Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Wangari Maathai: Inspiration and Action

By Nathan
I have to admit that, when I was originally approached to bring Wangari Maathai as a speaker for the Freedom Museum, I didn’t even know who she was. After meeting her and hearing her speak this week, I have no idea how I never knew; but am thankful that now I do.

For those of you who are like I was just a few days ago and are unfamiliar with Wangari Maathai, her biography is an amazing one. In short, Maathai is the founder of the Green Belt Movement. She is an environmentalist, a human rights activist, and a member of Kenya’s parliament. Her actions are esteemed world wide, and have earned her numerous awards and recognitions—perhaps most notably a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

The premise of Wangari’s mission is simple. In Kenya—as is the case in much of East Africa, and even around the world—soils have been eroded by the destruction of forests. Soil compaction means poorer harvests. Poor harvests lead to hunger. Hunger leads to political unrest and violence. Furthermore, carbon producing industries have contributed to air pollution and arguably an increase of greenhouse gases. In both cases, trees are the answer. Planting trees allows for greater absorption of carbon dioxide as well as prevents soil erosion.

In 1976, Maathai introduced the idea of community tree plantings. The intended outcomes were two-fold: repair environmental damage and employ citizens—namely women. In much of Africa (as is the case many other places), men control all of a family’s wealth. Employing women allows them to earn income, provide for families and rehabilitate homelands. What a simple and powerful idea.

When Wangari walked out onto the stage at the Thorne Auditorium on Wednesday evening, she immediately electrified the audience. The crowd of more than 500 people leapt to their feet, offering a thunderous ovation. Dr. Maathai offered insightful perspective on the environment, the challenges that face Africa and our globe, and the importance of individual action. After a discussion of about 30 minutes with moderator Jerome McDonnell of Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview, the floor was opened to audience questions. Dozens of people queued up to ask their question to Wangari.

What amazed me most about the questions was not just the insightfulness of the askers, but the overwhelming number of questions that began with “what can I do to help?” and “what advice would you give someone who wants to get more involved?” It was also one of the most diverse audiences I have encountered at a Freedom Museum program—not just ethnic and racial diversity, but age range as well. Families, children, school mates, senior citizens—they all came to hear Wangari’s inspirational words.

After the Q & A portion (which lasted over one hour), I opened the stage door for Wangari to exit the dais. Another ovation for her was given as she walked out. What impressed me most about Wangari Maathai was not her dedication to protecting our planet and her passion for improving the lives of her countrymen and all global citizens, but the way she energized the audience with her grace, honesty, humor, and humility. She exemplified how freedom is not just a concept to be debated and discussed, but a living thing that requires thoughtful action and clear purpose.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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