It’s Never Too Late to Become an Activist

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It’s Never Too Late is a series about people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms.

In 1970, Bonnie McKinlay, then a self-described “country hippie” in her early 20s, went to see Ralph Nader speak at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., about protecting the environment.

“There was so much energy coming out of him from his speech,” Ms. McKinlay said. “I realized as an individual that I could help the planet.”

Nearly 33 years later, after retiring from her job as a teacher at a public elementary school, she embraced that mission and became a dedicated activist.

Over the past 13 years, Ms. McKinlay, now 72, has attended rallies, marches, hearings and protests at over 500 events including ones in Helena, Mont., Vancouver, Wash., and New York City.

“Retirement provided me the time to become engaged in the climate movement and it coincided with the proposed expansion of the fossil fuel industry in our region,” Ms. McKinlay, who lives in Portland, Ore, said, adding, “It was happening in my backyard, and I wanted to do something to stop it.”

Much of her activism work has been devoted to attempts to deny permits to construct new fossil fuel facilities. She has mobilized people to attend hearings and public forums, led civil disobedience workshops and maintained an online newsletter with action updates and resources.

Ms. McKinlay, though, often takes a playful approach to her mission. “I also help organize street theater, and design and construct visuals — banners, puppets, costumes and props — all in the hope of raising people’s awareness to our causes,” she said.Those costumes and props have included a figure from the fossil fuel industry wearing a headpiece of a globe with oil dripping out of a rig; a “King Coal” character who wears a crown bedecked with coal pieces, a fur lined cape and a gold cummerbund with a dollar sign on it; and a green, five-headed “Hydra-Fracka” monster. “These costumes are used to bring awareness to the general public by educating with humor and serious information,” Ms. McKinlay said.

She often attends these protests with her husband, Jim Plunkett, who is 77 and a retired mechanical engineer. The couple met on a blind date in 1994, and were married four years later. Ms. McKinlay has two 30-something children from a previous marriage.

“Though my kids don’t protest with me,” she said, “they support what we do and think our being arrested is really cool. I always tell them when I’m going to jail so they know that I might not be home.”

The following interview has been condensed and edited.

Where did your passion for activism come from?

Though my parents were not activists, they were ardent supporters of the civil rights movement. It was the most important news of the day in our house. I learned about the atrocities and prejudices being placed upon people. Through college and in my early years as a teacher, I was concerned about nuclear disarmament and became an antinuclear power activist.

Do you feel you are making a difference?

Yes. Being a climate activist makes me feel useful, that I’m part of something that’s important and that I can help bring about change. It’s not based on hope. I have played a part in the elimination of multiple fossil fuel plants and that’s progress. I’m bringing awareness to causes that threaten the future of the public.

Activism is a passion you share with your husband. What have you learned about your relationship through these experiences?

We share the same concerns and passions, and fight for the same causes, and that’s strengthened our relationship. We’re absorbing the same information and we discuss it and argue about it. It’s given me a new appreciation and deeper respect for his skills and passions. I’ve learned we’re a good team.

In 2011, you and your husband were arrested along with other protesters congregating outside the White House to urge President Obama to deny the Keystone XL Pipeline. What was that experience like?

People who came from faraway — we came from Oregon — were placed in jail for three days. Within the cell, about 20 of us women shared a single open toilet. This gave me a glimmer of the experience of people who spend long periods in jail. Despite the austere accommodations, that weekend was one of my best ever. My co-arrestees were wonderful; their stories were enlightening. I found it motivating and a way to express myself.

When things seem so bleak in the world, what keeps you fighting?

I look back historically at social movements and individual acts of strength, like efforts around slavery, child labor and marriage equality, and what people have done to overcome oppression. I feel strengthened by their ability to persist and to know change can happen. That gives me hope and helps me to keep fighting. Then I remember the unstoppable people and our own victories. For example, it took five years of dedicated activism and many people joining together to stop the nation’s largest proposed oil terminal in Vancouver, Wash. That keeps me going as well.

How has being a climate activist changed you?

It’s made me more confident. I’ve acquired skills I didn’t know I had, like writing news releases, organizing events, designing banners and showing leadership. I can make convincing arguments, provide jail support and be a police liaison. I’ve always had a voice and been interested in rocking the boat, but now I can see how effective my voice is. It’s not just ranting or being concerned, it’s acting on those concerns.

What is the biggest surprise you’ve experienced through this work?

How much fun this work can be. These have been some of the happiest days of my life, which is now a million times richer than before. I’ve made stronger friendships working with people who have the same passions and concerns. It’s hard work but it’s been so engaging.

What advice can you give to others who are passionate about a cause and don’t know how to get started?

If you’re concerned about something, talk with people about it. Go online and look for a national or local organization for the topic you’re interested in. They might offer ways to become involved. Learn what you can about that problem. Find out what people are doing about it elsewhere in the country and see what fits your interests, skill set and your personal experience, and find out how you can become involved on a local level.

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