50 years of Earth Day!

Written by Davita Flowers-Shanklin
    Friday, 10 April 2020
50 years of Earth Day!

Did you know that Earth Day started 50 years ago by Wisconsin's very own Sen. Gaylord Nelson?

It's true! Originally, Earth Day was called the National Environmental Teach-in. The goal was to have a national day of ecological observance in order to mobilize public sentiment towards environmental issues and to positively impact future ecological decisions. Sen. Nelson based his idea around the teach-ins taking place all over the country around the Vietnam War. He hoped that students around the country would want to hold events on the same day to help grab the attention of news outlets and most importantly, lawmakers in Washington DC.

What I find the most interesting was that it was important to Sen. Nelson that this movement be led by more than just a politician. He created an independent organization called Environmental Teach- in Inc., a grassroots organization that connected community members, school clubs, and more to help them develop their own demonstrations in their cities. Sen. Nelson didn’t want to shape how people demonstrated, he wanted each place to do what was right for them. I think this sentiment rings true for the UEC as well. We are excited to get people out in nature to see what they then do with it! We want to connect people to our wonderful parks, but don’t expect folks to use the parks the exact same way. Learning about nature and the environment is a deeply personal act and we should be able to express ourselves while we do it. 

Earth Day blue rectangle logo 1

On April 21st, 1970, the night before the first Earth Day 1970, Sen. Nelson gave a speech right here in Milwaukee. He said "Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human being and all living creatures."

Here at the Urban Ecology Center, I think the work that we do embodies these words truly, every day, not just on Earth Day. Connecting people to each other and to the natural world is our goal and mutual respect and decency are important aspects of that connection.

The first Earth Day brought 20 million Americans from over 10,000 elementary and high schools, 2,000 colleges, and over 1000 communities together to care and fight for the earth. The solidarity shown on the first Earth Day 50 years ago brought about the “environmental decade” according to Nelson. In the years following, the public shifted their perspective on the protection of the environment and a lot of our nation’s environmental legislation was passed including the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substance Control Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation act. Most famously, the Creation of the Environmental Protection Agency took place in December of 1970.

It is inspiring to me to see what people can do when we come together and I hope the history of the first Earth Day was inspiring to you as well. I hope you are able to see how important you are to the health and wellbeing of the planet and how we together are inspiring generations to love the natural world through experiences in our city!

Links for reference






Davita Flowers-Shanklin

Davita Flowers-Shanklin

A Milwaukee Native, Davita’s love for nature came from her time spent in her neighborhood park (Washington Park), the summers spent at camp, and visiting family in the Rocky Mountains. Davita’s dreams spanned from swimming with dolphins as a marine biologist, trekking into the great savannas of Africa as a big cat vet, and breathing in lots of old dust as a Egyptologist. Dreams change, Davita got her B.A. from Macalester College and M.S. from the University of Oregon, both degrees in environmental studies with concentrations in biology, ecological restoration, and environmental justice. She loves to travel and work outside. She has two cats and loves going to the movies.


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