When my oldest daughter was 11 years old, she cried when a tree was cut
down in our northern Virginia neighborhood. I thought her empathy was
endearing, but perhaps I should have seen that her seed of passion was
the start of something huge. Since then, my daughter has become a full
time environmental activist, working and fighting for the trees and
people harmed by oil and gas pipelines. She teaches me what it means to
participate with passion and radical love, and I couldn’t be more
Early on in her activist days, I, a former helicopter mom, wanted to
understand her life that was such a departure from the more “standard”
careers her peers had followed. So I visited her as she fought pipelines
(the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the now deceased Atlantic Coast
Pipeline) in southwest Virginia. I was sleeping in a motel (no tents for
me, thank you!), learning about the history of the area and non-violent
direct action, and, perhaps most importantly, meeting her friends.
I met locals who had their land taken from them or had their wells gone
bad due to an attempt to lay a 42 inch pipe for natural gas through the
Appalachian mountains, crossing streams and threatening clean water in
an area with marginalized people. It was clear that these new pipelines,
and many others, do not benefit the people living here and will only
speed up the destruction of our already warming planet.
After one of my many weekend trips to visit southwest Virginia, I came
home to my comfortable life in Alexandria with the feeling that maybe I
should be a little bit more like my daughter.
To give myself some credit, I wasn’t completely ignorant before my
daughter started her activist work. I had become more politicized after
the election of Donald Trump, and saw that the problems of systemic
racism, environmental justice, and economic inequality are all
intertwined. It had been clear that we are not going in the right
direction. But what can I do now? What would my daughter do?
I know what she wouldn’t do. She wouldn’t sit around “seeing” problems
and talking about them. She would get out there, learn more, and get her
hands dirty. So I did too. And I haven’t stopped.
My primary co-climate protectors are a group called Third Act, composed
of people like me: Older folks who are mostly retired, have some extra
time, and want to do more than write postcards or show up at big
marches. The organization, started by Bill McKibben, focuses on trying
to stop banks from investing in new fossil fuel projects, as well as
increasing voter turnout. My gray-haired allies and I in the Virginia
chapter have organized protests in front of bank branches, hosted
non-violent direct action training, and collaborated with other
environmental organizations to share how older folks can contribute
their time, energy, and money to creating a better world.
The Third Act Virginia chapter (which also includes Maryland and DC) has
doctors, teachers, government workers, and artists. Some of us were
protesters from the Vietnam war days, and some have never held up a
protest sign in their life. However, we all know we need to do
everything we can to make sure that our planet is livable and everyone
can participate in our democracy. And we all know that we can make a
Some of even my most liberal friends think that my and my daughter’s
work is futile. They think that we’re all doomed, or that maybe things
will eventually get better on their own. My daughter, our activist
allies, and I don’t want to wait, and we certainly don’t think things
will improve without pressure. We know there is power in movements, and
we know that there is still hope if we act now. Erica Chenoweth, a
political scientist at Harvard University, has confirmed that civil
disobedience is the most powerful way of shaping world politics. John
Lewis calls it “good trouble,” and if I can learn to make good trouble,
even in my 50s, then you can too.
Go to thirdact.org to learn how you can get involved.