by Elizabeth Harlow
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” reflects Elizabeth Grant Kingwill on a choice she made as a graduate student in 1970. “I was a woman, a determined loud woman,” one of only a handful in University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources at the time, and one who found that speaking up led to stepping up: “like anybody who complains, you end up doing the job yourself.”
When Elizabeth joined the student group ENACT as one of the only female leaders planning Ann Arbor’s 1970 Teach-In for the Environment, no one knew how big the event would get or how significant its legacy would be. Thanks in part to her work as head of (previously neglected) community relations, the event drew over 50,000 attendees to four days of 125 meetings, seminars, and lectures. It was the first and largest Earth Day event, kicking off a wave of mobilization often marked as the birth of the modern environmental movement.
As other organizers scattered in the summer after the Teach-In, Elizabeth and one other student stuck around, charged with the vague task “to maintain a presence on campus that summer and to figure out what to do with the leftover money.” Elizabeth took on the lion’s share of the labor. Out of that $70,000 and a lot of hard work, the Ecology Center was born. “Not bad for a wanna-be change agent,” says Elizabeth, who feels both “pride and gratitude to all who came after me that the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor is still going and growing.”
Michigan’s Ecology Center is one of only a few Ecology Centers remaining from the original nationwide network. Formed in 1969, the first Ecology Center in Berkeley, CA served as a model for the burgeoning grassroots Ecology Center movement, and Cliff Humphrey traveled from California to help the ENACT organizers design Ann Arbor’s Ecology Center. The larger movement helped inform the Ecology Center’s mission in Ann Arbor as a gathering site for collective action, continuing the momentum generated by Earth Day.
The Ecology Center– a place to collaborate and learn
Elizabeth envisioned Ann Arbor’s Ecology Center as a place to bring people together to collaborate and learn, drawing both from the Berkeley model and her own academic training in UM’s then-new Environmental Education program. First-wave U.S. environmental action was largely driven by single-issue conservation organizations in the first half of the 20th century, and the landscape remained fractured in 1970. Environmental groups “rarely cooperated because they had their own special interests and were competitive for members,” recalls Elizabeth. “I wanted a space where they could interact, have meetings, hopefully learn to cooperate on common goals...It stayed pretty empty for awhile. The organizations were quite wary.”
An Interview with Elizabeth Grant Kingwill on founding the Ecology Center
But Elizabeth was tenacious about getting the Ecology Center off the ground. She found an office space, signed the lease, and scrounged furniture. She pitched the Center to skeptical old-guard environmental groups and made the workspace appealing by adding phones and a small library. She established a board of directors and helped put the organization and its mission in the public eye by convincing Ann Arbor News editor Doug Fulton to join the board as a key early player. And ultimately she succeeded in transitioning the Ecology Center from a “personal summer project” to an organization capable of longevity with broad community support. She learned how to establish a nonprofit and signed the legal paperwork as an incorporator, along with Fulton; George Coling, who later moved to Washington, DC to help plant further local Ecology Centers and coordinate communication among them; and J. David Allan, William Browning, Toby Cooper, Arthur Hanson, and Douglas Scott.
A belief in the power of collaboration anchored the Ecology Center then, and although much has changed in 50 years, that core value still guides a partnership-based approach that makes our work distinctive today. Current Director Mike Garfield observes that “one of the defining characteristics of the Ecology Center’s work today is that we do virtually all of our work in coalition and partnership with other organizations. It is one of our 'north stars.’”
Elizabeth traces her and her fellow organizers' effectiveness 50 years ago to collaboration, even and especially when faced with the challenge of cutting through political tensions.
“The success we had as ENACT and subsequently the Ecology Center was in large part because we did cooperate and we wanted to be inclusive,” she says. “While inclusivity was not a priority” for many of the Teach-In organizers, “it was something that was ok,” and the movement brought together folks of all political stripes.
Amidst sometimes fierce disagreements, the coalition was able to rally around a strong core of what Elizabeth calls “motherhood and apple pie” ideas about our environment’s importance: “everyone could see the problem and make some small effort to improve their footprint on the planet.” The spread of that idea--the fact that lots of ordinary people decided to do something--is why we have made progress on problems like pollution since 1970, progress Elizabeth thinks is easy to forget in the face of today’s steep challenges. Another ENACT saying was “there is no free lunch,” and that is something we all still must to come to grips with as we fight for solutions to the global climate crisis.
Collective action is powerful
As the Ecology Center rises to meet those challenges, we’re staying focused on a north star that started our journey half a century ago: collective action is powerful.
If you want to learn more about the history of the 1970 Teach-In on the Environment and the Ecology Center’s founding, we invite you to check out this digital exhibit created by University of Michigan undergraduate history students, which includes interviews with ENACT organizers, including Elizabeth Grant Kingwill, and Ecology Center’s second Director, Mike Schechtman.
Research for these stories provided by the Environmental Justice HistoryLab at the University of Michigan. For more, see history archive.