Category Archives: Education

The Palace of Discovery

IMG_6968Days of Discovery 2018 – Monterey Bay Aquarium

“The Palace of Knowledge is different than the Palace of Discovery.” Mary Oliver

As students go back to school, and even at very young ages experience the mounting pressure of being judged on their “knowledge” it is important for both parents and teachers to think about what knowledge truly is, and whether or not it can be tested, bell curved, and graded. Is knowledge acquiring a perfect score of 100%? If one’s intellect can be confirmed as superior by A grades, by being able to re-state exactly what has been told to us, students might as well be on a conveyor belt that boxes up perfectly educated children and spits out discards, those who just won’t fit in that box, misfits whose report cards generally fall into the standard deviant, below average range.

I recently had the experience of watching a dedicated team of staff divers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Days of Discovery spend hours in the water with several groups of children… Children whose disabilities and special needs ranged in varying degrees of severity, those with cognitive impairments such as Down Syndrome and autism, others with physical restraints, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, cerebral palsy…
These children, some of whom are paralyzed and others whose own minds keep them bound, were, for a short time released… floating freely in the bounty of the Aquarium’s Tide Pool, discovering the startling cool water, the clamminess of kelp, and the delicate whorl of the tidal snail.

Watching their alert faces and expressions of joy there is no doubt that they were learning, but were we to test them on their experience how would they fare? Can a child’s mind be evaluated on the intricate neural connections that are made by the scent of the sea, the spikiness of a sea star, or the ability to trust a smiling stranger in a scuba mask? Can what the heart discovers be graded? I would not want to be the one who has to decide such a complex and intimate attainment.
Regardless of age and regardless of subject, the more that we can impart the glory and the wonder of the world to students, the more they will learn. Learning is not static. Information continuously flows from one synapse to another creating patterns of recognition and understanding that build knowledge. It cannot be forced or coerced into being. It cannot be accurately labeled as above or below average.

What can educators learn from the children that participated in the Days of Discovery program? That all children have special needs, wants that are so well hidden we often can’t recognize them. Champion the child that doesn’t fit into a standardized mold. Trust that knowledge is being imparted in different ways to each child and, knowing this, to offer a variety of ways to learn.

Brilliance is often overlooked because it is defined by creativity which cannot truly be measured. Be wary of putting to much emphasis on testing, for children will universally shut down if they are shamed by poor grades. I witnessed a child at my local library the week that school began put her head down and cry twice within a half hour over homework, her mother becoming increasingly impatient and irritated with her as she erased her answers again and again. Ask yourself what will be learned from this experience.

There has to be a better way to teach in which students are seen as explorers, encouraged to float freely in this odd and beautiful world – where knowledge is not judged by quarterly report cards, but in the soul, a sacred and individual palace of discovery.

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young scientistMichael Esgro 1991 – Volunteer D.O.D. Scuba Diver – Lifetime Explorer

 

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Notes From A Social Justice Warrior

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©Richard L. Copley            Memphis 1968

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

Alice Walker

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Somewhere between Dr. King’s “luminous brotherhood” and Trump’s “glorious wall” the term social justice warrior has became a sneering pejorative, a mean meme that stereotypes those who fight for human rights.

Social justice is not self righteous, it has nothing to do with the desire not to be offended, it is not communism as many conservatives fear, and it is not fueled by emotion over intellect. It is a cause that deeply respects the dignity of all life. Social justice advocates believe passionately in the fundamental rights and moral freedoms that our Declaration of Independence and Constitution provide, including civil disobedience.

Social justice begins with the right for all to have food, shelter, healthcare, a clean and safe environment, education, and honest employment that offers fair and equal wages. Why has the endeavor to attain this level of decency become either an object of cruel tweets or thought of as an idealistic dream of naive innocents?

Social justice is an ideology that cannot be brought about by laws alone. If this were so, the Civil Rights Act would have ended racism. The cause of social justice is in the very fabric of who we are as individuals, what we believe in and how strongly we believe in it. Activists for this movement may be ridiculed but be careful of defamation and dismissal for they are the arch weapons of bullies and despots.

As we work for equality it is important to be careful of what we want to be equal to…a glossy society fascinated by power, wealth, sexuality and violence…a culture in which the bloodied, dismembered bodies of men, women, and children, are “collateral damage” and practices of torture “enhanced interrogation techniques”? Anodyne Orwellian phrases shield us from the truth, pacify, and lull us into thinking that all is normal and acceptable. Beware, they are designed to limit your thinking. The rise of Trumpism and the tyranny in its wake is a warning against this kind of complacency and carelessness.

As an educator, Trump’s campaign quote, “I love the uneducated!” reverberates.

Knowledge is power, and no one knows this more keenly than those who would seize it. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights activist and social justice hero, “I question America”.

To question, one must be educated and aware. This is why the campaign to smear journalists who don’t fall in line with the GOP status quo as liars and pervaders of “fake news” is critical to resist. We have a moral duty to be educated citizens, but without freedom of the press this becomes a difficult task. Journalists speak truth to power, without this safeguard we are exposed to the toxins of lies, fear mongering, distrust, and the spread of hatred and intolerance, all precursors of a fascist regime.

Social justice is not an isolated condition. It is a complex aspiration with roots in empathy. Empathy is not possible without believing in the humanity of all peoples, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or status. It cannot be achieved in a vacuum but is deeply entwined in all aspects of our life, from the collapse of eco-systems caused by pollutants, the myriad effects of poverty, to gun laws and their direct impact on the safety of our children.

To embrace a true and global integration we must value the sacredness of life. We must acknowledge that whatever pain society suffers affects us all. When we fail, it is a collective failure. Social justice is not a partisan matter, nor a liberal fantasy, but an aspiration that may be our only hope in preserving, not just our democracy, but the future of our planet as well.

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“I can not, will not, permit myself to envision a world in which humanity is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright day break of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”        Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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©donnaesgro        March For Our Lives      Los Angeles, 2018

 

 

 

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Walking in a Winter Wonderland

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Courtesy of: “The Snow Tree”

(and Avelena, age four)

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This year, as always, and like thousands of other educators, I dust off my winter holiday books –   “Frosty the Snowman”, “The Polar Express”, “The  Penguin Who Wanted To Sparkle”. I speak to children of the magic of sleigh rides or the science of snow crystals. Many of the illustrations in my books are glittery and shimmery, snow drifts in the moonlight and candles aglow.

But last week, as I read “The Snow Tree”, a story of a cub’s astonishment at experiencing his first snowfall, my mind was not on the beautifully illustrated pages but on the graphic images captured by Paul Nicklen, Marine Biologist and National Geographic Photographer, of a  Polar Bear in the Baffin Islands:

https://tinyurl.com/yc5pz2w9

Is this horrifying and shameful spectacle of the neglect and abuse of our power as humans what we stand for? How do those whose hearts are shattered by this legacy protect, cradle, and nurture our sacred earth? As the current leaders of our country not only actively deny climate change, but champion the corporate interests that have caused it, we must resist in every way we can.

https://tinyurl.com/y6w6llpo

Being an activist is a noble cause. But it doesn’t just mean marching, signing petitions and voting – vital endeavors as we have seen –  but also the thousand small choices that we make throughout our days. Mindfulness has become a common concept. But, in the tossing about of the word, has the meaning escaped us? To be mindful is to be alert and aware. “Life is not a problem to be resolved but a reality to be experienced.” Kierkegaard

It has become so easy in the modern world to be careless. Releasing balloons into the air is celebratory and metaphorically beautiful. But what happens to those balloons? Most end up in our waterways and are often ingested by sea creatures who, fatally, mistake them for food. Juice boxes are cute and convenient, but each one takes about 300 years to degrade. The largest accumulation of garbage (twice the size of Texas and growing) floats in our very own ocean off the coast of California. Plastic is one of our planet’s most crucial enemies…And it is an enemy that we can all fight.

Take your children outside and express your love of the trees, the birds, the ocean-each mottled leaf and speckled shell.  Let them know that, just as we protect our family from danger, it is our sacred duty to protect nature. Get them away from the addictive call of their devices and get their hands in the dirt. Teach compassion for all who are hungry, homeless and hopeless, whether they be men, polar bears, or coral reefs…let your children know that all of these are one. One heart that beats. One soul that suffers.

Remember, your carbon footprint has little feet behind it, so when you choose to refill your water bottles, say no to a plastic straw, or bring your own bags to the grocery store, let your children know why you are doing so. We can all be guardians of the earth in our own way. Together our matchstick flares can bring light to the darkness and inspire hope…. hope, the ephemeral, invisible and intangible “thing with feathers” that our future depends on.

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Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all

Emily Dickinson

One million sea birds are killed annually from plastics in our oceans.

 

https://www.nrdc.org/experts/nrdc/senate-just-opened-door-drilling-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge

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The Symbiosis of Writer & Illustrator

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One of the earliest books ever read to me was Honey Bear by Dixie Wilson (1923), illustrated by Maginel Wright Barney. As a very young child I was mesmerized, both with the rhyming story and the exquisite illustrations-the dusky velvet sky, the deep lavender shadows, Honey Bear in his rumpled rose colored jacket…

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Once upon a summer in the hills by the river

Was a deep green forest where the wild things grew

There were caves as dark as midnight

There were tangled trees and thickets

And a thousand little places where the sky looked through

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Later, as an adult, I read Algonquin Publishing’s introduction to their series of books for children:

“The makers of Sunny Books believe that books for children should be not only entertaining, but conform to the highest ideals of beauty in book-making, so that the fortunate child who owns them will develop good taste in reading and in art.”

Fortunate, indeed, I was, to fall so completely and sweetly in star dusted love with literature long before I could read.

When choosing first books for your child, be aware of the quality of both writer and illustrator. There is deeper enchantment in the reading of a story when both artists work in harmony with respect and passion for their material.

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The Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”

Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

Alice in Wonderland has been illustrated by many artists over the years. But, the original black and white John Tenniel drawings reflect best the oddness and dreaminess of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece. Carroll was a visual artist as well as a writer and knew the importance of the illustrator’s contribution to the integrity of the story. He could have chosen among dozens of children’s book illustrators adept at depicting whimsical fairylands. Instead he chose the acerbic Tenniel, known for his wicked sense of humor and grotesque political cartooning. The choice is intriguing and telling.

My mother often told me the story about how, when she was a little girl, she would sneak down into her grandfather’s library after everyone was asleep and read. Late at night, in the shadows of the dark room, she was both spellbound by Alice’s adventures and terrified by Tenniel’s drawings. A fact that, I’m sure, both gentlemen would have appreciated.

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Piglet: “How do you spell ‘love’?”

Pooh: “You don’t spell it…you feel it.”

In a similar close relationship, A.A.Milne worked with Ernest H. Shepherd to create the charming Winnie the Pooh books. Together they capture the elusive innocence of a young child’s long golden days at play…the simple drawings a metaphor for the zen like simplicity of the characters. Disney’s much commercialized renditions, with their artificial cuteness that have turned Pooh from a humble sage to a bumbling clown, are loud, garish, and awkward when compared to the delicate and sensitive drawings of the original illustrator.

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Charlotte’s Web would still be a classic without E.B.White’s collaborator Garth Williams’ illustrations, but has anyone else ever drawn Wilbur, Charlotte, Fern, or the well meaning Mr. & Mrs. Arable with greater humor, compassion, gentleness, and love? This is a difficult book emotionally as its principal theme is suffering and death. Yet Charlotte’s story shimmers with hope. Williams’ tender black and white illustrations attend to the sacredness with which the author sees life and death.

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But Charlotte,” said Wilbur, “I’m not terrific.”

“That doesn’t make a particle of difference,” replied Charlotte. “Not a particle. People believe almost anything they see in print. Does anybody here know how to spell ‘terrific’?”

In cases in which a wonderful writer is also an accomplished illustrator, such as the works of Maurice Sendak, Rudyard Kipling, or William Blake, the reader is twice blessed with this deeper plunge into the original story creator’s mind. The fantastical fracas of Sendak, the exotica of Kipling, and the metaphysicality of Blake are omnipresent; as much in each brushstroke as in each word.

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“It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.”

Although Antoine de Saint-Exupery never considered himself a visual artist, who can help but fall in love with the earnest Little Prince? The spareness of Exupery’s watercolors perfectly express the underlying message of his simple yet profoundly wise moral tale. And although I agree with The Little Prince that “What is essential is invisible to the eye”, it is often through, not only our reading and uses of imagination, but through our contemplative gaze that the invisible is revealed to us, clear, in all its squalor and glory.

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“Let The wild rumpus start!”

Maurice Sendak

Where the Wild Things Are

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The Way of the Reader

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©donnaesgro

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“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We live in a distracting world, but we fool ourselves when we think that, by doing more than one thing at a time we are being efficient. To be mindful, fully present in the moments of our lives, sounds deceptively simple, but, especially in this electronic age, is a decided discipline.

Reading, because it slows one down and encourages uses of imagination and focus, can be a gentle bridge to serenity.

As more and more children abandon reading for electronics, neuroimaging research shows that excessive screen time damages the developing brain by creating structural and functional changes in the regions that control emotional processing and cognitive control.

Of particular concern are findings that show damage to areas of the brain that equate physical attributes, such as facial expressions and body language, with emotion. This kind of damage, combined with the rapidly growing trend to spend more time socializing online than face to face, are a cocktail that severely impacts healthy social emotional development.

Conversely, reading develops brain connectivity, particularly in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with language and in the the sensorimotor region, the region of the brain responsible for something called embodied cognition, the ability to empathize.

Studies show that daily reading also increases connections between the brain’s hemispheres.  These neural pathways aide in the growth of a multitude of complex cognitive functions.

Undoubtedly, reading makes you smart. But does it also make you wise?

When we read to our children we encourage them to be still in body and mind, to listen attentively, and to focus intently. We offer a refuge from the jangle of the modern world and give them our full attention in a joyful and quiet way.

Reading develops Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand that others have needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings that may be different than one’s own. These early stirrings of compassion are the foundation on which tolerance is built.
Reading, by its very nature, takes us outside ourselves. We become emotionally and intellectually sympathetic to characters who often are quite unlike us. This creates, in the child, an attitude of acceptance in which he or she is not threatened by foreign ideas…the seeds of a peaceful world.

Like a spiritual practice, reading offers a time to reflect, to ask questions and to examine one’s own life. It helps to foster what Albert Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
It makes us receptive, open to new concepts that inspire wonder, creativity and clarity…Deep reading allows us a singular meditation even in the midst of chaos and confusion.

In an often dark world, books illuminate.
Statistics show that, after their schooling is completed, almost half of the population of the United States never reads a book again.

So, if you ever find your children reading under the covers with a flashlight, quietly close the door and let them stay up late, their growing minds and hearts filled with vivid imagery and emotion as they follow their own singular bumpy twisty  roads to enlightenment.

 

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Be Inspired

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©donnaesgro

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“Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

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The first story I remember being read to me was Honey Bear, by Dixie Wilson. The cadence of my mother’s voice, the enchantment of the illustrations…I couldn’t get enough of this little book…its Belle Epoque watercolors and rhyming verses like the bells of fairies. It took me to a place I never knew existed, a wondrous place. I was inspired, in the true sense of the word, filled with the spirit of literature.

Yet the feelings this story aroused were not simply of joy, but also, like all epiphanies, laced with longing. I traced my fingers over the delicate illustrations…the glowing cottage in the dark woods…the garden blooming with anthropomorphic flowers. I yearned to be there, a part of this loving family in their rapturous world.

The next book that hit me like a thunderbolt was E.B.White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was seven and longed with all my heart to be Fern…raising a baby pig, sitting silent in the barn privy to the conversations of animals…brave and tender Fern, who stood up to her father to save a helpless runt…reckless Fern, swinging out from the high loft of the barn on an old rope…circumspect Fern, who deeply listened before she spoke.

As an awkward ungainly preteen, the intelligence and independence of Nancy Drew seemed out of reach. Yet, I collected, read and re-read the dozens of blue cloth covered editions…her ordinary world so extraordinary to me, the wide tree lined streets, the stately homes with their generous porches, her stalwart convictions, her steadfast fight for justice while speeding around jauntily in her roadster without a blonde hair out of place.

I abandoned Nancy when I discovered Jane. Austen’s heroines were women I could imagine myself becoming…snubbing high society’s mores while strolling through formal English gardens…exposing hypocrisy while dancing in gilded ceilinged ballrooms.

The spiritual journey that books set me on is a never ending one..sometimes an Autobahn, sometimes a labyrinth, but mostly a twisting path that splits into many side roads…from Anna Karenina to Chekov, Turgenev, and my first true love, Dostoevsky…from a short story by Guy de Maupassant to Flaubert, Victor Hugo, and Proust. Today the books on my nightstand spill into stacks on the floor.

“So many books, so little time.” Frank Zappa

Although it is important to allow a child in a library or bookstore free reign to explore, it is also a good idea for the parent to be aware, just as he or she is aware of what foods are nutritious for the body, what books develop a child’s mind in healthy ways. Publishing for children is, after all, a business, one which is heavily researched and marketed to be delivered in bright shiny packaging designed to lure your child. So be aware, there are books that exploit rather than respect the child. The next time you take your child to pick out books, be involved in the process, find stories you loved as a child and point them out. Don’t forget to get a book for yourself, too. Your example, by way of the value you place on reading, is truly inspirational.

Of course, great children’s literature doesn’t have to be fiction, wonderful nonfiction books such as those by Gail Gibbons, Charlotte Zolotow, and Tana Hoban broaden the child’s knowledge of their immediate environment and answer many of the child’s unasked questions about how the world works.

Below is a link with a list of some outstanding children’s books:

http://www.readingrockets.org/article/75-authorsillustrators-everyone-shouldknow

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Books provide escape and comfort, but they also introduce the eternal questions, Why am I here?, ponder good vs. evil, and inspire us to wonder. My daughter, in her devotion to one of literature’s greatest female role models, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, would not take off her ruby slippers for weeks, even to go to bed.

Whether you find your inspiration in Candy Fairies or Candide, whether you are reading from a rare first edition or a Kindle, books will always be a journey of egalitarian enlightenment. Follow your heart. The world today needs inspiration.

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So please, oh please, we beg, we pray

Go throw your TV set away

And in its place you can install

A lovely bookshelf on the wall

Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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What books have inspired you or your children? I’d love to hear from you.

Reduce Reuse Recycle Resist

FullSizeRender-6Earth Day 2017                                                                                                             ©donnaesgro

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Treat the earth well

It was not given to you by your parents

It was loaned to you by your children

We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors

We borrow it from our children.

Ancient Indian Proverb

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Earth Day 2017 took on greater meaning than ever before. Since Trump took office his administration has systematically undermined and dismissed scientific facts such as global warming as liberal hysteria.

In a mere 100 days he and Congress have implemented unprecedented easing of environmental protections beginning with the Orwellian act of excising all mention of climate change from the White House website. This draconian editing process was followed by the appointment of the fossil fuel shill, Scott Pruitt, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Pruitt, outspoken in his opposition to the very values that the agency upholds, has stated that “carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to climate change.”  He sued the EPA for supporting President Obama’s Clean Power Act – an important piece of legislation that for the first time set Federal limits on carbon pollution. Pruitt is a man who Trump praises highly, stating that his new head of the EPA “will reverse an out-of-control anti-energy agenda.”

Appointing Scott Pruitt to head the EPA is akin to placing someone who believes that the earth is the center of the universe to head NASA. We will not let the current GOP lead our nation down a perilous path with their “Roadmap to Repeal” (An actual document compiled by The Freedom Partners – a group of wealthy political donors organized by the Koch brothers).

Scientists are accustomed to thinking of things in terms of hundreds of thousands of years (or light years). But, as seen by the massive worldwide turn out for the Science March on Earth Day, the boundary between politics and science is now an illusion.

When Trump repeals environmental safeguards such as the Clean Water Act, which protected the fragile eco-system of our streams and rivers from becoming dumping grounds for toxic waste, and when agencies such as NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) are being treated dismissively as extraneous, scientists have been forced to become activists.

Trump’s careless tweets, his mendacity, his toying with the grave issues of global warming and nuclear war, reveal the vulnerability of our dreams for our children and the world they will inherit. Dreams that are worth fighting for – that have always been worth fighting for…a world that is cleaner, safer, more compassionate, with liberty and justice for all.

Gather your friends and family and lace up your boots. We have seen in the last 100 days that our voices are powerful. We are all connected, just as all waterways are connected as they flow to the sea. Hear the call to action. There is no time to lose.

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“What used to be a wish list of the oil, coal, and gas industries has become the to do list for Congress and the White House.”

Michael Brune – Executive Director-Sierra Club

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttwP02WXB0I

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