By Suzanne Forcese
WT Interview with Trish O'Dell, a Community Organizer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). The transcription below has been edited for clarity and length.
Tish O’Dell Community Organizer -- Portrait of A Water Guardian
I have lived all my life beside Lake Erie, drinking her water. When my mom was pregnant with me she lived in Cleveland and drank Lake Erie water. If you consider that our bodies are 70% water...then I am Lake Erie. I was Lake Erie before I was even born.
--Tish O’Dell, CELDF Community Organizer
Tish O’Dell works with communities in the U.S. and globally and most recently assisted the people of Toledo with their effort to pass the historic Lake Erie Bill of Rights, the first law on United States settler colonial land to recognize the rights of a specific ecosystem.
For the past 10 years, Tish O’Dell has been involved in community rights and Rights of Nature work starting in her own community of Broadview Heights, Ohio. Today, she is a CELDF Democracy School lecturer and board member of the Ohio Community Rights Network. Her work has been featured globally.
What is the force that propels a woman forward in taking a courageous stand for water and the environment water creates?
Here is what Tish O’Dell told WATERTODAY Ohio.
WTOH: What are your earliest childhood memories of water?
O'Dell: I was born under the water sign of Pisces, so it is natural for me to be connected to water.
My first recollections had to do with always wanting to be close to Lake Erie. I have lived in the same community of Broadview Heights my whole life, which is about 10 miles from the lake’s shore.
My greatest excitement was when my Dad would drive us into town because then I could see the lake. I was always pressuring him to take us for a ride just to get that glimpse. In those days, the Cleveland Stadium was on the Lake, and I always wanted to go to sporting events. Not to see the event. I did not care about the event. I just wanted to sit in the stadium and see the view of the Lake.
WTOH: What most inspired your career choice?
O'Dell: Broadview Heights, where I have lived my entire life, is located on the Traditional lands of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee (The Five Nations). But I did not know that until recent years.
Ohio has had a sad history with the Indigenous peoples. I mean look at the name of our baseball team – The Cleveland Indians -- it was an embarrassment. Thankfully, the name has now been changed to The Cleveland Guardians.
What is important is the whole Indigenous culture's connection to water. It has been so inspiring to me to speak with and learn from the Tribes. Two books were my watershed moment. An Indigenous Peoples history Of the United States; and Braiding Sweetgrass.
I was raised in the same colonized culture as everyone else. The knowledge I have gained from the Indigenous has been such a gift. Their whole connection to water instilled in me new meaning.
Water is Life – we all say that. It's so common that it has become trite. It didn’t click with me until I learned about Traditional culture. It is ALL life – the birds, the insects, the animals, the trees – everything. Knowing that is knowing that we are not just connected to Nature. We are Nature. Water affects all life. It’s not just what we put in our bodies. It’s what we put into all of creation.
My work is transitioning more to that realization.
When I was pregnant with my child, it was the whole realization that he was protected in water. And when he was born the realization that I had a responsibility to this tiny human being to make sure everything I put into his body was pure.
Now my baby is an adult. We have conversations all the time about protecting the water. You can’t keep polluting the water without consequences.
WTOH: What were the steps that led you to where you are today?
O'Dell: I love deer. When I was a young mom, our City Council was allowing the hunting of deer. I went to a Council meeting to voice my objections. I thought I was in tune with the community but at that meeting, there were other voices raising objections to urban drilling and I became involved with that. We tried to put a stop to it but got the run around as each governing body from local to state to the EPA would pass the buck.
So, I thought, OK then I will just run for Mayor and fix it myself.
I was not elected but I learned a lot about the process. And I formed a group called MADION –Mothers Against Drilling In Our Neighborhood. Then I was encouraged to become involved with CELDF -- the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. We help the movement for Community Rights and the Rights of Nature by building upward from the grassroots to state federal and international levels.
At that time, in 2012, we drafted a Community Bill of Rights which became Ohio’s first Bill of Rights to be passed banning fracking and recognizing the Rights of Nature. This lifted the veil for so many. The idea that Nature has rights – it became my passion. Now that the veil was lifted, we exposed the corrupt system and began educating the community.
We are a public interest law firm that educates and supports local people from environmental threats to their community.
There is a lot to learn about the system before you can fix it and we provide that assistance.
Am I an activist? No, I don’t have a label. I am a human being. I am Nature. To protect myself and my family, I protect Nature. An Indigenous elder once told me ‘What you do to me you do to yourself.’ It took me a long time to understand that.
When we used to sit around the kitchen tables advising people in a community. It was always the women who would say ‘What about the health of our children? Our kids’ future is at stake if we don’t protect the water.’ And the husbands would say ‘How is this going to affect our savings?’
I find it interesting that the perspective of cost versus environmental health is very often a gender issue.
WTOH: How has your career path changed your outlook?
O'Dell: The longer I live the more I evolve. Growing up I learned to trust in the government to do what is right. But as an adult I felt as if I was butting against the law. I have grown to learn that if you want to make a systemic change to protect the future you have to challenge the status quo.
I can’t unknow what I know now. Once my own veil was removed, I found it difficult to have the same conversations. Take the Clean Water Act, for example, it’s not what most people think. Perhaps 45 years ago it was acceptable, but times have changed, and we have to look at what’s right for the environment – which will in effect be right for us.
WTOH: What would you say to a child about water?
O'Dell: My niece just turned nine. On Career Day I was invited to her school to do a presentation.
At that age, it’s so easy. You just take the kids out to the water and show them all the life around that is supported by water. And you ask, ‘What would happen to the birds and the animals and the flowers and trees if you put poison in the water.’ And the answer is so obvious to them. ‘Well, you can’t do that!’ And they look at me as if I am stupid.
Adults bring up all the excuses about why you can’t stop the pollution. So, it’s important to awaken the kids early on to the concept of protecting water and all of nature. Kids don’t have all the layers of the ‘system’ filed away in their subconscious.
WTOH: When you look around you what worries you most?
O'Dell: We are now at a point in our evolution where we need to make a cultural shift. We can’t keep destroying what we need for our survival.
We are in such a sad and frightening place in our history. We have to stop the division. It can no longer be us versus them. It is not about Democrat versus Republican or white versus black or vaccinated versus unvaccinated or any other polarization. This has to stop.
Stop leading the conversation on what divides us and focus on what connects us. Stop this colonized culture that sees us as separate and learn from the Indigenous teachings that we are all Nature. If you are going to put poison in the river, you are poisoning yourself.
Even the term Rights of Nature implies separation. But it is a start...
We are inseparable.
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