Living proof that civic engagement should start when we’re young

I was searching in my email inbox for an email from the Greater London Authority and had typed “GLA” in the search box. As I dug further and further back through my emails, I came across a bunch of emails about a different GLA in my life–the Great Lakes Aquarium.

If you don’t know my history, I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota. I’ve always attributed my environmentalism to my childhood there. Furthermore, my love of water comes not only from having lived most of my childhood on the shores of the best lake in the world (I mean, it’s even in its name…Lake Superior), but also my time involved with the Lake Superior Center and its later incarnate, the Great Lakes Aquarium.

I attribute my progressive political-mindedness to Duluth, too. It mainly came from my parents (my dad in particular), but Duluth is quite a progressive political city, as well. My earliest memories of political involvement were in Duluth.

In the Fourth Grade, my school, St. Michael’s School, was growing and trying to move into a larger school building. Another school only three blocks away had moved out if its school building and the city was trying to decide what to do with the building. I remember writing to my local city councillor (I still remember the notebook, a legal pad in a cover from a drug company that my dad had given me…and writing drafts of it out on the playground across from the old school building) to argue that the neighborhood didn’t need more housing (as one of the options for the building was to convert it into condos), but that my school needed the building more. In hindsight, I’m not sure how sound my argument was from a planning perspective, but I remember feeling pride when my school eventually moved into that building.

But the early memory of mine that prompted me to write this post was a mix of both political activism and environmentalism. It was Eighth Grade at Holy Rosary and we had done field trips and class projects on limnology in collaboration with the Lake Superior Center, an environmental learning lab that if I recall was funded through University of Minnesota Extension. The Center was trying to get the funding for a new building, which would host new classrooms and laboratories for their education work, but also be a revenue-generating public aquarium. There was debate in the city council about how to fund it and the staff asked my teacher if she could speak in front of city council in support. Somehow (I don’t know, did I volunteer?), I and a few classmates ended up going and making speeches in front of city council on their behalf, as well. Eventually, the city did help fund the construction of the Great Lakes Aquarium and I ended up spending three years volunteering and another year on staff there through high school, thus launching my career in water. (We’ll ignore the bit about the construction cost overruns and financial problems at the aquarium a few years later).

So, one of the GLA emails I came across was a 2014 exchange between me and my Eighth Grade science teacher. I had come across a local magazine, The Woman Today, on a trip to Duluth that had a cover story featuring her work as a science teacher (sadly, they no longer have online archives back to 2011 or I’d link the article). It was a great article and she was one of a string of very influential teachers who helped shape who I am today, so I emailed her to tell her that. Her response back was absolutely lovely.

I often tell people one of my most favorite teacher moments is when [A.S.] asked me to speak at the city council meeting that was deciding if they would support the funding of the Great Lakes Aquarium. I asked [him] if I could bring students because they really have the best voice in the matter. […] I had you each have a written speech. I still have a copy of those speeches in a binder, see a photo of yours […] attached.  After we talked we knew we may have persuaded the city council, made a difference. I remember it being so awesome when we were driving away and we felt so good about what we said..  We were all so excited. If I were to say… That moment is first as my best teacher moment. Second was when one of my students was called and invited [sic] to meet President Obama and present at the first White House Science Fair was. So I very much remember you. [names removed]

Not only did she remember me (I wasn’t sure she would…it had been 17 years and she’d taught so many students in that time), but she said that those city council speeches were one of her best teaching memories. AND, she still had a copy of my speech!

So, here you have it, an early example of my love for political engagement, environment and urbanism from about 20 years ago.


As you can see, I was skeptical of money and lack of government investment even then.


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