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Photo by Sunrise Cambridge

Expect direct organizing resurgence post-pandemic

Environmental activism has taken a backseat to the COVID-19 crisis. And although saving the planet is still in people’s top 10 list of issues—a victory for environmentalists in Greater Boston— environmentalism has been treated like a “second class citizen” over the past year, as activist Renée Scott put it in a recent interview.

Scott has lived in her Somerville home for 16 years with her husband and three kids. When she’s not studying for her master’s degree in public policy, Scott loves to garden. She founded Green & Open Somerville, an environmental organization, with her neighbor Tori Antonino.

“When you’re looking at someone needing a meal versus a park next door, no one is ever going to go for the park next door, and I don’t blame them,” Scott said. With every effort from local governments focused on mitigating the effects of COVID-19, some local groups lost hope on achieving environmental victories. But others utilized the pandemic to show the connections between environmentalism and social issues plaguing their municipalities.

Pre-pandemic, Scott says Somerville’s focus was on environmentally friendly building and zoning, not on natural green spaces. “Nature matters too—we could have the most sustainable buildings and all renewable energy, but if we don’t save our natural resources we’re still not going to survive as a planet,” she said. This is where the inspiration for the city of Somerville Native Planting Ordinance sprouted in 2018. The ordinance sets minimum native-planting requirements on all city-owned property. Scott says it is the first of its kind in the US.

According to the ordinance, a native plant is “a plant that is a part of the balance of nature that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem.” These plants are homes to pollinators and help reduce soil erosion, among other advantages. For three years, Scott and Antonino rallied to have the ordinance passed.

Ben Ewen-Campen, a Somerville city council member and avid birder, finally understood the importance of native plants while he was forced to enjoy nature from the comfort of his backyard during lockdown. One native plant he purchased was eaten overnight by bugs.

“When I called the people who owned the plant store they said ‘Congratulations!’” His native plant had served its purpose to hungry insects, and he finally understood why Scott and Antonino wanted his support. The Somerville City Council voted unanimously to approve the Native Planting Ordinance on Thursday, March 25, 2021.

The circumstances of the pandemic have made both the members of Green & Open Somerville and Ewen-Campen more in tune with how environmentalism relates to other social justice issues in Somerville, they say. Scott says there are basic rights that every human deserves: “the right to clean air, clean water, safe policing, fair justice system, healthcare, and a tree.” To Scott, these aren’t amenities, but intersectional issues that can be looked at alongside environmentalism to have a healthier community and planet.

Patricia Maher from Climate Action Brookline says her day job as a nurse practitioner solidified this philosophy for her as well.

“Someone working on the housing board called me because they are seeing the intersection between public health and housing. We’re seeing that if we unite, our efforts can be strengthened so that we can promote public health by promoting affordable housing and sustainable housing.” However, she says members of Climate Action Brookline have not created a specific plan to incorporate intersectionality into their activism and education.

But what really affected Maher was the sudden change from in-person meetings of her environmental group to online meetings. Although they have been able to continue their educational programs, Maher misses human interaction.

“I think activists by nature really depend upon each other to build ideas and bounce things off of each other,” she said. Some of her best and most impactful conversations have been before and after in-person Climate Action Brookline meetings before the pandemic, she said.

Esther Cull-Kahn, the coordinator of Sunrise Movement Cambridge, misses the sense of community as well. When Sunrise meetings moved online, Cull-Kahn said organizing was still achievable because the group already spends a lot of time calling councilors and making public statements to work with political powers and enact change.

“[It] is not the most exciting when you’re talking about environmentalism, and you’re cooped up in your room,” she says with a laugh. She longs for the days when she can protest and demonstrate without being afraid of contracting a virus. But she also misses the smaller human interaction that accompanies commuting to meetings or pulling weeds in community gardens.

“Everyone’s very drained from being on Zoom all the time. We want to take a break, and instead of being able to take a break, or get coffee before, or lunch after these events, you just turn off your computer and go do something else. It makes it much harder to connect with new people, to trust new people, to trust the people you’re working with.”

Now that COVID-19 restrictions are starting to be lifted and people are getting vaccinated, Cull-Kahn is excited to start implementing in-person, outdoor activities like outreach tables on the Cambridge Common and days dedicated to creating signs and posters.

Quinton Zondervan, a Cambridge city councilor who works closely with Sunrise and Green Cambridge, says he sees environmental advocacy undergoing a huge shift as communities recover from COVID-19. Not only has the pandemic emphasized public health and its connections to environmentalism, but it has highlighted food insecurity, the housing crisis, homelessness, racial justice, and economic justice.

He says post-pandemic activism will look different because environmentalists will have more clarity on how to tackle all of these issues at once after being forced to for the past year.

“How do we make sure people have housing, job, food, and opportunities to participate in the economy, and make sure we don’t further damage our environment?” he asked. This question fueled Zondervan to move forward with projects focused on intersectional activism and communal thinking.

Zondervan encourages citizens and environmental activists to think optimistically and to imagine Cambridge as an urban forest. Cambridge is focusing on its community gardens, as well as building affordable, environmentally friendly housing as the community eases out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If we change our mindset of living that way, we could have all the comfort of living in the city and all the pleasure of living in the forest. And we could share it with all of our neighbors.

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