Delivered on Saturday, June 8th, to Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School’s Class of 2022 by special guest Judith Enck, Senior Fellow and Visiting Faculty member at Bennington College, where she teaches classes on plastic pollution and is the founder of Beyond Plastics
I am here today: first, to congratulate and honor you on this wonderful milestone in your life. And second, to encourage you to make room for citizen activism in your life. Not a little activism. Not just the basics like voting, and carpooling, and recycling. But A LOT of activism.
The amazing writer Mary Oliver poses this question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I have a suggested answer for you: I don’t know. Or, I don’t know – yet. You are all young and smart. You are kind. You don’t need to know right now what you want to be doing, but I am here today: first, to congratulate and honor you on this wonderful milestone in your life. And second, to encourage you to make room for citizen activism in your life. Not a little activism. Not just the basics like voting, and carpooling, and recycling. But A LOT of activism. Going all in. Full tilt. Losing sleep about it. Arguing about it. Working at it. Praying on it. Making it a central part of your wild and precious life. Alice Walker said, “Activism is the rent you pay for living on this planet.” And before you dismiss this audacious request of you, hear me out.
Martin asked me to share my life story with you, which will send all of you into a very, very deep and restful sleep, but let me highlight a few key things. Sometimes the things you do after graduation or in college affect your future far more than anything you learn in the classroom. For instance: who you pick as your friends. This is a small school. You were all kind of stuck with each other. In this next chapter in your life, your world will expand. Keep your old friends, but also actively seek out people who are kind, interesting, and relatively funny. And seek out people who are different from you. Avoid people with toxic personalities. Some of my dearest and closest friends are a group of six women I went to college with over 40 years ago. Whenever we get together, we spend most of our time laughing. Not ha-ha laughing, but gasping for breath laughing. Find your squad.
Second, get politically informed and involved. My freshman year in college, I attended a school activity fair and stopped at the table of the New York Public Interest Research Group, NYPIRG. I had never heard of it. NYPIRG is a student-run organization that hired staff to work with students on issues like environmental protection, funding for education, voting rights, and consumer protection. While in college, I did their legislative internship. It was hard because I was very shy. I was assigned to the Bottle Bill – that recycling law that requires a nickel deposit on soda and beer. It had not passed in ten years. Sent into the New York State legislature to pass it; I could not get it passed. So after graduating, I decided to stay in Albany to keep working on it.
Truth be told, I also wanted to stay in Albany because I had a big crush on a really cute guy – who I have now been married to for 40 years. Mark Dunlea is also an activist, which means we never run out of things to talk about. If nothing else, political activism is a great way to meet the love of your life.
I helped to pass the Bottle Bill into law. I got a job at Environmental Advocates, which paid $100 a week. Did I tell you the career path I am sketching out for you is filled with joy but very little money? Money is overrated. At age 23, I became Executive Director [of Environmental Advocates of NY], passed a whole bunch of new state environmental laws focusing on toxics, acid rain, protecting the Adirondacks…big stuff. All in my mid-20’s. I gave birth to our one, above average child, Reed. Reed is a journalist who just left Rolling Stone Magazine to work on immigrant rights.
While I was home on maternity leave, I started my town’s recycling program and served as the board president of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater because I really wanted to get toxic PCBs out of the Hudson River – the typical things one does on maternity leave.
While I was home on maternity leave, I started my town’s recycling program and served as the board president of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater because I really wanted to get toxic PCBs out of the Hudson River – the typical things one does on maternity leave. After that, I worked at NYPIRG for ten years doing community organizing. What’s the through line here? Hard work. Fun work. Get stuff done. Very low pay. Then came the Attorney General’s office as Environmental Policy Advisor to the Attorney General of New York. After that, I became Deputy Secretary for the Environment in the governor’s office, and then was appointed by President Obama to serve at the Environmental Protection Agency. I am proud to have worked directly for the first African American governor in the state, David Patterson, and the first African American President, Barack Obama. When you are appointed to your job by the President, you know far in advance when your last day on the job is. I had to decide what to do next.
I was invited to teach at Bennington College in Vermont. There, I established a new group, Beyond Plastics. Why plastics? After many years in state and federal government, I wanted to return to activism. I wanted to work on a gigantic issue that seemed almost unsolvable and that not enough people were working on. After all, my parents named me after Saint Jude, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes. Many things captured my attention about this cause – plastics. The US is the number one producer of plastic. In 2020, 367 million metric tons of plastics were made, and it is forecast to triple by 2050. Plastics is an environmental justice issue – it is made in low income communities of color, mostly in Louisiana and Texas – Cancer Alley. Plastic is an issue for our oceans – we are turning them into a landfill. Nine to 15 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, mostly littered from the land. By 2025, there will be one ton of plastic in the ocean for every three tons of fish. It’s a climate change issue – there are lots of greenhouse gases used to make it and dispose of it. It’s a health issue – there are microplastics in the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Plastics can even be found in some seafood, honey and beer. It’s in our bodies, found in our blood, lungs, and for the first time in human placenta. It’s a recycling issue. Plastic recycling is an abysmal failure – only 5 to 6 percent of plastics are recycled. And there are lots of alternatives to plastics. I thought, how can I not work on this issue?
So I rearranged my whole life and started this little nonprofit called Beyond Plastics. One reason why more people don’t work on this issue is because it involves taking on both the fossil fuel industry and the chemical industry at the same time. Who in the world does that, you may be thinking (hint: remember the St. Jude reference). Well…we are! At Beyond Plastics, we just hired our seventh staff person, and we actually think that seven people can take on the plastic industry! Watch us.
Plastics may not be your issue, but there are so many issues that need you!
We are constantly fundraising, constantly educating and organizing. Take my class on Zoom. Plastics may not be your issue, but there are so many issues that need you! Obviously there are issues of war and peace – Ukraine; economic and health equity – over one million [American] people dying of COVID; gun violence – all the souls killed in Buffalo were not yet buried before the horrible murders happened in Uvalde, Texas; reproductive health is at risk; the hearings on the January 6th coup attempt by Trump and his crowd…Explore the issues that grab your head and your heart and get working on them!
The Congressional elections are coming up this November – don’t just vote, register 25 people you know to vote. Then another 25. Then volunteer on a campaign for the candidate who is the best on climate issues. The climate can’t wait. Are you an artist? Created political art to inspire us. Are you a musician? Every effective social movement needs musical inspiration.
The Congressional elections are coming up this November – don’t just vote, register 25 people you know to vote. Then another 25. Then volunteer on a campaign for the candidate who is the best on climate issues. The climate can’t wait. Are you an artist? Created political art to inspire us. Are you a musician? Every effective social movement needs musical inspiration. Don’t just donate money to a group you like, host a fundraiser and raise them lots of money. Don’t just write a really good paper about climate change at school, turn that paper into a compelling letter to the editor for your local news outlet. Turn what you learned about climate change into a savvy new social media campaign targeting companies and elected officials. Get in the arena. There is a great line in the play Hamilton. Aaron Burr says this about Hamilton, “He changes the game and raises the stakes.” We need each other to do just that: change the game – raise the stakes.
Your education is here. Your community is here. The constant loving support of your family – all of this has equipped you to make a difference in the world. Make it a better place. If not you, then who?
About Judith Enck
Judith Enck is a Senior Fellow and Visiting Faculty member at Bennington College, where she teaches classes on plastic pollution and is the founder of Beyond Plastics. She also runs the Environmental Action Fellowship at the college. Beyond Plastics works with community leaders and policymakers to become informed and active on plastic pollution issues.
Judith was a Visiting Scholar at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University in the Hudson Valley. Appointed by President Obama, she served as the Regional Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overseeing environmental protection in NY, NJ, eight Indian Nations, Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands.
Judith previously served as Deputy Secretary for the Environment in the New York Governor’s Office and served as a Policy Advisor to the New York State Attorney General. She also served as the Executive Director of Environmental Advocates of New York. She is a past President of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, former Executive Director of the Non-Profit Resource Center and a designer of her town’s rural recycling program. She is a commentator on WAMC, a National Public Radio station, and a panelist on the “Roundtable” a public affairs radio show.