Elevating Environmental Communications

By John Sheehan –  the Adirondack Council’s Director of Communications
Thursday, November 9, 2023

On September 14, I traveled to Rindge, New Hampshire, with my friend and colleague Aaron Mair to help him celebrate and document a milestone in his career as an environmental activist.

For the past three years, Aaron has been running the Adirondack Council’s Forever Adirondacks Campaign, promoting the need for clean water, jobs, and wilderness protection. Before that, he had spent an entire lifetime as a pioneer in the Environmental Justice movement, working to improve living conditions and public health in New York’s poorest neighborhoods. In August, we had spent a week working with an archivist from the Library of Congress as he prepared to ship dozens of boxes of Aaron’s professional papers to establish its new EJ collection in Washington, DC.

Aaron (and I, as his wingman/sidekick) had been invited to southwest New Hampshire to a ceremony recognizing Aaron’s work communicating on environmental issues of all kinds. The university intended to honor Aaron’s work on EJ issues, Adirondack wilderness protection, climate change, and many other topics. And as we traveled to Franklin Pierce University, where Aaron was about to be awarded the Marlin Fitzwater Medallion for Leadership in Public Communication, we talked a little about irony.

Wasn’t it odd that a college named for Franklin Pierce would seek to honor Aaron, who was the first Black American to be president of the Sierra Club? Pierce opposed the abolition of slavery. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He enforced the Fugitive Slave Act. Wasn’t it odd also that the Marlin Fitzwater Center would award the medallion for Communication? Fitzwater served as White House Press Secretary to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Neither was a strong voice for climate change or environmental justice.

But the students, faculty, and trustees of the university said they have chosen to look beyond those conservative legacies and work toward a more progressive future. The university was named for Pierce mainly because he was the state’s only president, staff members explained. Fitzwater had made no demands that the award be given to conservative communicators, they said. Last year, the medallion award committee honored Dr. Sanjay Gupta, whose medical reporting on CNN helped the nation cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was clear from our campus visit that the college values diversity and inclusion, placing its trust in women and ethnic minorities at the top of its faculty and staff leadership. We were greeted warmly with a Fitzwater Center reception. Aaron had a chance to pose behind Fitzwater’s White House podium, with photos of its owner and his bosses flashing on the wall-sized video screen behind him.

Aaron Mair behind Marlin Fitzwater's White House speaker's podium at Franklin Pierce University's Fitzwater Center for Communication.
Fitzwater served as White House Press Secretary to both presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and endowed a
college of communication at the university in 1990. The college presents a medallion each year to someone who exemplifies excellence
in public communications. The 2022 recipient was Dr. Sanjay Gupta, for his work in public health communications.

Then, it was off to a small auditorium, where Aaron participated in a panel discussion on climate change and environmental justice with Post Script Media co-founder Stephen Lacey (a Class of 2006 FPU alumni) and FPU sophomore Spencer Murray, a current Fitzwater Scholar. I sat up front with University President Kim Mooney and her husband and rudely snapped photos with my phone during the event. The room was full of students and faculty eager to hear what Aaron had to say.

Prior to the medallion presentation, Aaron participated in a panel discussion on climate change and environmental justice withPost Script Media co-founder Stephen Lacey (a Class of 2006 FPU alumni) and FPU sophomore Spencer Murray, a current Fitzwater Scholar.

After he finished, they talked among themselves about how to incorporate his lessons into their classroom instruction. At dinner that evening, the conversations continued.

With about 800 students, Franklin Pierce University is a little bigger than Paul Smith’s College, the only four-year college in the Adirondacks. Its focus is liberal arts and health care, as opposed to forestry and hospitality. But it had a similar, friendly vibe and welcoming attitude toward a couple of strangers. 

Dr. Priscilla Marsicovetere, Dean of the College of Health and Natural Sciences at Franklin Pierce Univ. presents the Marlin Fitzwater
Medallion for Leadership in Public Communication to Environmental Justice Pioneer and Adirondack Council Forever Adirondacks
Campaign Director Aaron Mair, on Sept. 14 at the campus in Rindge, NH.

The college put us up at the Benjamin Prescott Inn, a B&B on the Boston Post Road just outside of town. It was a lovely colonial home divided into a guest house of small but comfortable rooms, with fields out back sprawling into an unbroken forest beyond. Mt. Monadnock loomed in the distance. We had planned to stay at the local Woodbound Inn, but it was all full due to a quilting convention. Ah, New England …

Our gracious host, Christopher, regaled us with stories of the changing local climate and sent us on our way with a belly fully of well-prepared eggs and – I was mildly appalled to see – a blueberry toaster pancake, topped with maple-flavored corn syrup. Aaron and I survived this Northern Forest culinary catastrophe without complaint and pointed his Subaru west toward home

Looking back, we have fond memories of our brief stay and the people we met. We hope to continue to have a strong, working relationship with students in the School of Communication, who can be tomorrow’s environmental advocates. We hope some will consider internships with the Adirondack Council. Next time we go, we’ll drop some Adirondack maple syrup at the inn.

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