Editor’s Note: This profile is the second in a week-long series focusing on female activists from across Franklin County, timed in advance of the coming weekend’s Women’s March.
NORTHFIELD — Emily Koester has thought of herself as “a member of the community of Earth,” who shows compassion for all living creatures, since Thanksgiving in 1972, when she was only 8.
“I sat down for Thanksgiving, looked at the turkey and said ‘I can’t eat that,’” she recalled.
Nearly 50 years later, the Northfield resident has maintained both her vegetarian diet and empathy for environmental issues. She attributes this early foundation of her environmental consciousness to both her sister — for pointing out that she was eating an animal that day — and her Jewish heritage.
“Tikkun olam” is a Jewish phrase that is the underpinning of much of her environmental and social justice work. She said it can be roughly translated as “repair the world,” and emphasizes the partnership between humanity, nature and God.
While in her mid-20s, Koester worked as a recycling consultant for a few years. It was an “entry” into environmental work, she said. After moving to Franklin County in 1989, she was the representative for her town with the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District before entering the professional field of childhood development.
“When I became a mom, I took on a whole different perspective,” said Koester, who now has 3 children, ages 16 to 24. “I began wondering ‘What is the future of the world for my children going to be?’”
Over the last 25 years, most of Koester’s efforts have been with various community groups that she said have served as social networks while also feeding her environmental efforts. In 2007, Koester became involved with a group that worked to shut down Vermont Yankee, the last operating nuclear power plant in New England. The reactor was permanently shut down on Dec. 29, 2014.
Traveling farther, Koester and a handful of friends from Northfield attended the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City.
“It was incredible to a part of that event,” she said. “There were people from all over the country and the world. It was really powerful.”
A few years ago, Koester and others worked to protest a proposed Northeast Energy Direct natural gas pipeline that would have been built through Northfield. After being met with opposition from community members, the project was shut down.
As a way to fight for issues, and not against them, Koester said she began to work with a movement of communities called Transition Towns, which hosted events to raise awareness of environmental and social issues.
“It’s a way to respond to the multiple challenges of our time, like peak oil, climate change or economic instability on a local level,” she explained.
Koester’s efforts continued when she met Joanna Macy, founder of The Work That Reconnects. The group, Koester said, helps people move through heavy feelings of grief or dread that spur from environmental or social issues and encourage them to turn these feelings into positive action.
“I’ve led some of their workshops,” Koester said. “People who think about environmental degradation on a daily basis can become rather despondent.”
In this same spirit, Koester went on to found an environmental awareness discussion group, which has been meeting once a month at the Dickinson Memorial Library for just over five years now. Each month its members read a book or an article, or watch a movie related to environmental issues, and discuss them.
In recent years, Koester said she’s noticed connections between climate change and other social issues. She pointed to immigration by climate refugees as an example. Climate refugees are often forced to leave their home country due to inability to grow food because of climate conditions, she said. This inspired her to become involved with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, supporting immigrants in the area.
“We’re in an all or nothing phase,” Koester said.
With her children at various stages in school, Koester acknowledged that educational systems have done more to teach children about environmental issues in recent years. She also recognized state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, for their environmentally conscious leadership, including efforts to improve public transportation in rural areas.
While she said the world is in a state of “climate crisis,” Koester is hopeful for the future. The benefit of healthy environmental practices through small-scale practices at home or organized marches in Washington, D.C. may not be immediately evident, but she noted it’s still important to maintain conscious behavioral habits and keep an open mind when discussing environmental issues.
“It’s kind of like teaching,” Koester explained. “You might not know the impact until 20 years later.”
Zack DeLuca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.