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  • Writer's pictureKevin O'Keefe

I will be a hummingbird

Abby Mnookin (mah-New-kin) arrives breathless for our interview. She’s a climate activist and organizer for Mother UP! (an offshoot of 350VT). Sometime in our conversation I ask her if she ever feels overwhelmed when she looks at the struggle of what she is fighting against. According to her, it’s the three-headed monster of the Western Hemisphere: Patriarchy, Capitalism and Colonialism.

She tells me a story she heard from Wangari Maathai - the founder of the Green Belt Movement and winner of the 2004 Noble Peace Prize. There’s a huge forest fire in Africa and all the large animals in the forest are terrified and fall into despair and paralysis. It’s so big, so hot, and they can’t run away or figure out a way to put out the blaze. All the elephants and antelope, owls and jackrabbits, even the lions and baboons—all frozen in terror, except for the hummingbird who flies as fast as she can from the forest to the river and returns with her small beak full of water to douse the fire.

The animals say, “You? You’re tiny. You’re just a hummingbird. You can’t make a difference.”

The hummingbird replies, “Drop by drop at least I can do my part. I’m not going to just sit and watch my home burn. I’m doing the best I can.”

You may have seen Abby zipping around Brattleboro at the helm of her Bike Friday (haul-a-day) electric cargo bike as she drops her kids (April, 3 and Lucy, 7) off at school. In a little over two years she has put thirty-five hundred miles on that vehicle.

Abby arrived in my office for our interview fashionably dressed, accessorized with oval wooden earrings, sun glasses that reminded me of Audrey Hepburn, and a thin gold nose ring. In a word she looked hip and younger than her forty-three years. Must be all that bike riding.

She folds herself into an armchair and lays down her truth: “Climate change is here, it’s real, it’s happening now. But the difference between 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 or 3 is very high. People say, ‘What does it matter what Brattleboro does in the scheme of climate change?’ But there are very real impacts that we can have. During Hurricane Irene we saw how the poorest were unjustly affected more deeply. People still haven’t recovered. No one can avoid or pay their way out of it climate crisis, but the impacts are disproportionate to the marginalized communities — island nations, the poor, young people, women and people of color.” It’s obvious that the cause of justice is central to her work in Mother Up!

Mother Up! got it’s name from Sun Dance Chief Rueben George who was told to “Warrior Up” by his mother just before his work opposing Kinder Morgans’ Keystone XL pipeline. Abby expands on this principle and mentions all of the contexts of the word mother, as a verb—this belief that all people and all parents need to mother the earth, to protect what they love and we’re not exclusive to those identifying as mothers; fathers, non-binary, families and single people, we all have to do our part.”

Maybe it’s the caffeine, but I have trouble keeping up with Abby’s quick-fired thoughts, even as she offers up this perspective: “All these issues - #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Climate justice, Immigrants rights, the atrocities at the border, Standing Rock, all these crises, have their roots in the same soil of capitalism, colonialism and the patriarchy. Each time there is something to rally around those intersections feel even more pronounced. It’s all the same. We can’t strive for liberation or justice in one without striving for them all together.” Her job at Mother Up may be part-time but her passion and commitment is full-time.

Abby came to Brattleboro back in 2002 to teach high school biology at the Putney School. She and her partner Laura met in Antioch Graduate School where they both got their masters in education.

Growing up in suburban Boston her first exposure to transformative nature experiences were on summer camping trips in Acadia National Park. “Those trips highlighted the disconnect between my suburban life and nature.”

Her first protest was for Women’s Reproductive rights in Washington DC in 1993. Her mom joined her and some high school friends as a chaperone and they met up with her grandmother in DC. The takeaway was the power of three generations voicing their demands. Still Abby wouldn’t say activism runs in the family.

Recently 350VT, 350NH, and the Climate Disobedience Alliance came together in an action called Bucket by Bucket outside the coal-fired Merrimack Station power plant in Bow, NH. The plan was to trespass on company land and symbolically attempt to empty a warehouse-sized pile of coal.

Five different local, state and federal authorities met the protesters by foot, four-wheeled vehicles, in marked and unmarked cars, boat, and a helicopter. Sixty-nine people were arrested. Abby was one of them. “Our intention was to build unity and power, shift our relationship to risk, and to make a symbolic statement that we can’t be burning coal from PA, WV and Korea.” It was her first act of civil disobedience, her first arrest and as she says, “It was time to put my body on the line.”

I press Abby for a lightbulb moment, one that changed her, and she struggles to recall one, then she says, “I was able to travel to Standing Rock in November of 2016. That was a pivotal moment for me that brought a lot of issues to light and put all of this together. For the indigenous leaders and their communities the proposed construction of the XL pipeline was not a new issue. It was a continuation of a 500-year history of broken treaties and stolen land as a way to wipe out the indigenous way of life. While there I saw the contrast so clearly between this peaceful resistance camp and the militarized police presence literally surrounding us. The contrast was so stark and so clear. That made a big impact on me about how I wanted to organize and who I wanted to align myself with.”

The Mother Up! website tells us: “For many parents, our days are filled with putting food on the table, wrestling limbs into snow gear and checking in on school work. Often our busy lives prevent us from taking a leading role on the larger issues at play in the world in which we are raising our children. Many parents share a profound sense of despair in the face of climate change, yet feel powerless to act. By building ‘Mother Up!: Families Rise Up for Climate Action,’ we at 350VT are engaging parents to take action in both their own communities and those most affected by the fossil fuel industry.” They meet on the fourth Monday of every month and provide child care and a meal for anyone wanting to connect to climate activism.

As she speaks Abby looks straight ahead, as if seeing her thoughts appear on the horizon, “Growing connections with each other and with the earth in whatever ways we can do that is a solution. And that’s a big part of what Mother Up! is just growing connections with each other so that we don’t feel so isolated as parents and families and extending that connection out.”

Her blue-green eyes brighten when she talks about exposing kids to a greater nature connection. I ask how she avoids burn-out, grief, apathy, resignation, paralysis? “Yes, nature connection is an antidote. I try to keep organizing part-time so that I have time for nature connection and my family.”

I ask about role models. She singles out Joanna Macy who says, “Taking action is a way of being hopeful.” When looking at the state of the world today and the myriad of issues that confront us it is natural to feel despair and overwhelm. Abby says, “I want to figure out how to bring more joy into the movements. And I still want to be a hummingbird.”


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