Former teacher influences a career in environmental law
(Note: An excerpt from this reflection and others by former students of Sister Helen Vinton, formerly Sister Helen Jean, at the former Ladywood School in Indianapolis were included in the recently published Spring 2015 edition of HOPE magazine. Read the full issue of HOPE here, including an article on Sister Helen’s current environmental ministry in Louisiana. See how your support of the Sisters of Providence allow us to make a difference through cherishing creation.)
Thinking of Sister Helen Jean brings a smile and she absolutely had an impact on me and my eventual career choice. We were so fortunate to have such a beautiful and wild campus at Ladywood, with woods and ravines and Fall Creek running right through the middle. When I took biology from sister she was still in the full habit, and I’ve recounted many times the vivid image I have of her rolling up her sleeves, hiking up her skirt and tucking it in to her waist (she looked like she had big pantaloons) so she could lead us up and down the creek bed to explore and take samples. I think she actually started wearing the modified habit later in the year, but it was quite an experience to hike around with her. I’d never seen a nun do such a thing (and I had been around many by that time).
Being the pack rat that I am, I saved many of the “Lady-Lore” newspapers from when I was at Ladywood, and I found an article with a great, if not prophetic quote from Sister Helen Jean. She said, “As future citizens of the 21st century we cannot afford to be a passive population. We must be able to participate in a 21st century in which discoveries of science have contributed to a Christian Community.” Amen!
One of the things that struck me as I looked through the Lady-Lore newspapers was the number of articles about award-winning science and math projects by Ladywood students and articles reporting on guest scientists who came to Ladywood to talk with students. I took biology, chemistry and physics, and I knew I was lucky because the high school most of my grade school friends attended didn’t even offer physics. Of course I credit the Ladywood administration, Sister Helen Jean and the other science teachers for this emphasis in our education.
While I was never interested in becoming a scientist or pursuing science as a career, my increasing concern over time about our environment has led me straight to science as the key to understanding what is happening to our planet and what we must do to preserve it. The nexus between science and the environmental issues we face should be obvious. Science is based on data/facts. Since seeing the film “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006, I’ve become obsessed with the fact of global warming. I have been compelled to educate myself on the subject as much as possible, and the more I learn the more panic-stricken I become. I am frustrated beyond words at the lack of action from our government — at all levels. And what is most distressing to me is the way science has been ignored, mischaracterized, discredited, manipulated, and used as a political tool to foster ignorance and incite fear and mistrust. I become particularly despondent when I see science pitted against religious beliefs, as if the two are incongruous. I thank Sister Helen Jean in particular for instilling in me her joy and love for the beauty and wonder of creation as discovered through the discipline of science. As she was hiking along the creek in biology class, her joy and enthusiasm were on display and contagious!
I share some of my story to emphasize what a profound influence Sister Helen Jean did, in fact, have on me and the course of my life. I am so grateful, and I hope she will take pride in the path I’ve taken since leaving Ladywood. I took to heart her admonition that we cannot be a passive population.
After college I worked for the Austin (Texas) Parks and Recreation Department for 10 years, helping to start a nature program for children and an outings program where we took children, teens, families, and troubled or physically disabled youth on backpacking trips, canoeing, rock-climbing, cave-exploring etc. At the same time I became involved in the environmental movement, helping to start a recycling program in Austin and opposing irresponsible development in environmentally sensitive areas around Austin. It was my desire to become more involved in environmental protection that led me to attend law school at the University of Texas, where I co-founded the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Society. I moved back to Indianapolis after graduating in 1985, and except for the first two years when I was with a large law firm, I’ve been practicing in the area of environmental law my entire career.
My concern about global warming and the resulting climate change has led me to become involved most recently in Earth Charter Indiana. Because we believe climate change is the most pressing issue facing humanity, we are focusing our efforts on bringing attention to this issue in Indiana. Climate change is more than an environmental issue — it touches on all principles of the Earth Charter — social justice, peace and non-violence, democracy. We have initiated a petition for rule-making with the Indiana Environmental Rules Board, requesting that the board adopt a process for developing a “climate action plan” for Indiana. It has been an uphill battle so far, as we knew it would be, but we are hopeful. I was re-inspired last fall when my husband and I traveled to New York City to participate in the People’s Climate March. What an experience!
While our government has been lagging, the people are beginning to take the lead — especially people of faith. There is an active Green Congregations movement in Indianapolis and I am involved with the Eastside (Indianapolis) Creation Care Network. I am very excited about what Pope Francis already has said about global warming and climate change, and everyone is eagerly awaiting his encyclical, in which he is expected to address this issue squarely. I hope when he speaks to Congress next fall he will call out our national failure to curb our consumption of fossil fuels and show leadership in the development and use of renewable energy. I am looking forward to attending a prayer breakfast at Marian University in March when Archbishop Tobin will speak about creation care. I would love for the Catholic Church to be a true leader in this moral imperative.
It has been really enjoyable for me to reminisce and I certainly appreciate more deeply how fortunate I was to have such a wonderful teacher.