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Why the green mothers movement matters

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When environmentalism becomes personal, the amount that can be accomplished is unlimited. (Courtesy photo)

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San Francisco is friggin’ beautiful. Obviously, there are the spectacular views from Lands End and the Presidio on a clear day. But I even love Ocean Beach on a cold, rainy day. The waves thunder and the wind blows sea foam across the sand. It looks like snow.

I wonder whether our beautiful city is the inspiration behind many San Franciscans’ environmental leadership. Do we care about clean air, clean water, animals and climate change because protecting our home is more than political — it’s personal?

This week, I want to praise a powerful force in the environmental movement: mothers. San Francisco is blessed with many tenacious women fighting for toxic-free communities, quality environmental education and a healthy world. But these mothers are more than activists; they’re examples of what can be accomplished when environmentalism becomes personal.

Jill Fehrenbacher, founder of the environmentally focused website inhabitat.com, has always cared about the environment. But after having her sons, her commitment became more personal.

“I can really see the specific problems now and have much more anxiety about my children, their health and the world they’re going to inherit,” she told me. When she saw The City planned to spray dangerous pesticides in Glen Canyon Park, her anxiety turned to action. “To find out about glyphosate spraying where my son holds his preschool was shocking and terrifying.”

Fehrenbacher put together a petition to ban the pesticide and circulated it on Nextdoor and at her sons’ school. In two weeks, she collected 10,000 signatures. (The petition now has more than 12,000 signatures.) She also wrote articles and spoke in front of the San Francisco Commission on the Environment. While the commission did not completely ban glyphosate, it did vote to limit its use.

Lisa Hoyos is on the Environment Commission and heard Fehrenbacher speak. She is one of the founders of Climate Parents, an all-inclusive, national organization for anyone concerned about the climate our children are inheriting. Like Fehrenbacher, having her sons made environmental hazards more visceral.

“Becoming a parent is like signing a 90-year contract with your child’s future,” Hoyos told me. “Working for climate and clean energy solutions is now part of a parent’s job description.”

Hoyos’s organization has engaged thousands of parents across the country in the fight against dirty fossil fuels and for clean energy. Last year, Climate Parents successfully campaigned to get proper climate science taught in West Virginia and Wyoming and motivated influential leaders, like Illinois congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, to take climate action on behalf of their kids.

The dedicated drive of mothers like Fehrenbacher and Hoyos has raised awareness and shifted policies for a healthier environment. But people who don’t have kids can also feel a personal drive to fight for a cleaner world.

As I was looking for mothers to interview, I came across Loni Russell, the California field manager at Moms Clean Air Force. The group enables parents — 2,000 in San Francisco and 725,000 nationwide — to engage in easy, online “naptime activism” for healthy air. Although Russell is not yet a mother, cleaning up toxics and pollution is a very personal matter.

“When my mom came here from the Philippines, she was poor and had to work difficult jobs,” Russell told me. “She exposed herself to toxics and in her 40s got very sick with a rare form of cancer. She did everything she could to protect me and my brother, and I feel very connected to that mother love.”

Russell’s admission is a powerful reminder that you don’t have to be a mother to love like a mother. Anyone who loves and wants to protect their family, their friends, their home, winter walks on Ocean Beach and local Dungeness crab can harness the same tenacity that inspires mothers to fight. Anyone can make environmentalism a personal cause.

Can you imagine how much healthier our planet could be if more people simply loved it?

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.

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