It's surprisingly tough to find full-time environmentalists in Rochester.
National advocacy groups tend to gravitate toward centers of media or government like New York or Albany, and even statewide and regional groups pass our city by. At recent hearings for the 48-hour pesticide neighborhood notification bill you could have bumped into the paid staffers of environmental advocacy groups based out of Buffalo and Syracuse, and even Long Island. But none from Rochester. (Caveat: The state Public Interest Research Group does open an office here for the summer canvassing season, but only for canvassing; the nice college kid you gave that check to doesn't spend her evenings lobbying lawmakers.)
That gap means grassroots volunteer-driven groups form the backbone of Rochester's environmental community. To make those groups more effective, the Federation of Monroe County Environmentalists is trying to get them to work together. In a June 27 session the group brought together nearly 30 activists from a handful of organizations to swap ideas, make connections, and share priorities. Water quality topped the list, with agriculture, land use, and environmental education not far behind.
What's the next step?
"We're hoping that there's going to be a core group of people who come together once a summer and plan a meeting in the fall to look at our priorities," says Alison Clarke, one of the group's organizers. That may sound like a glut of planning and prioritizing, but Clarke disagrees.
"I don't think having a second meeting is too much," she says. The idea is to eventually create a clearinghouse where citizens can gather information or sound the alarm on urgent issues.
"People whose focus is around agriculture, people whose focus is around water, they can at some level support each other on their issues," Clarke says. "We put a whole lot of bodies and a whole lot of organizations behind the issue."
Mapping their priorities now will keep the loose-knit coalition operating smoothly down the road when an issue emerges, she explains.
Not only does the environmental community here suffer a dearth of paid activists, there's also an apparent lack of involvement from young people.
"I don't know why there's not as many young people active in upstate," says Kate Mendenhall, a program manager at the New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group and one of only a few young people to attend the FCME workshop.
In a recent work-related trip to New York City, she met plenty of environmental activists her own age. One reason for that might simply be well-established demographic differences, Mendenhall says: Larger cities tend to attract younger folks, activists and non-activists alike, while rural areas and mid-sized cities like Rochester draw an older, settled crowd.
"I think [FCME] could definitely use some younger blood," she says. One obvious place to begin, she suggests, is by reaching out to environmental groups at college campuses around the region.
Still, the absence of people her own age doesn't seem to dampen Mendenhall's optimism about what the FCME can accomplish.
"I think it has the potential to be a really good collective," she says.