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First person: Let's get involved

Fall/Winter 2014 | By Matt Dannenberg (ESC ‘10)

Environmentally minded Badgers far and wide, as well as those of you that have settled nearby our beloved alma mater, I have a message for you: “Let’s get political!” Elections have consequences, and the future of our drinking water, transportation and livelihoods are constantly in the balance.

Matt Dannenberg
Matt Dannenberg

Major issues of today from the Keystone XL pipeline, climate change, fracking and food security are being decided upon not just in the chambers of Congress, but in our local governments. Change can be accomplished, but this requires leadership, and who better than us? So I implore you, after you’ve read my words, to make a commitment. Get your feet wet; pledge to become part of the change.

My journey into conservation policy advocacy was not direct. Growing up in Wisconsin, the northern tip of tornado alley, I had a fascination with severe weather. At the age of eight, the movie Twister had me elated and I was dead set on becoming a storm chaser. However, during my undergraduate studies in Madison, I discovered with the assistance of Calculus 222 that becoming a scientist was not the best path for me.

As a freshman living in Sellery Hall, I viewed An Inconvenient Truth, which sparked my interest in politics and climate change advocacy. One statement from the film had a particularly profound impact: If you do not like the decisions that are being made, run for Congress. I became active, taking advantage of all the resources our university offered.

I interned in the state legislature and volunteered with campus environmental organizations. These experiences led me to Washington, D.C., to lobby on the issue of climate change with thousands of college students from across the country. I earned my degree in political science and a certificate in environmental studies, and am now a community organizer with Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.

My career at LCV has allowed me to continue advocating and urging people to get involved. It has been a rollercoaster career, with challenging defeats like the passing of the open pit mining bill in 2013, but also amazing victories like electing conservation-minded decision makers all across Wisconsin. The greatest experience of all is the people. Our team is not only working to inspire people to take action, but we are constantly inspired and our passion grows that much stronger when we are able to empower people to become active.

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I have had the privilege of reconnecting with my Native heritage during my career. I am a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Anishinabe (Chippewa). It was incredible facilitating first-time lobby visits with Wisconsin tribes and taking some tribal members to vote for the first time. Despite not winning the legislative fight on mining policy, these native communities are now engaged more than ever. Tribes are on the front lines of many of the top environmental issues of today and they welcome support from the conservation community.

Now, I want to be clear; I’m not asking you all to drop your careers to become full-time conservation advocates. However, I am challenging you to make one commitment this next month to get involved. If you are disappointed in our system, change it. Here are some options which may require you to step outside your comfort zone: mentor a leader, educate youth, empower people in your community to become active, knock on doors, attend an informational meeting or discuss issues with friends and family. If you do not vote, study up on the next election and participate.

If you need help getting involved, contact me. There is too much at stake to not get involved. My favorite hobbies, including spearing northern pike, walleye fishing, hunting and amateur meteorology, are so tied into my career. Rather than write about those hobbies, I wanted to share how we can protect them for generations to come. Use your knowledge, fueled by your passions, and let’s get political, Nelson alumni!

Matt Dannenberg is the central Wisconsin organizer for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and oversees the organization’s Madison-based volunteer and internship programs and the statewide Native Vote program.

Views expressed in First Person are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nelson Institute or UW-Madison.

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