How PhD student Brigid Mark joined the fight for environmental justice after spending four years battling a pipeline that she says taints clean water, worsens climate change and erodes native treaty rights
In 2017, Brigid Mark felt an anger like she had never experienced before.
She was at a U.N. climate conference in Bonn, Germany, listening to Pacific Islanders describe how sea-level rise threatened their islands and lives.
She recalls Marshall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner reading her poem, called “Butterfly Thief,” which places blame for rising sea levels on fossil fuel companies, explaining the dramatic cultural and physical losses of her island, and calling for action: “You can’t save this (island). But you’ve gotta save the rest.”
“I felt angry at the injustice that, though the elite in the Global North are largely responsible for global climate emissions, the marginalized in the Global South are affected first and worst,” says Mark, now a University of Colorado Boulder PhD student studying sociology. “I felt inspired by Pacific Islands’ call to action.”
Mark says she knew she needed an outlet for her anger. And she found it at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota. There, she joined a climate action club and took a class where a professor, Corrie Grosse, explained that the marginalized often lead the fight against environmental harms that disproportionately affect them.
Grosse also introduced her to a movement resisting a tar sands pipeline, Line 3, right in her backyard. This pipeline carries more than 750,000 barrels of oil a day from the Alberta tar sands in Canada through northern Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin.
“I care about the pipeline because Line 3 threatens clean water and worsens climate change,” she says. “But the reason I care the most is that it violates native treaty rights. The pipeline . . . crosses Anishinaabe treaty territory, jeopardizing their ability to exercise rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice; a spill could demolish the parts of the land that hold cultural and material importance to Anishinaabe people.”
Mark learned from Anishinaabe leaders that the movement against Line 3 is part of a continuing effort to confront colonization.
“We prohibit this (pipeline) from going through our homelands. . . . We want to heal and live in peace; we want to create a better world. . . . The time is now to honor those treaties,” Mark recalls Dawn Goodwin, an Anishinaabe leader, explaining. “Our Earth cannot take any more. This (pipeline) is a risk for spills, and, we all know, water is life.”
Inspired, Mark joined the Minnesota chapter of 350.org, a climate-justice nonprofit, and began collaborating with many others to organize resistance events against Line 3, some attended by nearly 2,500 people. She also co-published an article on the pipeline’s injustices in an international journal.
Mark attributes much of her passion and achievements to the mentorship and teachings of strong women, beginning with her mom. She says during her childhood in a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, her mom instilled in her “a deep understanding of and dissatisfaction with” injustice.
“She would often read the newspaper aloud to me and the broken parts of our world would bring her to tears. She passed along her confidence that the brokenness in the world can and must be addressed.”
It was also during her childhood that Mark fell in love with the environment.
“When I was a kid, you would find me climbing the two gnarled willow trees in my backyard and catching roly polies from underneath rocks. Everything in the more-than-human world amazed me.”
My understanding of environmental issues began as saving the trees and the polar bears. But climate justice scholars and activists shifted my view to see environmental issues as social, where environmental problems are deeply entangled with injustices like racism and colonialism.”
Mark adds, “My understanding of environmental issues began as saving the trees and the polar bears. But climate justice scholars and activists shifted my view to see environmental issues as social, where environmental problems are deeply entangled with injustices like racism and colonialism.”
Despite resistance to the pipeline, it began operating in October 2021. Mark says she’ll continue to fight to shut it down.
“President Biden could shut it down,” Mark says. “But also, the work would not be finished. The goal of the movement to stop Line 3—and also my goal—is to see a just transition away from all fossil fuel infrastructure, to a socially just, renewable energy future. That kind of transition requires simultaneously addressing the root causes of climate crisis and social injustice.”