The Power of Pete
By Barbara Lerman-Golomb
Pete Seeger will forever be referred to as a legend. The word legend is defined as “a person whose fame or notoriety makes him a source of exaggerated or romanticized tales or exploits.” But there was nothing exaggerated about Pete Seeger. He was the real deal. In fact, Pete was something much greater than a legend. He was an engaged citizen who believed individuals taking action, even on the smallest level, could save the world. Pete believed in the power of the people.
I first met Pete sixteen years ago at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival, the zero-waste, bio diesel- and solar-powered music festival at Croton Point Park on the shores of the Hudson River in Croton, New York. He was scheduled to give a talk about his electric battery powered cherry red pickup truck in the designated Energy Area. My husband and daughters and I went to the talk and afterwards I told Pete that I was an experiential, environmental educator and that I had recently built a homemade solar cooker using cardboard boxes, aluminum foil and glass. While building a solar cooker turned out to be a fun and educational science fair project for our daughters, it was so much more. Using the power of the sun, a solar cooker can be an essential cooking tool for communities living in developing nations that don’t have access to electricity or safe ways to gather firewood, often a dangerous task particularly for women.
Pete got really excited about the solar cooker project and asked if I would teach a workshop on how to make them at the Clearwater Festival the following spring. He said to give him a call to discuss it. He wrote a note to me along with his phone number on my Clearwater Festival program booklet. A few days later I was calling Pete Seeger. “Hello, is Pete home? His wife, Toshi, put Pete on the line and we worked out a plan to bring the project to the Festival.
The following spring I led a workshop teaching people how to construct a solar cooker and spoke about its benefits as a healthier cooking alternative for developing nations and about the importance of renewable energy. Throughout the day as Festival participants passed by, we gave out solar cooked nachos and a healthy version of s’mores, along with a quick lesson on alternative energy. It was what you call a real teachable moment. One of the reasons Pete was so enthusiastic about the solar cooker project was because for him it was always about hands-on education leading to advocacy.
The power of Pete was that he knew that in order to disseminate a message you need to engage people in a way that they don’t feel they’re being hit over the head. Best case in point was Pete’s passion to clean up the Hudson River, a local issue for him since he lived by the river. He, along with a few friends began their Clearwater mission in the 1960s when the Hudson was saturated with raw sewage, oil pollution, pesticide runoff and toxic chemicals such as PCBs caused by industrial manufacturing. Pete felt great despair over the pollution of his beloved Hudson River. Key to the mission was to connect people back to the river; to create majestic sloops from which people could experience the beauty of the river, and that also served as environmental sailing classrooms; all in an effort to move them to want to preserve it. In fact, my introduction to Clearwater was sailing on a sloop with my daughter and her class on an experiential field trip. Through the years our family has continued to be Clearwater Festival regulars; we presented other eco programs, volunteered in various capacities, and sung and strummed along with Pete. Pete touched millions through his songs, but personal moments with him were especially empowering. We will greatly miss his humble and purposeful presence.
“Throughout history, music has been a catalyst for change, a medium for protest and a way to deliver a message of hope.” (Source)
For Pete, music was integral to the mission because music brings people together and creates community; hopefully, a community that will take action and create change. When Pete addressed an audience, he would interject spoken messages of peace and environmental stewardship. The power of Pete was that he knew he had a captivated audience and that while they were singing along, they would learn something too. As Pete said, “My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”
But he also knew that music alone was not the solution. For Pete and countless dedicated individuals inspired by him to act locally, the work they did to clean up the Hudson paid off globally as well, as it led to helping to pass landmark environmental laws, both state and federal, including the Clean Water Act.
Being an environmental activist has always been challenging, and while we’ve made great strides, it’s hard not to feel discouraged in light of the omnibus spending bill that was recently passed by Congress, which essentially undermines environmental regulatory actions and environmental justice.
For Pete’s sake, we need to let our legislators know that the laws that protect our environment, do make a difference. For Pete’s sake, we need to take personal responsibility as stewards of our planet. For Pete’s sake, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions if we want to have a fighting chance against the devastating effects of climate change.
More important than being a legend, is leaving a legacy.
Barbara Lerman-Golomb is a member of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and the Friends of the Board of the Northeast Camp Commission. She is the Director of Research, Grants and Foundations for JCC Association and an author, activist, and experiential environmental educator. Read more on her blog, A Life in Many Small Parts.