecting individuals and communities. With this simple idea, the EDN redefined its work to include not just the Muir Woods, coral reefs off the Florida coast, and depopulated species of birds and butterflies but also to embrace Watts, Detroit, inner and outer ring suburbs, and the virtual ghost towns of the Midwest, its people vanquished by migrating industries. Along with preservation, social and environmental justice became the network’s working principle. In the past, too many people of color and those with low incomes had, with good reason, easily dismissed environmentalism as the project of white privilege. By promoting environmental health and democracy, Rogers hoped to open the door to people of all ages and diverse incomes and ethnicity—including those most at risk due to an environmental racism that allows toxic substances, water shortages, and polluted air and water to concentrate in their backyards. She wanted to forge tools for these communities to wage the civic fight to clean up and protect their neighborhood surroundings. Two examples: the EDN chose public schools in Cincinnati, a city with one of the country’s worst environmental report cards, to launch its National Civics Project. Step one, educate the teachers and students—in Cincinnati, a high percentage are from minority families. Step two, activate them as a lobbying force. The students and teachers successfully persuaded community leaders and the school board to invest its $1 billion refurbishment budget to build and renovate schools according to healthy green LEED standards (U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). A second ambitious project is the 2007 Urban Environmental Report. In a two-year study, 72 American cities are ranked overall, according to size, and according to vulnerability using various data, much of it from government sources. The study considered more than 200 factors, including poverty, obesity, crime, environmental health related diseases like asthma, quality and variety of housing, parks and their availability, and school dropout rates. The level of detail provides community groups, local leaders, and government officials with supporting evidence to back change and/or to preserve their social and environmental good health. For this year’s Earth Day, global warming is the inevitable target. “It is not a celebration, but a time for civic action,” emphasized Rogers, who said the day “is a political event everywhere in the world, including here, but the press doesn’t cover it that way.” EDN events begin on Capitol Hill one week before. Along with allies from other environmental organizations and black and Latino community leaders, EDN forces will visit members of Congress to push for serious legislation to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Many faith communities are also allies. This year, Earth Day falls on a Sunday, and EDN has called for 12,007 sermons to be delivered that day focused on climate change and its meaning for those most vulnerable in the global community. Yet, after all is said and done, while we are in the midst of a growing environmental crisis, “there is no movement,” Rogers insists. “There is no anger on campuses,” citing the kind of emotion that mobilized students during the Vietnam War, some of which then catalyzed around environmental issues. “The country is doing nothing. Legislation is weak. The world is moving toward a middle ground, which won’t work,” she said. She does acknowledge, however, that at least the environmental activist group, Step It Up 2007, owes its success to young, committed, often campus-based organizers. Rogers puts her faith in the “51%” of the nation represented by women to begin to deal effectively with the most serious threat facing humankind, global warming. To that end, she organized a panel of environmental leaders for the coming weekend in Tucson at the AARP Womenvision Summit. But talk is cheap. Rogers wants us all to join her and walk the walk.