The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its latest report. In response to the report’s finding, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “In short, our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once.”
Terrible, alarming climate change news makes it difficult to know how to inch forward in any direction and to decide if our actions even matter.
It’s featured in her TED Talk How to find Joy in Climate Action where she says:
“People often ask me what they can do to help address the climate crisis. But what they usually mean is what’s one quick, easy, simple thing they can do. Well, that particular ship has sailed.” She adds:
“All too rarely are we asked to contribute our special talents, our superpowers, to climate solutions. And what a failing. For that would actually enable the radical changes we need.”
Maggie Dunlop, a 2022 InTO the Ravine Champion, has many superpowers. She’s an education researcher and mother of two children under five who joined the program because she believes: “I have to be able to look them in the eyes in 2050 and tell them I did everything I could.”
Photo credit: Joel Rodriguez
About a minute into talking with Maggie, she sort of casually says:
“I was thinking, you know, we are just on a runaway train, and I can’t do anything to stop it. And I came to the conclusion that I just have to do a little thing. And that little thing is probably to make people a bit more connected to our place – the world around us.”
I paused, and circled back, “the runaway train you mentioned?” I asked. And Maggie verified that yes, she was talking about that runaway train. The runaway train where it feels like you are a strapped-in passenger, most certainly not in the driver’s seat, with the train hurtling toward climate catastrophe.
Living your Venn diagram can feel small as climate change looms so very (very) large. But, at the same time, when a recent New York Times headline posed the question “Do You Have to Be an Optimist to Work Toward a Better World?” this answer resonated with me most:
“It’s important to imagine a positive future for a positive future to happen.”
In short, there is nothing naive about optimism. And, there’s nothing naive about Maggie who says: “It is not easy doing something new. There is a reason why things aren’t already being done.”
The new thing that Maggie is doing is helping her community dip into and see the green spaces and ravines in her community. That’s what connects her to her Venn diagram.
Access to amazing green spaces is what drew Maggie to her Toronto Rockcliffe Smythe neighbourhood. Rockcliffe Smythe was mostly farmland until the 1920s when it became home to a significant gravel quarry. The gravel pit was converted into Smythe park and gifted to the community. The park is at the end of the Black Creek watershed, about 70 metres from the Humber River. It’s a growing and densifying community situated in a delicate river valley on active flood plains where homes regularly experience flooding. It’s also home to wood ducks, beavers, opossums (North America’s only marsupial), snakes, lizards and a greatly reduced population of frogs, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, fish, and turtles.
As an InTO the Ravines Champion in 2022, Maggie and her neighbour and fellow mother Francine Brunet received a little bit of funding and some critical support to make a meaningful difference in connecting their community to the green space and biodiversity Maggie desperately needs them to notice.
You can hear Maggie’s frustration when she tells me: People are “just buying stuff, and spending money and just not really thinking about how it’s all connected.”
Maggie’s a regular visitor to High Park where she takes her children to play and attends events when she can. It was in High Park where she was trained as a Turtle Protector. With a stipend to host an event in the park, Maggie and Francine hired a retired science teacher that Maggie met at an event in High Park. Maggie invited the teacher, and his box of caterpillars, to Smythe Park on a sunny summer afternoon.
Oh, and about 100 people showed up.
That’s the simple version.
Photo credit: Joel Rodriguez
The less simple version is that Maggie stopped people on her commute to work, with pockets full of flyers and her three year old daughter in a bikeseat to joyfully tell passersby about the caterpillar event. She and Francine also strategically hosted the workshop on a day when families were hosting barbeques and gatherings in the park. They strolled over to families and invited them to come on over.
Photo credit: Joel Rodriguez
Later that summer, in a quiet corner of Smythe park, stretching their stipend even further, Maggie and Francine hired an artist to lead a clay turtle making workshop with families. They divided the group, with half heading to the water’s edge to learn about the turtles that live in the community. Prior to the event, most of those in attendance knew little or nothing about the turtles that live in the community and didn’t know that two species of turtles are provincially designated as of “special concern.”
This issue is of special concern to Maggie:
“When we don’t know that we’re among turtles, when we don’t know what a red-winged blackbird looks like, we’re kind of walking through the world a little bit blind.”
Photo credit: Margaret Hall
Maggie grew up in England and was very disoriented by the varied species she encountered in her new Canadian home. “When I came here. I didn’t know what the trees were or the birds or the flowers. And, I felt illiterate as a result.”
So, Maggie is determined to build up ecologicall literacy – not just her own, but her community’s.
“If they know what a starling is, and they don’t see them so often anymore…when they notice that the animals that they’re used to seeing and whose behaviour they know, are acting differently….If they notice that the berries that this animal eats are not growing at the right time anymore, then it starts to make sense that we should be concerned about this.”
Maggie’s hope is to create a guide that translates common species’ names into Spanish, Portuguese, and Somali – the languages of parents of young children in her community. Because, “It’d be much easier for people to understand, to remember, if they knew what local animals, flowers and trees are in their own language.”
Maggie is planting seeds – seeds of knowledge, joy, literacy, awareness, building a better world, using her own two hands. Make no mistake about it: this is climate leadership. As Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, the creator of the Venn diagram says:
“There is so much work to be done, Please, do not choose something that makes you miserable. What we need is a change in every sector and every community. The solution shouldn’t be ‘what can I do to address the climate crisis?’, but ‘what can we do together?”