2005 PFIG Recipient Jackie Kruszewski
College of Arts & Sciences
2007 Graduation Year
Internship: Sierra Club, Virginia Chapter
Notes on the first week
My internship at the Virginia Sierra Club in Richmond started off like being thrown into a bucket of boiling water. My first Monday was relatively exciting for me (though likely mundane for my boss, Mike Town); we interviewed local candidates and discussed their answers to our questionnaires. Along with our friends next door, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, we decided which candidates we intended to endorse in the coming June primaries for state-wide office. I sat a small conference table and took notes while the 3 potential nominees for delegate or attorney general discussed Virginia environmental issues (transportation, waste management and offshore drilling) with environmental lobbyists. It was like being a fly on the wall of Virginia political decision-making and local government.
The next day was a conference—a planning session for cooperative action—with the Virginia Conservation Network, an association of environmentally-motivated groups in our state. Ever since then, outside attending an evening community event on climate change, I have spent my time in front of a computer. But definitely NOT to my disadvantage. After talking some with Mike about renewable energy strategies, we decided that I would become an "expert" on wind energy, which is a more nuanced and in-depth topic than I ever imagined. I have spent my time collecting data and resources from the vast sea of Internet knowledge about wind energy. Two historically opposed camps—corporate industry and environmental advocates—are split into many factions, making for a varying array of interest groups and unnatural alliances. Wind farm proposals (much more than other development) bring a local community out in full force. My search and compilation of siting guidelines, environmental regulations and construction standards has opened my mind about a complicated issue, and Mike has requested a condensed version of procedures and concerns so that the Sierra Club might sit down with opposing parties of the current and controversial Highland County (and future Virginia wind energy projects) to find a reasonable solution for all parties. My work is, gladly, cut out for me…
I have switched gears many times since those first few weeks of my internship here. On June 14th we had primary elections for the statewide races in Virginia, so I helped the Sierra Club by phone-banking for candidates we had endorsed. Now I am compiling environmental records of certain candidates for the November race so that Mike can convince his colleagues to endorse the right guy.
There’s a saying "Think globally, act locally," but I know, as a college student, thinking globally is the default. National and international politics are sexy and polished and intoxicating in a sense, and knowing about them makes you those things in certain college circles. But so much goes on right in our backyards. When candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates can win with a couple hundred votes because of low voter turnout, think of the stuff that they can usher through their committees without even a blurb in the paper. These local lobbyists and "special interests" are being paid to pay attention. When we donate to the Sierra Club, we are letting people like Mike make sure that the language and nuance of General Assembly bills aren’t taking us backwards in the fight to protect Virginia’s natural heritage.
My friends interning in DC with their congressman and with national think tanks are learning a lot too, but I feel very lucky to have discovered this hidden opportunity to engage in the local politics around me. I can see the fruits of my labor and feel as though I’m part of a tangible, however small, solution. While Washington wages a war of ideas and abstraction, our local governments are making changes that can actually affect our daily lives. And I feel very useful in my niche in Richmond.
Recently, I become Mike’s surrogate member of the Virginia Clean Air Advocates, a group of conservation and health organizations that lobby for (surprise!) clean air regulations and standards. One of our biggest priorities for the coming year is passing "Clean Smokestacks" legislation in the General Assembly which could start reducing the amount of CO2, NOx and mercury that enters our atmosphere each year (which causes more harm than people know about). My job has been to help put together packets of information for "Clean Air Local Coordinators"—volunteers all around Virginia who are charged with getting the word out in their community about clean air and getting people to sign postcards to their legislators supporting Clean Smokestacks.
When it comes to local environmental issues, there’s a lot that comes down to simple awareness. If people are made aware of what is going on, they’re usually on our side. It’s just a matter of breaking through the clutter of information about TomKat and terrorism to impress on them the nature of this largely solvable problem. And as I sit here in view of all the information that I’ve compiled and printed for the use of local clean air activists, I’d like to think I’ve taken part in the real solutions for my own backyard.
After various small projects, my boss decided to end the summer with a bang by planning a mercury hair testing event at a local salon. All over the country, Sierra Club and Greenpeace chapters have been hosting community opportunities for women of child-bearing age to get tested for mercury. Entering our bodies through contaminated fish, there is enough mercury in one woman out of six in the U.S. to put a baby at risk of developmental problems, and the two organizations are trying to raise awareness about these mercury levels in women. At the end of the year, a national study will be published, which will hopefully be used to lobby for stricter emissions controls on coal-fired power plants. It seems the technology is already available to reduce smokestacks mercury pollution by 90% (and smokestacks account for 40% of all airborne mercury emission from all known sources).
So we planned an event, not only so that Richmond mercury levels could be added to the nationwide survey, but so that individual women might have a free chance to discover the hidden toxins in their body. We sent out hundreds of postcards, made dozens of calls, bothered all the local news stations and reporters, secured a fancy hair salon, and organized information to distribute. The planning stage is nothing less than a nerve-wracking challenge—making sure that the testing kits are delivered on time, convincing semi-apathetic TV crews that your event is worth their time, coordinating with a busy salon business, lining up participants, editing and re-editing press releases and media advisories. I was having awful daydreams about two people showing up to be tested. In the end, though, my fears were unfounded and the event was a comfortable success. All three local TV stations crowded around the hairstylist as she cut off a half gram of hair from the scalps of 30 Richmond women and mothers—many with children in tow. We got a write up in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, complete with a large photo, and even I got my hair tested for mercury. It was a rewarding, learning experience, employing very useful skills. I look forward to getting results in three weeks!