Most of us want to save the world, but not many of us actively try to do it. Well, one alumna certainly is, and she’s found her career’s calling as an advocate for environmental policy.
by Jennifer “Gigi” Kellett ’00
When I graduated from the College, I thought that I would take a couple of years off and then return to get an advanced degree in marine biology. It’s now been more than 10 years, and my role is not in a lab; instead, I discovered my voice as an advocate for environmental policy.
In college, I loved being in the field. I was thrilled to wear gaiters and slog through tidal marshes studying marine geology, herpetology and ecology. Then, in a class on man and the environment with biology professor Reid Wiseman, I realized how our decisions affect the habitats I was exploring. At that time, the expansion of Charleston’s port was being discussed, and I became concerned about how paving over harbor islands and dredging the river would have serious consequences for the health of the local ecosystem. As part of the campus Alliance for Planet Earth, I organized students to attend public hearings and town hall meetings on the subject. While we generated some action and attempted to make our voices heard, we ultimately did not have the impact we’d wanted. Our work started too late and, in hindsight, was unfocused. As college students, we were significantly outnumbered and outfunded. I came out of this experience committed to do better. I wanted to make sure our state, national and international government bodies took our environment and our human rights seriously.
After college, I went to work for the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, where I organized advocacy for environmental issues. Even though I didn’t even know that organizing was or could be a career when I took the position, it was my job to create a voice for people who otherwise felt they didn’t have one. So often people want to make a difference, but don’t know where to start or what to do. As an organizer, I help provide people with the skills and resources they need to make the changes they want to make. I’ve learned that it’s not apathy that keeps people from doing things; it’s a lack of being asked to take action.
Early on, I found myself walking the halls of the Maryland State House talking with senators, delegates and other policymakers about coal-fired power plants’ mercury pollution in local waterways and air pollution in our communities. I brought fishermen – whose livelihoods depend on clean water – to work side by side with parents of children suffering from asthma. We organized town hall meetings in communities across the state, helped residents talk directly with their legislators and generated media coverage in dozens of outlets. We began talking about the critical need for more energy efficiency and investments in renewable energy sources. Together, we created widespread public support, which eventually led to the passage of two of the country’s strongest energy efficiency and renewable energy laws.
These were huge victories for the environment and public health, but – shortly after the passage of the energy efficiency law – the state’s highest paid corporate lobbyist (representing a large home-improvement retail chain) secured a five-minute meeting with the governor, who vetoed the bill the next day. But we’d organized a powerful force in favor of the legislation, and we mobilized and empowered state legislators to be courageous and take a stand for people and the environment over the commercial interests of one corporation. The legislature then passed its first veto override in more than 15 years.
While this was a monumental victory, I learned the hard way an ugly truth behind policymaking: the economic and political power exerted by major corporations. I had to put my skills in organizing and advocacy to use in a different way, working to hold corporations directly accountable for their actions.
In 2004, I packed up and moved to Boston to work with Corporate Accountability International, where I developed a new campaign protecting the right to water. That’s when I met Sandeep Pandey, who was leading a national peoples’ movement to stop Coca-Cola and Pepsi from draining and contaminating water across India. I also traveled to Mexico and met Maria. She and other women from her small community in the mountains above Mexico City had been standing vigil for more than a year outside a water-treatment facility that was taking water from their indigenous lands and transporting it to Mexico City. The streams her family once easily accessed for their daily water needs were now behind a 12-foot-tall concrete fence with armed men standing guard at 100-yard intervals.
The challenge I immediately faced was how to bring these stories here to the U.S. How do the experiences in India or Mexico relate to those of us living here? In the U.S., bottled water was booming; people were changing the way they thought about water. In fact, the bottled water industry was impacting the very place I called home (in Boston) – pumping water from rural springs in Michigan and Maine, despite the communities’ objections. Bottled water corporations were taking water from our own municipal water systems and putting it in fancy plastic bottles and selling it back to us at thousands of times the cost.
As families elsewhere watched the privatization of their communities’ water and saw industries deplete and pollute local reservoirs, the bottled water industry was manufacturing demand for bottled water, something that already flowed from our taps. The environmental and societal costs of bottled water are tremendous, and we simply cannot afford not to have safe, clean water for people and our ecosystems. If water is a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder, it is no longer a human right nor a part of the ecological trust.
Our organization’s experience is that an active and engaged public here in this country can ultimately change the course of action globally. To ensure that people and communities around the world – and not a handful of corporations – have authority to make decisions about water, people across the U.S. would need to understand these issues. So, our organization launched Think Outside the Bottle, a campaign to shift the public climate here in the U.S. Skepticism greeted me as I had my first conversations with people on the streets. I organized challenges to see if people could actually tell the difference between tap water and bottled water. Well-heeled ladies who told us they only drank bottled water were shocked to find they preferred the sample from a Boston tap. We used this opportunity to educate about the fact that bottled water comes from the same place as our tap water, but it’s just more expensive – and much less regulated.
One of our first victories on the campaign was when Pepsi admitted that its bottled water brand Aquafina came from our public water systems. Today, I now hear people tell me that the bottled water industry has simply sold us a bill of goods. After just a few short years, we’ve jump-started a critical conversation about the future of the world’s water while putting the brakes on the expansion of the bottled water market. Of course, there is still much work to be done, but the public climate is shifting and spreading globally to provide the political support necessary to ensure a world where everyone has access to clean, safe water.
My focus has recently changed, and I’m now directing my organization’s international Challenging Big Tobacco campaign, which revolves around ensuring that the world’s first public health treaty, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, can meet its full lifesaving potential. I now work closely with a network of organizations and individuals from Colombia to Nigeria and from Kenya to India, mobilizing support for the treaty’s lifesaving measures. And every day, these individuals remind me why it is that I dedicated my career to organizing. The changes that I’ve helped secure, whether on energy, water or tobacco, are saving people’s lives and protecting the environment.
– Gigi Kellett ’00 studied biology at the College and is now the campaign director for Corporate Accountability International’s Challenging Big Tobacco campaign.