AFFEW Engages Many: An Interview with Founder Julia Chambers

One of Michigan’s most successful grassroots environmental groups may soon take a big step with the hiring of its first staff person. But the group’s volunteer status has not kept it from being effective. Its recent Earth Day event demonstrated its popularity in the Ludington area.

In 1990, Julia Chambers co-founded the all-volunteer organization  AFFEW (A Few Friends for the Environment of the World) with Kate Stege to educate and assist citizens in creating a healthier world.  She serves as president of the group, whose nine-member board of directors shoulders much of the organization’s work.

Julia has been on a mission to educate others about protecting the earth and its habitants for most of her life. She managed the Great Lakes Interpretive Center in Ludington State Park and developed many educational programs.

During her 26 years as an elementary and art education teacher at Manistee Public Schools she wove this passion in her classes and afterschool programs. Julia owned a small landscape company for 15 years which promoted native plants and organic practices.

She lives on a lake with her husband Mark. They have four grown children and three grandkids. We asked her some questions about what makes an effective grassroots organization and what’s ahead for AFFEW.

How does your focus differ from statewide professional environmental groups?

We are a very grassroots group and at this time have no paid employees.  Although we have memberships with other groups, and collaborate with other environmental groups we are not a part of another.

What are the major environmental issues of concern in your area?

Air and water quality are concerns.  Climate change, especially with lake levels fluctuating. Sand mining (Sargent Sands), noise and habitat destruction. Protection and destruction of habitats – wetlands, dunes, forests.

You held an event about fracking and invited proponents as well as opponents to make presentations.

Balanced forums bring both sides to the forefront, allowing the citizens to hear all the info, at once, and make their own decision.  They also bring more people in, not just the “choir.” All of our forums have had 100-200 people, including one on sand mining.

What do you think AFFEW’s greatest accomplishment is? 

The ability to work with business, industry, schools, citizens…to work together for a healthier environment, not point fingers..

Also, the longevity of our group – 33-plus years. All volunteer up to this point.

What do groups like yours need to be more effective? 

My thoughts would apply to other volunteer groups. Off the top of my head, I believe we need to hire an executive director, a fund development coordinator, and eventually more staff. We do have a succession committee and hope to hire someone in the next year.

We could use a physical building, like our dream of a nature center, so we wouldn’t have to haul our items or rent space. I’m sure other groups would want this.

There is quite a bit of training for non-profits, just so much to do and so little time.

Based on your experience, are you optimistic about our collective chance of saving the planet?

Yes, I am optimistic about the direction we are going. More and more people are realizing we need a clean environment for ourselves, our kids, grandchildren, and all the wildlife.

Our group keeps growing, we get more and more inquiries.  We are having more interactions with young people. People want to know what they can do as individuals and as a society.

I have hope like Jane Goodall has; I hung out with her a bit in 2002. I was asked to make quilt blocks with kids that would be combined for a quilt for her. This was at a Roots and Shoots Conference to celebrate kids’ service learning projects, in the environment, with animals, and people. 

She has symbols of hope so I gave her a frog survey patch-symbol of people being active, a turtle figurine to represent mother earth and lastly, the one she was the most excited about, a Petoskey stone. I said it was coral that was around for millions of years and I have hope the earth will be around for millions of years.  She had never seen one before.

 So, yes, I have hope and being an activist, I strive to educate others.  

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