by Catherine Gropper
May 19, 2011
I still remember when I heard the first story in April 2010 about the BP oil catastrophe in the Gulf in April 2010. I was putting the closing scenes on a new play when radio news bulletins began to interrupt with their searing reality of what was happening. Mostly people were angry at BP and outraged that adequate safety caps had not been installed on these huge oil rigs.
Soon attention turned to the birds and fauna. I began to think about the birds, constantly. There were the images of the birds covered in oil and then the advertisements for Dawn soap. Others, of course, like some of my neighbors, were indifferent: they’d say, “Oh, that’s terrible,” and change the subject.
Feminism, for me, has always been associated with activism. I wanted to do something to help, and writing a check wasn’t enough. But I know the art world and theatre community rather well and thought there might be a way to “use” great talent to hold a spotlight on ecology. I began planning an event with visual artists, who are notorious for stepping to the plate. I called up 20 painters — some I knew from art school, others from the art world in New York or international travels. I asked, “Can you help me to put on an art show where all our proceeds will be donated to re-vegetating waterways or actually cleaning up specific species, and reintroducing them into a cleaner habitat?” I believed that we could raise money and raise consciousness in the process.
The response from the artists was unanimously positive. Slides and images started coming in, and I began pouring over them. I also began to search for the right recipient for our efforts so that the artists’ profits would go directly to Gulf restoration efforts. I had countless conversations with wildlife organizations. Finally, I struck paydirt and located the oldest avian hospital in Florida, Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, and a plan began to take shape.
Next, I decided to raise the stakes by creating Awards for “Guardianship Of The World’s Waterways.” Fabien Cousteau received our inaugural citation. His Plant A Fish programs re-introduce marine life into global waterways — he often says we should call our home “Planet Water,” not “Planet Earth.” His program focuses on planting hundreds of oysters, for example, in the Hudson River or along the coastlines of the Gulf, to encourage more oxygen and improve water quality. Planting a billion baby turtle beds sustains our water’s ecology; protecting our reefs and mangroves sustains our own oxygen, as well.
With all of these elements set in motion, by fall, we were ready to have our inaugural event, an evening and art auction in Manhattan, and sent the invitations out. Eco-consciousness tapped the interest of many, including reporters. We attracted a substantial crowd and raised thousands of dollars by auctioning off the breathtaking original paintings and photographs.
I know it’s not easy to get people to stretch their hearts and hands, especially when so many “status” charities are tapping big names and raising millions. But we were able to show that a small group of dedicated artists could make a difference. The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary responded with enormous gratitude, sharing with us how it cleaned up oiled gannets and then re-released them safely.
The need is still there, and the problems continue, such as the plan for new drilling in the Arctic by Shell Oil, described in the New York Times on May 2, 2011, as though no lessons have been learned. My intention is to go on raising awareness through speaking, writing and other “guardianship” events. Next year, I hope to have talented playwrights cast a light on Gulf survival.
Eco activism is a natural for women, but anyone can take a role. Plumbers, salespeople, tailors, cleaners, coffeeshop owners can start up something and grow a greener windowbox — each can do some small part. I and others are ready to help ideas take flight. Recycle your commitments. Because when it’s for the birds — it’s for you.
Eco activism – inhale the possibility.
Catherine Gropper is a playwright, artist and activist working in New York City.
Also see “Gulf Oil Spill Disaster: Gendered Layers of Impact” by Jacqui Patterson in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See “Webs of Connection: Trees, Women, Activism” by Marianne Schnall in the Cafe of this edition of On The Issues Magazine.