If not you, then who?

Lynn youth use their voices to champion storm drain improvements.

Last month I had the pleasure of representing Northeastern University Marine Science Center at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service event put on by Lynn Community Association.

On the drive in, I was listening to a segment on WGBH Boston on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, discussing the importance of face to face personal interactions and apolitical community activities. These efforts will foster community and capacity for social reform in today’s increasingly politically polarized society. This seemed fitting as I was on my way to celebrate Dr. King with civic, service, and education organizations (e.g. Lynn library, MSC outreach and Beach Sisters, Girl Scouts, YMCA, The Food Project) demonstrating their passions with service activities and information sharing.

MSC outreach focuses on bringing awareness of the local environment and relevant environmental issues directly into coastal communities. Our table included touch tanks of local marine organisms, a demonstration of the human impacts on watersheds, a recycling sorting game, an opportunity to design storm drain art, and a petition for a single-use plastic bag ban in Lynn, started by the 2018 peer leaders of the Beach Sisters program.

Plastic pollution and its prevention have been persistent themes in conservation over the past few years. One persistent source of this pollution is garbage entering waterways through various routes, including storm drains. Unfortunately, garbage that reaches the storm drain is not always removed from the waterway. Several cities in Massachusetts, including Lynn and Boston, have combined sewer overflow systems. In these systems, sewer and storm waters (i.e. runoff) are normally combined and both sent to water treatment facilities. However, during a heavy rainfall or snowmelt event, excess water may overwhelm the capacity of the system, and excess combined storm and sewer water, complete with garbage, toxic materials, and raw human waste, overflow directly into the ocean. Sometimes garbage and debris can overwhelm sewer drains during a severe weather event, and cause clogs that flood urban and residential areas. Even when storm drain catch basins are cleaned, garbage may enter urban waterways from improper disposal.

Last year, the outreach program got a small grant to work with local artists to decorate two storm drains in downtown Lynn to bring awareness to this issue. The artwork draws residents’ attention and reminds them that garbage thrown in the street goes directly to the ocean. To raise awareness of this effort and collect designs for future murals, the outreach program included an activity in our line-up asking for students to illustrate their ideas for storm drain murals. While we got several beautiful entries, one particular interaction stuck out to me.

A group of teens came up to the table intently, and after a quick introduction to our activities, one of the young women asked if I had heard of a method demonstrated by a town in Australia to collect garbage from sewer drains. This idea was new to me (though I’m a huge fan of Professor Trash Wheel, Captain Trash Wheel, and Mr. Trash Wheel from Baltimore, MD!). I was so moved by her concern and impressed that she sought a solution to bring to her city here in Lynn. She asked me who and where she could go to ask for this to happen. Of course, my first thought was for her to ask her local representatives, but aside from that, I’ll admit I was stumped!

Not a minute later, David Ellis, the Lynn Water and Sewer Commissioner, approached our table. He introduced himself to us, and I asked him to whom we could speak about this young lady’s concern and proposal. To my surprise – It’s him! So, I facilitated a discussion. As it turns out, the city discusses this issue each year, but budget and logistical concerns have left the issue unresolved, with no champion to move ideas forward. Cleaning storm drains is expensive and requires specialized training due to the presence of hazardous materials in the wastewater stream.

These two individuals came together on an issue important to them, in an apolitical place where I could help them connect. The young woman and her friends were heard, and Mr. Ellis even came back for a photo and our contact info so he could follow up.

This interaction reminded me of my undergrad ecology professor at Gettysburg College, Dr. John Commito. He challenged us to consider what environmental issues we would take on, and why they might be difficult. He asked us, if not you [to champion the cause], then who? I told this story to the three teens and their eyes lit up. They want to be agents of change in their communities. It’s important to me that they are empowered, but also understand how difficult it can be to negotiate for conservation efforts. I encouraged them to continue to use their voices, and expect to be told “no”, but to use that experience to return to the negotiating table with further support and alternatives. I am no civil rights scholar, just an ecologist interested in making connections between social and ecological systems. With that said, I feel like much of Dr. King’s spirit of seeking justice and positive change through community organizing and peaceful negotiation is applicable to environmental conservation. If you identify injustice in your community as these teens did, whether it’s civic, environmental or both, you need to start with a conversation. With continued discourse and negotiation, you can identify realistic and equitable solutions. It’s not easy to change people’s minds or behaviors, but the work is worthwhile.

I hope these teens discovered that progress can happen when you use your voice, and I’m so glad I could play even a small role in their efforts. I hope they will continue to champion positive change in their communities and continue to bring others into the conversation.

Next time you’re not sure who the right person is to champion an issue you care about, start with a simple question: If not you, then who?

Theresa Davenport is a Ph.D. candidate in the Marine and Environmental Sciences department at Northeastern University. She is examining the benefits of coastal habitat restoration and exploring how restoration efforts can enhance ecosystem services. Follow her on twitter! @tdavenport83

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