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Cook County Teens Olya Wright and Naomi Tracy-Hegg worked to pass a climate resolution in 2022. Where are we a year later?

Feb 21, 2024 03:09PM ● By Content Editor
Photo: Markus Spiske

By Emily Levang - Boreal Community Media - October 23, 2023

***Editor's note on February 21, 2024: This article was originally published in October 2023. Olya, Naomi, and their friend Martine are hosting two presentations at the Grand Marais Public Library on February 28 and March 2nd, 2024 about the Climate Action Plan, and we thought it would be relevant to share it again. Learn more about the presentations at the library here.*** 

Olya Wright learned about climate change at the age of ten, as Cook County began to see more extreme weather, including drought-fueled forest fires accompanied by dangerous air quality. She says it was “extremely overwhelming.” Having grown up on a homestead with a deep connection to nature, she said, “Here I am wandering around in the woods, loving it. But that's not going to actually reverse climate change. I need to do something about it, but I don't know what, because I'm 10 years old and I'm panicking.”

She found her way into climate work through an organization called iMatter (now merged into Climate Generation, based out of Minneapolis), which got her and her friends started on the city action process in Grand Marais. She says, “Action turned out to be the way I could offset my overwhelm, because I felt like finally, I was actually doing something to address it.”

After six years of organizing on a local and county level, Wright and her collaborator Naomi Tracy-Hegg worked to pass a Climate Emergency Resolution for Cook County in 2022. This is the first county-wide climate emergency resolution in all of Minnesota. The resolution is a recognition of the impact that human activities are having on global climate and calls for the county government to commit to reducing its carbon footprint. Nineteen months after passing, where does the resolution stand? 

As of yet, no large-scale changes have happened in response to the resolution. Wright says, “There definitely hasn't been the level of action that you'd hope.” While the resolution isn’t legally binding, it does signal Cook County’s recognition that the climate emergency is an important issue.

Wright and Tracy-Hegg knew from the outset that this resolution would be a first step, to simply declare that the climate emergency matters to the county. “We've got a good leverage point and we've got a lot of community support. So, there's some hope.” 

Following the resolution, Wright and Tracy-Hegg envisioned marching down the shore to enroll Lake and St. Louis Counties in passing similar resolutions. This proved more challenging than they’d hoped, as this goal would be best achieved by citizens from within these counties. With six years of organizing experience under their belts, Wright and Tracy-Hegg hadn’t realized the breadth and depth of knowledge they’d acquired. They realized that folks from these counties would need more education on how to go about this work, to gain capacity in areas like public speaking, writing resolutions, gathering petitions, or appearing on the radio. “I think we underestimate the skills we've learned in our experience. We found some people who really care about it. But being high schoolers, our skill is not necessarily teaching.” Still, Wright is hopeful that there is momentum building in these counties, and that she and Tracy-Hegg can work with individuals within these communities to get them started. 

In Cook County and beyond, Wright believes education is imperative. She says education was the key to success in working with both the city and county, as well as building a strong grassroots base within the community. “Back when we were ten and eleven (years old), we spoke all over our community, working with Grand Marais residents at the churches, the schools, Girl Scouts groups, and businesses, explaining what we were doing, why it mattered, why there wasn't enough action right now.” She says these were often conversations with people who care about the environment but didn’t realize how important it is to take action. “We did that for the commissioners and the counselors too, because it wasn't their own initiative to do this.” 

In addition to education, Wright says concrete action is most important. She and Tracy-Hegg are currently working on a climate action plan, which is their next step going forward. The city of Grand Marais already passed a climate action plan in 2017 with Wright and Tracy-Hegg’s leadership, but due to a lack of city funding, it was not detailed enough to lead to significant change. This time around, Wright says they intend to bring in experts who can write an effective plan that will be easy to follow with concrete steps that the county can take. 

Wright says “You (the county) need to take action on this because the federal government isn't taking enough action right now. The state isn't taking enough action right now. You've got to take action yourselves.” 

For Wright, this work is a matter of necessity: “I feel like I can't sit around and not do something.” Wright says she’s grateful for all of the experience she’s gained, having been involved with local politics since the age of eleven. She says, “We put in a lot of work, and if we hadn't gotten all the community support and the steps in place, it wouldn't have happened.” At the same time, she says it can be frustrating that “it took us as kids to take our time and our childhood to devote to this to make a difference.”

People often ask Wright and Tracy-Hegg how they can help. The most impactful thing, Wright says, is for people to “find their own path forward. Whether it's advocating or trying to find organizations you can join or talking to people. It's a very grassroots-based movement and that's where the strength comes from, because it's the people that care about it and the people that can get things done.”

Ultimately, Wright’s motivation comes from her love for nature, and her desire to see climate change reversed in order to protect all living species, including the non-human beings we often overlook. “There are these worlds that we as humans fail to recognize as equally important” She says, “The trees, they can communicate. They don't speak, but they can communicate through the microbial networks and warn each other about things. “I can't communicate through little webs to another human. I have to talk. Isn’t that equally amazing?” Wright encourages everyone to find a way to connect with the natural world, to remind ourselves there’s more to this planet than just humans, whether that’s keeping chickens or studying geology, whatever each person is inspired to do.

“We owe everything to the natural world. It's why we can live here on earth. And it's beautiful. I love it so much. And so, I need to protect it.”

Related: How to reduce your waste with these Cook County resources and tips
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