Green Elk Rapids’ guiding principle is to aim for the “mindful middle” and not to simply preach to the choir.

This guest post is part of the Traverse Magazine series “For Land and Water.” Subscribe for more about environmental preservation efforts in our communities.

From nearly every vantage in Elk Rapids, you can see water. Elk River, Elk Lake, Birch Lake, Bass Lake, and east Grand Traverse Bay border this village 20 miles north of Traverse City. In addition, you can see sandy beaches, parks, natural areas, and conservation areas to the north and the south.

A love of this special geography sparked the creation of a community group dedicated to protecting these places. In 2009, after a handful of citizens were briefed on the progressive environmental practices of their Department of Public Works, they persuaded the village council to showcase that little-known information at their next meeting. Inspired by the enthusiastic response, the group formed the Green Elk Rapids Committee (GreenER), received official recognition by the village council, and has expanded its activities every year since.

Green Elk Rapids has a broad but simple mission: to raise awareness and support for environmental issues.

Its special niche is the local community perspective. Working through community involvement and citizen education, and partnering with local schools, businesses and organizations, they examine issues large and small, from recycling, renewable energy, and bird habitat to water conservation and climate change. Recognizing it is the voice of citizens that shapes the future, GreenER members want that voice to be as informed as possible.

GreenER’s guiding principle is to aim for the “mindful middle” and not to simply preach to the choir.

Although the 20-member committee brings diverse political views to the table, they bring one common passion … their shared values about the environment. That means looking out for the interests of the natural environment, with the understanding that new appreciation and real change begins with small steps in the neighborhood and doesn’t happen overnight.

Through public forums, nature hikes, local experts, documentary films, competitions, book discussions, recycling events, a Nobel Laureate visit and internationally acclaimed speakers, GreenER is guided by a philosophy to “think global, act local.” To “think global,” they host documentaries ranging from windmills in Africa to melting ice in Antarctica. To “act local,” their members clean the beaches, conduct MDOT trash pickups, mark the storm water drains, speak at council and commission meetings, and generally promote community appreciation of nature’s role in the future.

In 2017 programs—over a dozen events—GreenER highlighted the critical topic of “water.” An Earth Day workshop on recycling and water conservation brought school children, parents, and visitors from Flint. A book discussion about futuristic water wars mirrored the news headlines of the very day, and a documentary on global water issues brought community-wide requests to show it again. At the annual council meeting devoted to GreenER, the council and community heard experts on water issues from local, regional, and global perspectives, and learned what citizens could do about them. These events melded together and spurred community conversations and debates.

What is GreenER members’ vision for the future of their community? They know everyone enjoys nature, but they want people to understand the long-term impacts of today’s decisions, and the connections between the local level and beyond, be it water ordinances or climate change. They take inspiration from guest speaker Josephine Mandamin, First Nations water walker: “Someday water will be more precious than gold. It is your duty to protect it.” They are motivated by 2017 guest speaker Cynthia Barnett, journalist and author of Rain, that “while we may not all agree on what is causing our climate-related issues, we will have to work together to solve them. Rain is a topic that bonds us all, and that leads to a wider conversation.” These are the kinds of wider conversations GreenER would like to see happen in their community and in everyone’s community.

If you’d like to discuss starting a similar group in your community, GreenER would be happy to share thoughts, advice, ideas.

Royce Ragland is a founding member of GreenEr. This piece was published in the September 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. 

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Photo(s) by Jordan Oster