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Sarasota mini-summit honors environmental leaders

Written by on Thursday, November 2, 2023

As green organizations are facing political headwinds, they seek more cooperation.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Nov. 1, 2023

Host: The organizers called it an appreciation day for environmental leaders, but the Saturday morning event in Sarasota turned out to be more of an organizing day.  It was a rare opportunity to see green leaders interact in public, and for environmental activists to cross over into related issues. This search for cooperation is happening on the backdrop of climate change, a wave of suburban sprawl, cuts to wetland protection, and local politicians attacking environmental organizations as “Soros-funded” or “Communist-inspired”. WSLR News Director Johannes Werner had a chance to listen and absorb.

Johannes Werner: At the event this weekend, organized by the Green Team of the Unitarian Universalists in Sarasota – and sponsored by WSLR, among others – one of the panelists was an MBA who heads a foundation that spends hundreds of millions of dollars to set aside land for conservation. There was a wetlands geographer and highly organized grassroots mobilizer heading an effort to hold local governments accountable for water pollution. There was a biologist who started a group that plants microforests in cities and suburbs; a Renaissance woman who started a group that promotes composting; and the vivacious “shark lady”, with a masters in – yes that exists – elasmobranch ecology and evolution, who heads a non-profit that gets minority and low-income children in touch with the sea and marine life.

The five panelists represented the Conservation Foundation, SURF, MISS, Sunshine Community Compost, and Suncoast Waterkeeper. Photo: J. Werner

It all ties together, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are natural-born partners. In fact, Charles Reith, founder of Southeast Urban Reforesters (SURF), pointed out the stark differences between the leaders and organizations. He began talking about the Conservation Foundation, which handles a large number of land deals.

Charles Reith: In juxtaposition here, there are opposites, but both are working toward the same goal. The Conservation Foundation is disciplined, regimented, rooted in history, and so important to our community. SURF is totally improvisational right now. We came together as a bunch of people wanting to plant trees, evolving our science, and so we got Miyawaki permaculture that is our signature scientific combination.

JW: You could sense the potential for competition when the leaders were vying for the attention and time of the friendly activist crowd of 89 in the room. Dr. Abbey Tyrna’s appeal to help Suncoast Waterkeeper with monitoring local water quality could easily mean a volunteer lost for another organization.

And then there are political tensions. Corporate donations and working closely with the Florida state government, which has yet to fully recognize climate change, has created mistrust and misgivings among environmentalists. An audience question about donations from phosphate miner Mosaic reflected that, and it revealed different approaches. Christine Johnson, CEO of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, is OK with Mosaic money.

Christine Johnson: So the money that we used to purchase the 150-acre Robinson Preserve came from Mosaic. The reason we did it is because we needed to do it like this, because the landowner, the Robinson family, wanted to sell by 12-31, for tax reasons. So why do we do that? Because we have our own standard that says we’re not going to be anyone’s puppet. We’re not going to ever be held accountable to not talk about them. So just like other grant funding organizations, they want to give us money to do our mission. You will do it but not with any strings attached.

JW: In contrast, Suncoast Waterkeeper does not accept Mosaic donations, Abbey Tyrna said.

And then there’s a lot of what unites all these groups. The intent of the event was – obviously – cooperation. Mary Anne Bowie, head of the Unitarians’ Green Team, put it this way:

Mary Anne Bowie: Part was for each organization to understand that it is being led by phenomenal leaders, and that two environmental leaders working together could accomplish more than one environmental leader, and three could accomplish even more. And the 60-plus environmental leaders that we had there could accomplish a great deal more. So it was really about collaboration, partnership, communication, about sharing their passions and sharing their ideals. And really together, all of us are one in our desire to save the earth.

JW: Bowie encouraged organizers to start with simple steps. Some of the organizations were difficult to find, for starters.

MAB: We are staying in silos. One of the things that was most frustrating for the planning team, was that most of the websites did not have a human being behind them that we could contact. There was no phone number. There was no mailing address. There was no email address. What there was, was kind of one of those dark holes where you could you could hit a button, and then you were able to send your information to that person, whoever that person was, but that person, that environmental organizer might not get back to you. So my Number One message to the people there was, if you want to have volunteers, if you want to have collaboration, you have to put contact information on your website, a mailing address, a phone number and an email to a real person. So I found out that apparently there is a website where they have volunteer opportunities listed. But I wasn’t able to get the actual information about where that is. So there is some kind of efforts going on to get volunteers connected. But the environmental leaders are working by themselves.

JW: And then there’s the element of organizing people.

MAB: The environmental leaders are leaders, and as leaders, they really need to recognize that who they are leading is people. They have to be comfortable leading people, if they want to save the earth. Of course, that kind of brings them to another level of leadership. And where do we need leaders right now? We need leaders right now to run for office, and maybe these leaders would never have thought of that. But it is something they they could think of.

JW: A somewhat tangible outcome came at the roundtables after lunch. People picked up leads about eating local and composting, others got educated about setting aside land for preservation and the legal and financial mechanisms behind it.

And more tangible outcome may be ahead, as the organizers are pondering to make the Environmental Leaders Appreciation Day an annual event.

This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR.


WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.