Wangari, Marina, & Alice

By Diana Donlon, Soil Centric

Throughout my career, I’ve had the amazing privilege of meeting and working with incredible women. Sometimes you can be disappointed when you meet well-known people but in my case, I have been genuinely inspired. Here are my recollections of meeting three international superstars who have made an extraordinary impact:

Wangari Maathai: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

In the 1990’s I was a Program Executive at the Goldman Environmental Prize, an international award for grassroots activists. As part of my job, I did research on the nominees from Africa, Central and South America, and Europe. One of my first assignments was to research a nominee from Kenya for the leader of the Greenbelt Movement, a women-led tree-planting initiative. She was none other than Wangari Muta Maathai. I met Wangari when she came to San Francisco to accept the 1991 Goldman Prize for Africa. Her commanding energy, supreme confidence, and electric smile lit up every room she entered. We traveled with the group of recipients to meet with the Secretary-General in New York, met with high-ranking officials in the G.H.W. Bush administration, and hosted a second reception at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society. Wangari was a natural superstar at every event. The following May shortly before I got married the receptionist handed me a phone message after lunch. It read “Wangari called to congratulate you.” I was so touched that she had called me from Kenya. How I wish now that I had saved that little scrap of paper! A woman of many firsts, Wangari's tireless work on behalf of women, the environment, and peace, earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She passed away in 2011 leaving behind a lasting legacy.

Marina Silva: Brazil’s Minister of the Environment & Climate Change

With Marina Silva, 2012

I can pinpoint the day in the early 1980s when my eyes were opened to the scale of our global environmental challenges: I was in the Morrison Library at UC Berkeley reading about the Brazilian rubber tappers, led by Chico Mendes, who were valiantly defending their rainforest home. When Mendes was murdered in 1988, fellow rubber tapper, Marina Silva, kept up the fight. In 1996 Marina was recognized by the Goldman Prize for helping to establish a 2-million-hectare reserve managed by traditional communities. Marina had been poisoned by mercury tailings from gold mining and had delicate health. She would come to the United States provided that we made sure she had organic food at every meal. This task fell to me. It was easy enough while in San Francisco but was quite a challenge to procure these meals in New York and Washington in those days. (Note Whole Foods did not open in DC until 2000 and NYC until 2001). Fortunately, When I had the pleasure of meeting Marina again in 2012. By then she had already served as Minister of Environment during President Lula da Silva’s first term. We had a happy reunion and she was noticeably stronger. Today Marina is Brazil’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change continuing her life-long work of protecting the Amazon and its people.

Alice Waters: Pioneering Restaurateur & Food Activist

Angela McKee-Brown, John D. Liu, Warren Karlenzig, & Kyle Lawson

I first met Alice Waters at an Easter Egg Hunt in 1998. We had both come inside for some refuge from the excitement. She was seated and wearing a beautifully embroidered silk dress which my toddler was using as a ballast as he navigated the perimeter of a coffee table. True to her Montessori training, she allowed him to grab sticky fistfuls of her dress without a fuss. I was simultaneously mortified and impressed that she would be so gentle with my child. Alice’s visionary work with The Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley launched a “delicious revolution” celebrating fresh, local, seasonal food while working at the policy level to change the purchasing criteria in public schools to support regenerative farmers and ranchers. A tireless crusader for children’s health Alice never misses an opportunity to enlist everyone from princes to presidents to her cause. The public Alice is famously persistent. But it is the affection and generosity of the private Alice that continues to inspire me. Before the pandemic, I ran into her and happened to mention that John D. Liu the founder of the Ecosystem Restoration Communities was coming to stay with my husband and me. Without hesitating she immediately invited the three of us to be her guests at her legendary restaurant Chez Panisse. John was amazed. “She’s never even met me,” he said. Yes, I answered, but she knows you are dedicated to regenerating the Earth and that you belong at the table.”

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