Last summer, I landed my first internship with a local environmental organization called Citizens for East Shore Parks. Its main focus was on open space preservation and habitat restoration in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m not sure what drove me to intern there, but perhaps it was a combination of summer ennui and latent sympathy for the environment.
At first, it was hard to see any connection between the work I did in the office and the environment. I started off mailing letters, ordering supplies, and updating a contact database. After a few weeks, I was asked to attend city council meetings and write new-sletter articles. In the process, I learned a lot about local environmental issues in my own city of Richmond and the everyday people involved in them.
First, there was the Zeneca Superfund Site, one of the most toxic locations in the state of California. A century of chemical pollution and a botched cleanup attempt left many locals with severe and in some cases terminal health problems. I met Sherry Padgett, who, after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, became a staunch advocate of environmental restoration and human safety standards on the site. She and other citizens led the way when government regulatory agencies and private contractors were too slow to respond.
And then there was the Richmond General Plan, which would determine municipal land use options for the next 30 years. We worked to convince the city of Richmond to adopt a plan that would preserve open space and improve public access to the shoreline. One of our key allies was Whitney Dotson, an environmentalist who dedicated his life to preserving marshland and staving off development of the shoreline. He taught people about the environmental, social, and psychological benefits of open space and how it is a vital part of our natural heritage.
There were many other issues besides these, but I could not mention all of them here. What struck me was the number of things I took for granted – whether it be a clear bay, clean air, or spacious parks – that were the result of someone else’s commitment to environmental and social justice. Many times I would have been discouraged in my own efforts to protect the environment, were it not for the strong precedence of ordinary citizens creating extraordinary change.
Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen.”
I believe that political activism is necessary for the well-being of society. Whether it’s serving in public office, making a well-informed vote, or simply interning with a non-profit organization, people can be powerful agents of positive change. As members of a free society, each and every one of us should take full advantage of the opportunities we have to make a difference in our local communities and beyond.