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Kit Gage

Kit Gage

Friends of Sligo Creek, President

“If you haven’t done the prep work before hand during the down time, then when the wave comes through you will say goodbye to it. I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of waves. It’s not a national phenomenon, it’s not a local phenomenon, it’s an activist phenomenon.”  

Emma: Hello, I’m Emma, I’m from Takoma Park, and this is my classmate Sophie from Seattle. We’re both environmental policy majors at Pitzer, and are taking this course called Global Environmental Politics. Before we start, is it all right if we record the interview?


Kit: Yes, the audio?


Sophie: We’re going to transcribe it and post it on a password-protected site accessible only by our classmates as a database. So, we were hoping we could get a little bit of information about your background, and what you’ve done regarding social change.


Kit: All right, and how long do we have… The short answer is from at least college I’ve been an activist. I graduated from Grinnell in 1973 which means I was going to college basically in the heart of the Anti-Vietnam Movement and a major period around feminism, as well as the very beginning of the gay rights movement. It was around the same time as the demonstrations around Kent State and Jackson State, so there were all sorts of stuff going on and I was involved in all of it. Since then, I have been involved in a variety of issues, a lot of it depended on where there was funding in the issues I was interested in. But for about 30 years I have worked with… a lot of my focus was with legal issues. I’m not a lawyer, I’m a legal worker, which in Washington where I moved after college, meant that I largely worked on policy. But under the overall umbrella I’ve been involved with anti-nuclear power work, when we were in South Carolina, anti-Klan issues, and a variety of progressive issues.

As time evolved in the 1980s and mid 80s there was a huge Central America movement because there were millions of people being dispossessed in El Salvador and Guatemala and coming to the U.S. I I got pretty actively involved in the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission because I was on their Board for twelve years. So, you’re too young to know about it but there were some pretty amazing things that happened with some activists. Two in particular who we helped to support: Sister Dianna Ortiz who has been a great enforcer in Guatemala she was a young American elementary teacher there and had been raped and tortured, came back and tried to hold the U.S. responsible for being part of that torture. Jennifer Harbury is another activist, who happened to be married to what the Guatemalan government calls a guerilla fighter; he was part of the opposition to the military dictatorship in Guatemala. He was captured, tortured, and then murdered in detention. Jennifer was arguing (correctly) that it didn’t matter whose side you’re on, or what they’re involved in, which is different from what Amnesty International and other folks who say that if they’re involved in fighting we can’t support them. But [we] said that nobody has the right to capture, take, or claim somebody and under the right of habeas corpus to not say: Yes, we’re holding this person and not give him or her rights. Jennifer was amazing in raising this as a national issue.

So after that, for the next 20 years or so (as you can tell I’m not young) I worked with the group at the time was called the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation (NCARL), and I was the Washington person. The National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, known as NCARL, ( a 501c4 organization) and then a separate First Amendment Foundation (501c3 organization) merged to form the Defending Dissent Foundation (a 501c3). NCARL had begun its life as the National Committee to Abolish HUAC (the House UnAmerican Activities Committee)

They started out seeking the National Committee to abolish the House Un-American Activity Committee (HUAC), although that was before my time with them. They defended the right to political association and free governmental action domestically, and not so much on the international level. I worked with them, and joined up with three non-profits call the First Amendment Foundation, and I ended up directing both of them. I worked with them through a whole array of different crises including the Oklahoma City bombing, and the 2001 World Trade bombing. I worked with a relatively small agenda initially through civil liberties people saying that it doesn’t matter how wrong the claim is, you can’t throw away the Constitution. I kept being involved in that even though it was an extremely difficult time to be a civil liberties person. If you were trying to defend laws, policies, and then what turned out to be stuff we’re still finding out about, just things that the government didn’t bother to codify in any fashion and removing rights, pretty much any right you want to name. So I was trying to help fight those things.

Starting in about 2005 or 2006, I basically decided I had done everything that I could do in that regard, and completely switched out my career to learn horticulture. I got a horticulture certificate and I became a Master Watershed Steward, which is one of the programs offered in Arundel County, in Maryland. It was the first in Maryland, and I don’t think there are many similar programs anywhere else. It essentially trains people how to change your perspective into being able to look at the way rain falls on the ground, and figure out what’s the problem and how to deal with it. So I’ve been doing that in a whole variety of ways, working collaboratively with the county (Montgomery), and Division of Environmental Protection. I’ve also worked on grants, doing small projects that have tended to be outreach education, sort of collaborative projects where possible, especially reaching out to people of color, immigrants, and other folks who aren’t as connected to the community. We just did a big project at Saint Camillus Catholic Church which has got about 80 languages spoken there, pretty much a working-class congregation, and it’s got everybody in it. It was the most fun to do this project; Father Mike is just hysterical, which is great, because we got to expose a lot of people to these issues in a fun way.


Sophie: Could you tell us more specifically about what the project was?

Kit: It was putting in four conservation landscapes, which are distinguished from a rain garden. Do you know what a rain garden is?


Sophie and Emma: Mhmm, yes.


Kit: All right, so with a rain garden you dig down typically a foot and a half to two feet, remove the old soil, put in a half-sand soil, and you end up with a saucer looking around the top. It’s got some complications: you’ve gotta haul away the soil, where are you putting it? Are you dumping it in a landfill? How environmentally friendly is that? I don’t know, maybe not. So my preference where I can is to do a conservation landscape where you just dig a little of the soil up, break up the soil, plant it up, and mulch it. It doesn’t hold as much [water], but it’s cheaper, and you can do more of those, and are less likely to fail. So we did four different conservation landscapes on this whole broad area hillside. That is my most fun recent project that I’ve worked on.


Emma: Are you still a part of Friends of Sligo Creek?


Kit: Yes, I’m the current president. I got into this organization first by being on the Storm Water Committee, but now as president I do little bits of everything.


Emma: Can you tell me more about what you guys do as Friends of Sligo Creek? Because I’ve been involved in it growing up, but I don’t know that much about how its run, or how big it is, etc.


Kit: Well, it’s hard to tell how big it is because we have not emphasized paid membership, I think one way to measure it is by counting how many people come out to our events. We have two “Sweep the Creek” cleanups a year, people come to pick up trash, and we count the bags of trash as well as turnout. We had more than 400 people come out last time, and that’s been true for a number of years now. We’re about 12 years old now, and about 200 people get the newsletter, and about 300 are on the listerv… I think our database has about 200 “good” addresses as opposed to the 600 to 800 addresses we have.

In terms of issues we work on, we pick up trash, and throughout the year we work collaboratively with the Parks Department and a lot of times people go out on their own who are certified “Weed Warriors” [like I am] from the county who go off on their own sections and pull invasives. There are also organized pulls depending on the time of year, and what we think is important to pull at that time. Companies often come out they’ll have a volunteer day or something, so one of us will help to supervise it. There’s also the Storm Water Committee, like I mentioned earlier, which has done grants, projects since at least 2004 among other things.

There’s the Natural History group, and one of the things they do that is the most lovely is [you can see it on our website]… There are boxes on the creek that one woman writes them up every three weeks or so, with a new photograph, lists events, information on presentations (like, we have one next Tuesday on invasives). Things that have happened, pictures of people involved in the pulls and sometimes there’s a poem. It’s really just beautifully done, and anybody just walking up and down the creek can see these, and learning about what we’re doing. This fall we’ve been showcasing the colors, and encouraging people to look at the flowers on the trees etc. There’s a Water Quality Committee, and we just worked collaboratively with Center for Watershed Protection and another group to measure water quality in 12 different sites on the creek. We have a couple of people who do this routinely, but we’re trying to organize this a little better and more systematically. So we’re kind of organized by committee, so they can go off on their own direction and try to keep track of what they’re doing.


Sophie: It sounds like that program has really grown, you mentioned a turnout of 400 people.


Kit: Invasive pulls have been going on pretty much since the beginning, I don’t think that Sweep the Creek has very much increased in size… There have been some people involved since the beginning, and done millions of hours of volunteer work, there’s some new people getting involved, we’re trying to pull in more new people, and I think that you see that more on invasive pulls. If you go on the website, you’ll see that there are annual reports of what we do, and you can see more or less what I just described in a numerical sense.


Emma: I have more of a broader question, what led you to this career path? Was there a moment, or one issue that you really felt strongly about? You mentioned a lot of different issues in the beginning that you were interested in.


Kit: I’m still interested in all of those issues! I’ve been doing national and international work for decades, though on a certain level I kind of frou-frou individual work, because for me personally I wouldn’t work as a one on one teacher, I like working with broader numbers. Doing local work, I didn’t run into the same messy things as I did doing international work. It was different, and I hadn’t really ever done it before. We even moved to be closer to Sligo Creek, and one of the ways I feel like I stayed sane after 9/11 was that I could go in the backyard and stick my hands in the dirt. When I was succeeding in nothing else despite all of our efforts, I had always enjoyed that. I’ve always been a hiker from my earliest days with my family, we camped and we used to go out to the Olympic Peninsula, Colorado, hike on mountains, I just love that stuff.

When I started getting involved in this, the whole storm water issue is really lugging as a national issue. I wasn’t initially thinking that I was going to be involved in that, I didn’t change careers thinking about storm water, I fell into that. One of the things I ended up doing right after becoming a Master Watershed Steward is starting up a project in Washington. There were three of us from out of the county and included in the [Arundel Program] partly to spread the word of the program and so this woman [Jenny] and I decided to start up a project in Washington area. What the heck, why not? We did it across the Potomac in three jurisdictions: Montgomery, Prince George’s, and the District. We included the Anacostia watershed and the Potomac with a bunch of its watersheds. With three jurisdictions meant getting in contact with three Departments of Environmental Protection, because the watersheds don’t pay attention to the jurisdictions, naturally. We made this project a coalition effort so there were five different watershed groups part of the initial package of organizations because we knew from the beginning that we needed to work together collaboratively on this kind of thing. So we started the National Capital Region Water Systems. We wrote a grant for NFWF (National Fish and Wildlife Foundation) for $186,000 for an organization that didn’t exist [yet]. It was pretty hysterical, and I ended up being the co-director for two or three years, and it was great fun. Intellectually it had a core to it that I really liked, and a vision that I kept in mind.


Sophie: What exactly does a Watershed Master do?


Kit: It’s a course of about thirteen classes for adults. You grab people who have connections to their communities from the whole area. We had a mayor from a little town in Prince George’s County who was making rain gardens, so there are all of these different people with all of these different experiences and connections. We all come together, and they taught us the basics of storm water. Each of us were required to do a capstone project, which is their own watershed project, and they helped us fund it. Of the three jurisdictions [the District, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s county], Prince George’s is the most backward in the storm water world. To some extent you’re using one jurisdiction against another to kind of pressure each other to be better based on what the others are accomplishing. In fact, D.C. DDOE is much more live, and quick action and able to respond to their needs, much more so than Montgomery County, which is interesting. It’s a very bureaucratic lawyered-up business [in Montgomery County], and you can’t get stuff done very easily, even though they have incredible expertise and do a lot of work, but it’s hard to get stuff done, and the District was just better.

Part of the process was everybody feeding together to share information that wasn’t just about the students; it was also twelve jurisdictions in terms of the agency. It was really about making connections, getting them connected to people who have expertise in particular areas, because who will take a six-eight month course and be an expert? You have to take a six to eight month course, and then you begin to know what questions to ask, just like anything else.


Emma: What made you move to the Washington area after college?


Kit: Well, I was pretty sure I wanted to do political change work, and if you’re going to do that with a job, you get hired and move to Washington. So it’s pretty simple. My husband and I lived in South Carolina for five years from the late 70s to early 80s but then we pretty much knew we were going to come back, but we had a little hiatus. We made plenty of trouble in South Carolina too.


Emma: Is South Carolina a totally different environment?


Kit: Completely! Entirely! It took me six months of reading the local newspaper before I stopped yelling at it. Remember, this was a long time ago, and even in Charleston, which is the cosmopolitan city and still is. But racism was still very much an issue, and sexism, oh my god. Going from Washington especially during that era there was a very vibrant left community all of the country, it got pretty mashed up pretty quickly and was self-inflicted. In Charleston from my perspective there wasn’t any catfighting or any little fighting over different political positions, all people doing anti-racism work were also doing anti-nuclear work and gay rights work and the beginning of HIV/AIDS. There was a small group of us who were working together on a bunch of different things. We were still even fighting for the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), and in South Carolina that was a big fight, which we lost. It was nice in some ways, it was refreshing to go there and say: “all right, you’re on this side, great.” You don’t have to explain little nuances of the issues.


Sophie: What were some of the struggles that you faced while you were trying to make change in these different areas?


Kit: Well, with the civil liberties realm any time there’s a terrorist attack you start to count: One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, and then some law or bill drops that you know is going to come, and you know it’s going to be stupid, and you know it’s going to be leftovers of sweepings that didn’t get passed before and then a wish list of other stuff. Some of it was predictable and sometimes we could sweep that stuff back, and sometimes we couldn’t. In terms of 9/11, there pretty much wasn’t a bigger frustration than that. I’m a much more collaborative person, and so when I get whacked by somebody who says: “Oh, that wasn’t the absolute correct position,” I don’t have a lot of patience for that, but it does get in the way of doing the work sometimes.

If you’re in it for the long haul you tend to find that there is always some kind of new issue, and taking a new way of approaching something. You know, with the Master Watershed Steward I ended up being fired from my job because I was fighting with the head of The Board over vision. There wasn’t even a question for me over whether I was going to change my mind over it, and it wasn’t something new, I had had that vision from the get go. So I quit, and it was hard, and it was ugly. On the other hand, I’m a grown up, and one of the nice things about living through messes over a period of decades is that I’m not defined by any one “failure”, or any one “success”. I have also had a life, I have a couple of amazing kids, and a grandkid, and a wonderful relationship.

There has been a ton of frustration, with the bureaucracy in Montgomery County, so we say “Fine, how are we going to get around it?” You just try to be flexible, creative, doing coalition building. With Friends of Sligo Creek and storm water committee, we have a great reputation, really an amazing reputation around the county. Some of it is definitely deserved, and some of it… I’m not sure how we got it to be so amazing, but people definitely think we’re hot stuff: “Oh, you’re from Friends of Sligo Creek!” So I’ve got some gravitas here, which probably helps to be a post-menopausal woman who doesn’t take no crap from nobody!


Emma: So how did you get involved in the environmental sector? Do you think that there’s a connection between civil liberties and the environment?


Kit: One of the nice things about civil liberties is that they connect to everything. If you’re defending people from racism, sexism, environmentalism, gay rights, pick your issue… Most of the coalitions that I have worked on have included environmentalists over the years. It wasn’t so much of choosing an issue, it was me choosing to work on civil liberties. I did more environmental work when I worked on the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) in the late 70s, and early 80s. That was environmental work as I was the operating reactor safety person working with anti-nuclear groups, people who were sending petitions off to the nuclear commission with concerns about steam generator leaks etc. I’ve had environmental connections for some time, including my own digging in the dirt time. It didn’t feel like a leap, even though it sounds like it a leap, it wasn’t. The bigger leap was stopping with my national work.


Emma: When you were working in the nuclear sector, were you doing that on a national level or more local level?


Kit: More of a national level.


Emma: I know that Takoma Park is a nuclear-free city…


Kit: Right, I don’t think that includes nuclear power. In fact, for a while Pepco [electricity provider for DC area] was not invested in nuclear power plants. Since then, larger companies have bought them out so Takoma Park is not nuclear-free anymore if you buy your power from Pepco directly. But I didn’t work on the [nuclear] weapons; I just worked on nuclear power issues.

In Charleston I was on one of the most fun coalitions that I have ever been involved with. So there you are in Charleston, one of the few cities spared from the Civil War, and wasn’t burned to the ground like other cities and it has a very strong preservationist movement [that is entirely white and older]. We wanted to ban high-level nuclear waste. Charleston had a navy base [with nuclear subs in the Port of Charleston] but, not shocked by that we said we want to stop the transmission of nuclear waste in the streets of Charleston. We figured that all of the anti-nuclear people would agree with us, and we figured that the preservationists would not be too happy with high-level nuclear waste spill on their streets that would render their homes unlivable for tens of thousands of years. When thinking of who else should be a part of our coalition, my husband was working with a predominately black union that offloaded a lot of the stuff in the ports as dockworkers. So we approached them and the [mostly white] preservationist activists. We brought in an expert and had a city council hearing, and did a bunch of prep work. The city was interested, and we had the hearing and there was a bill (that the coalition supported) being considered that would ban the waste. Then, three-mile island happened, the nuclear reactor that melted down to the bottom of the containment vessels, and nearly blew up the whole thing. We didn’t know how bad it was at the time, but it was a huge national story, and people were completely freaking out. So we had laid the groundwork, we had the coalition, we had the bill, and the hearing, and then Three Mile Island happened, and the council passed that sucker in half a minute, we didn’t even have to introduce the bill!

This is the mantra that I have shared with a lot of younger activists: So what we call it is the wave-theory of activism, when you’re in the trough you have to do all of your prep work: that’s when you assemble your coalition, get people prepared, have the language of the bill, figured out what it is you want to do… When the time is right [which it will be] you’re ready to go, and you ride the wave. If you haven’t done the prep work before hand during the down time, then when the wave comes through you will say goodbye to it. I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of waves. It’s not a national phenomenon, it’s not a local phenomenon, it’s an activist phenomenon. In order to get this stuff forward, you’ve got to do the work, and you’ve got to do it even when you don’t think you have a big chance of getting it done.


Emma: Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve been working on?


Kit: Well, the one I just told you about was definitely a fun one… There’s a project that I’ve been involved with now that’s kind of funny, kind of major, and kind of awful all at the same time and sort of TBD in terms of how it’s going to turn out. Talking about local, this project takes place in my neighborhood… We’re due for a road renovation, because our streets are just hideous, part of the reason is because they’re very narrow and hilly.

When it rains the rain runs down the street and yanks up bit of the street, little bits of speeds bumps etc. and it all flows into the [Sligo] creek. So you’re left with holes and bigger potholes. So the D.O.T. (Department of Transportation) guy comes out and I told them they really need to do something about storm water, and should look into different environmental design work. He told me: We can’t do that we just have to put in a bunch of under drains and deliver it straight to the creek. So I thought to myself: How mid-20thcentury of you! There’s a Chesapeake Bay-wide requirement to put in an old-fashioned way of handling storm water. So I went to the Department of Environmental Protection, and told them that the DOT wants to put in underdrains, I think we should try to do something different. So the DEP came over to look at it, and agreed that we should try something different, but we’re not exactly sure how to do that.

We completely stalled the process of the road renovation while they all figured out how they were going to handle storm water. Three years passed and they finally figured out how to do it. DEP has the money, DOT has the personnel and we’re contracting it out to outside people and we’re going to do it! Then people were finally going to stop being annoyed at me for having completely derailed the road renovation. My job is to work collaboratively between all the players to make sure everyone knows what’s about to happen. What they were deciding to do was to make a complete neighborhood-wide right of way storm water project. Now there are about a hundred different projects in our relatively small neighborhood: parking pads, tree boxes, they just installed this thing that’s got rocky gabiens and Filterra™ soil … It was a whole big process with dump trucks hauling soil, cement mixers, they ended up having to do curbing to install curbs to direct and limit the storm water. It’s been a process over the last two and half years of educating the neighbors: we have a listerv, getting the county to actually have meetings with people and the full neighborhood. The first meeting they sent out a notice, and expected about twenty people to show up, and there were one hundred people at the first meeting. So there was a lot of enthusiasm in the community. I’ve been the news for both sides, acting as a go between—informing the neighbors, voicing opinions between the neighbors, the county, and the contractors. Over the process of this project now it’s about two weeks from being done. We’ll see how much it costs and how effective it is per foot per square dollar. How well is the dollar spent doing these projects, that’s the question. You can’t do anything besides saying you’re going to capture roadwater but still it’s really expensive. If you’re trying to capture water on people’s yards, you need to eliminate fertilizers and pesticides and all of that… is your money better spent doing in-yard projects? I don’t know but you’re definitely limited. The big unanswered question is: How effective is maintenance going to be? The county says they are going to maintain it and are going to come by once a month. I think this is a more expensive way to do it instead of having local folks assigned in general to take care of leakage, so that the county does not have to pay contractors as much for the maintenance of these projects, because you need to pull up the stilt that has accumulated. Come back and talk to us to two years! Is it working? Does it look good, and is it well maintained?


Sophie: It’s incredible that you got that project moving; you can see that it is effective to step in.


Kit: On the other hand, figuring out how much storm water we have here is a question, and it’s hard to tell because Sligo Creek gets water from both sides (from Takoma Park and Silver Spring). We have a USGS system measuring water at the base of our neighborhood, and there are also projects that have gone on in the Takoma Park side. It’s hard to get an accurate assessment of the change, but the county is trying, and we’re working on doing more snapshot water quality testing. It’s pretty funny, because if I hadn’t intervened and talked to DEP and DOT we would have just had new roads and they would have already been busted up again. If the DOT had put in the under drains we would have been in a shitload of trouble. I did that, it’s my fault!


Emma: Well, we’ll have you to blame!


Kit: I didn’t have to pay for it, but I knew who to talk to and who to put in touch with what and I knew where all the levers were and I pulled them.


Emma: That’s definitely an important skill


Kit: You know who you need to know. The timing was right, it was kind of part of the wave again. I knew they [the county] were doing projects like this and I figured maybe our neighborhood could be one of them.


Emma: Would you say that a lot of activism is being in the right place at the right time?


Kit: Not just that, but knowing where the levers are. If you don’t know who has control over anything then it doesn’t do you any good to be in the right place.


Sophie: It’s about who you know.


Kit: Yea, it is! It’s true on a national basis, and it’s true on a local basis. You can’t count on them making anything happen. If you have enough contacts and enough information to know what some of the arguments are then you can give it your best shot. The right place just happens, I mean it’s not like you just walk to the right place… you are wherever you are, and you work within the circumstances you are handed. You think about: Where am I? What can I do given where I am and what the conditions are.

I’m president of Friends of Sligo Creek, and I’m a very different president from the last president, and that’s not a good thing or a bad thing. I’ve got a different skillset, I’ve headed non-profit organizations for much of my life. So I know some things about how to run an organization.


Emma: Thank you so much for your time, I learned a lot about what is happening in my own neighborhood.


Kit: Good! I hope it was on point for what you guys were looking for.


Emma and Sophie: Definitely. Thank you so much again!

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