Wangari Maathai Is My Sustainability Hero

by Jacqi Rose, Bard MBA ’15

Wangari Maathai was my kinda lady. When my teen sisters and their friends prattle on and on
about Miley Cyrus and how excited they are about the new Hunger Games movie, I can’t help but think ­ “Wow, I’m old.” Not because I dislike Miley or The Hunger Games ­ that song “Party in the USA” was super catchy! And I like dystopian sci­fi stories with teen female leads. I have the reaction that I do because I’m finally at the age where I see and want better role models for my sisters. Is Katniss the cat’s pajamas? Yup. But her life may be a little extreme for my sisters to mirror. Now that I’m grown up and have a more broad perspective, I want to teach them to look up to women like Wangari Maathai.

Wangari was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. Not just the first woman in her family, or the first in her village, but the first woman in East and Central Africa. Whoa. She became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi in 1976 (yes, she was only 36), and an associate professor for the same department a year later. Again ­ the first woman to do both. Wangari Maathai was an active member of the National Council of Women in Kenya from 1976 to 1987. Ever the overachiever, she was the chairwoman for the last six years of her membership. While serving on this council, she also started to talk to people about community­based tree planting. This was the beginning of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), the focus of which is to fight poverty and to conserve the environment through tree planting. As a student in the field of Sustainability, I give a ton of credit to trees. Our mutual love of trees is the simplest explanation for why Wangari Maathai is my Sustainability Hero, but the list of reasons never really ends.

Wangari-Maathai-by-Martin-Rowe200My first introduction to Dr. Maathai was when I took over a small Shaklee distributorship from my grandfather when he passed away. A few years after Wangari won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize (yes, she has one of those too), the Shaklee Corporation teamed up with her for their “A Million Trees, A Million Dreams” campaign. Shaklee donated $100,000 to the Green Belt Movement for tree planting, and encouraged their members to plant trees all over the US and Canada.

“Shaklee led the way in achieving carbon neutrality in 2000 and has mobilized its networks to plant a million trees for the planet, which is not only a great achievement, but an inspiration to all of us ­ especially in the corporate sector.” ­ Dr. Wangari Maathai

In 2009, Dr. Maathai joined the CEO of Shaklee, Roger Barnett, to plant their one millionth tree. And I had a new role model.

I want my sisters to know about Dr. Maathai not just because I want them to plant trees and win Nobel Peace Prizes. I need them to understand that the world is not all lollipops, rainbows and One Direction ­ and when life gets hard, it’s important to fight. Dr. Wangari Maathai stood up for what she believed in and fought with determination and grace. The title of her Memoir, Unbowed, is quite fitting. There were times when she was beaten, jailed and threatened with death. In 1998 she was trying to save protected land in Nairobi and the consequences involved henchmen, stones, whips and clubs. Yet Wangari Maathai remained… Unbowed.

I encourage everyone to dig deeper into the life of Dr. Wangari Maathai. Her life was too rich to do justice in a blog post. Read her books (if you buy Unbowed from a Shaklee distributor, Shaklee will plant 5 more trees!), watch the Documentary “Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai”, volunteer for the Green Belt Movement, I don’t know… maybe plant a tree! Most importantly, tell the young girls in your life who Wangari was and what she stood for ­ we could all use a good role model. The planet lost a hero in September of 2011, but her mission and passion will continue to inspire.

Jacqi Rose is an MBA in Sustainability Student at Bard College, works for Hudson Solar, and is the founder of the Wild Rose Natural Health Center. Talk to me!: [email protected]

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