Letting the Work Ripple Out - a Conversation with Katie Wolf
During our recent conversation, Katie Wolf and I talked about shared experiences - we both lived in Kentucky much earlier in our lives, we’re both transplants to the Great Lakes Basin, and we both love living here.
“I feel like (the Lakes) pull me in," Wolf, the new Executive Director of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey, MI, said. “I find every day, and sometimes every hour on the Great Lakes, is a whole new experience. It's just a constant change. And, you see all the sunrises and sunset photos, and yet, when you're in that moment, it is very much to me a spiritual experience. I find myself, just in my head, naturally saying, ‘Thank God.’ I mean, there's that beauty in Michigan. It's just something bigger than you can really even describe. And I think the Lakes are part of that.”
The fading light over Lake Michigan (photo by Dan Robinson)
‘Do Unto Those Downstream…”
For me, spirituality is participatory. combining love, belief, and action, especially action with others. For Wolf, taking action and helping others act have always been a part of her work. So, I wasn’t surprised that a lot of our conversation was not only about our shared love of the Great Lakes, but also about how we and others can care for the waters, lands, and life of the Great Lakes Basin.
From early on, concern for ecosystems was a part of her life. “I was brought up really to respect nature,” she said, “to always be thinking of how you care for things. As they say, ‘Don't leave anything but your footprints behind.’ That was very much a strong ethic.”
That’s an ethic that we both agreed needs to be emphasized in the Basin. “I have a dear friend who says as much as people talk about how much they love the Great Lakes,” Wolf continued, “in reality, we don't always treat them so well. We don't always think about those people who live downstream from us.”
With both of us having lived in Kentucky, I replied that what she said reminded me of the words of Kentuckian, writer, farmer, and activist Wendell Berry: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
“Bloom Where You’re Planted”
Engaging others in caring for our shared ecosystems has always been a part of Wolf's work. She began her career with the Kentucky Dept. of Environmental Protection’s Division of Water, where she developed an internationally recognized citizen monitoring program called Water Watch. After moving to Michigan to coordinate the World Conference on Large Lakes on Mackinac Island, she directed the Michigan Governor’s Environmental Youth Awards and served as public participation consultant for the Great Lakes Water and Resources Planning Commission. Just before starting her new position in Petoskey, she served as the Education, Community and Outreach coordinator for the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary on Lake Huron and as the liaison to the Friends of the Thunder Bay Sanctuary.
Whether it's supporting citizen scientists, encouraging youth, or working with volunteers, she has focused a lot of her effort on spreading the responsibility - and the satisfaction - of taking care of the world we all live in. “I think the more you can get people out in nature and spending time with it, in particular in a way where they're feeling like they're improving it, I think it changes their behavior,” Wolf said. “From then on, you know, once you have that exposure of doing something good for nature, it's a little bit of a paradigm shift, if you haven't done that before."
At Thunder Bay, “we had a film festival, and we'd see some of these films that sometimes were really tough to watch. It'd be about what plastics are doing to the ocean and Great Lakes life,” she added. “But I would have people say, ‘Wow, you know, I will never be the same after watching that. It's completely changed my thought process.’ And that, to me, is (the) importance of education and making connections, and making those connections locally for people to see that impact, right here in their own backyard, so to speak. There are problems; there are significant problems. And all you have to do is start right there. If you notice, they say bloom where you're planted. I think that that can make a huge difference.”
The Ones Who Have to Do It
Some people feel the responsibility to act more heavily than others. In talking about her work with young people, Wolf said, “I think they are our future, but they're also our present. And I've seen that with the students that we've worked with. The part that's tough is when students do things like beach cleanups or curbside cleanup type activities, and then they go back a couple more weeks, and they see it's all back again. And that gets very, very frustrating for them.”
She added, “Our youth have been getting more involved in public policy initiatives as well. And the level of frustration by that process has been very discouraging for them. So I worry about the weight that puts on our young people's shoulders when they care so passionately and they don't see adults responding… They understand that they carry a lot of responsibility because if anything's going to change, I think a lot of times they feel like they're the ones who are going to have to do it.”
In talking about taking action, Wolf sang the praises of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council’s staff, saying that they do great work not only in the field, but also with local governments and residents. The Council’s goal, she said, is to “help people communicate with each other and find that place in the center, where we can do good work to protect the watershed, and help people understand why that's important.”
And people have responded. The Council works with 300 volunteers on various projects. “I've come full circle,” Wolf said. “If you're familiar with the Watershed Council, we do a lot of in-stream monitoring and citizen science. So, I started out in that arena, and now I'm back in that arena. And I'm thrilled because I've always really liked to have a good balance of being out in the field, and then… I have the opportunity to mentor younger people, and I've really enjoyed that.”
“Really Good Work That Day”
Youth, citizen scientists, volunteers… the ripples of what we do can spread across the largest bodies of water when we share our love for the Great Lakes and how we can care for them. Wolf talked about “the energy of being with people and having a moment (I refer to it as a watershed moment) when you all come to the same understanding,” adding, "Sometimes we all have to give a little to do what's best in the long run. And when that happens, it's definitely a spiritual experience. It's a feeling that you've done really good work that day. It means a lot.”