FEATURE - June 2018
The Evolution of an Activist:
Dabbling in Volunteerism
by Sami Aaron
I spent years volunteering on one charitable project after another, as if I was trying on wigs to see which style suited me. And I just now am getting a handle on the right fit.
In college I became a Vista Volunteer, tutoring children from the urban core of my small university town.
Fast forward, I married, had two sweet sons and a professional career. Then I began again to feel the tug to make a difference, to break out of my comfortable life, and have an impact on others who weren’t so fortunate. So with my family, we all dabbled in volunteerism.
We helped out in surgery waiting rooms, served meals at a domestic violence shelter, and brought in games and holiday food at a juvenile detention facility.
Each activity felt empowering. I knew we were making a difference, but I always felt like I wanted to do more.
The Tug of Nature
The tug to make a difference got stronger as my love of gardening led me to an understanding of the impact we humans have on the health of the planet. I started volunteering with environmental groups—removing non-native species and restoring wetlands areas. I even hosted tree-planting parties for my birthdays!
I learned the direct relationship that degraded environments have, not just on air quality and clean water, but also on our communities.
We lived in suburban neighborhoods where most houses had the same landscaping of non-native plants with minimal beneficial habitat for our native bees, butterflies, or wildlife. I learned that if we want to have clean air to breathe and fresh water to drink and to water our crops, we need a healthy population of pollinators.
Like everything in the universe, it’s all connected. The decisions we make as we live our everyday lives have a wealth of trickle-down implications throughout the world around us.
So my activism took a turn.
Activism and Protest
I started attending protests over insecticide-ready crops, coal-fired power plants, and fossil fuel pipelines. I also confronted managers at local restaurants about their uses of plastic straws and Styrofoam.
I was angry and frustrated that no one else seemed to be aware of the negative impact of our consumer lifestyles. Pervasive apathy was breaking my heart.
And all the while, I tried to make sustainable decisions but felt stymied every step of the way. Either I couldn’t find eco-friendly products in my area, or my family wasn’t interested in doing the necessary research on them, or the “green” products were too expensive.
The Final Straw
My environmental activist’s grieving heart hit a feverish pitch in early 2017 the day a new bill, H.R. 861, was introduced in Congress to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In desperation, I took my grief out to nature. But not to a pristine forest. No, I went to a restored toxic waste site. One that the EPA is scheduled to monitor forever. It’s been redeveloped into a glorious demonstration garden for pollinators, a veritable bee and butterfly haven.
Years of frustration poured out of me, feeling like I was the only one who cared. I grieved for all the times friends and family rolled their eyes when I set the table with real plates and napkins when paper would have been so much easier.
I bawled in disbelief that our elected officials don’t realize that the air they breathe comes from healthy trees. Also without regulations and laws, the clean water they drink can be contaminated by oil spills and toxic waste from manufacturing processes.
It seemed so simple to me. In my desperate mind that day, it felt like all those years of my environmental activism, and that of so many others, hadn’t made any real difference.
A Nature Metaphor
In that moment, the old cliché came to mind, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
So I blew my nose, took a deep breath, and immersed myself in the winter scene around me: dead stalks of native grasses, wildflowers in dormancy, bare trees and the immense blue sky. I pondered what I had been doing, how I had been doing it, and what all had failed. Then I opened my mind and heart to visualize a different way of expressing what I knew to be true and important environmental teachings.
A powerful nature metaphor grabbed my attention!
Many of the dead wildflower stalks in the gardens around me housed overwintering native bees. The eggs of these bees had been laid by a female bee last fall. She hollowed out a small space in a stalk, laid an egg in the hole, added a dollop of pollen and honey to feed the larva, then sealed the cell, flew off and died.
Wow. What a metaphor. The bee did what she was compelled to do with no concept of the outcome or ability to witness it. She put her best effort into creating the perfect environment for her young, and that was it.
Could I do that? I pondered. Could I live comfortably, using real plates and napkins and refusing straws and Styrofoam, and just let that be enough? No guilt, anger, or wishing that everyone else got it?
Nope, that didn’t feel authentic.
I had this deep knowledge, and my heart told me that nature needed me to speak on her behalf.
So now I speak for the bee who needs winter wildflower stalks to lay her eggs. I invite others to learn about these garden concepts so they too can provide habitat for native bees and other pollinators.
And that feels right.
By teaching people what I know and speaking for nature from my heart, I finally have found a healthy, uplifting form of activism—the one that’s right for me.
What’s tugging at your heartstrings? I highly recommend taking it to nature and seeing what metaphors ring true for you.
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Sami Aaron is a Master Facilitator for The Nature Process®. She offers free programs on gardening for nature and is passionate about exploring the intrinsic relationship between humanity and the natural world. She is the founder of the nonprofit, "The Resilient Activist," because joyful and inspired activists are good for life. firstname.lastname@example.org.