Every State, Every Race, Every Place, with Courtney Bowie – Episode 412 of The Action Catalyst Podcast
- Posted by Action Catalyst
- On January 17, 2023
- 0 Comments
- environment, law, leadership, overcome adversity, success, thinkingahead
Courtney Bowie, Managing Attorney for Earthjustice, shares her thanks to ThinkingAhead and her time in the New York Supreme Court, why 50 years in the legal world is just a short time ago, the huge misconception and history-making moment around the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the importance of resting up for a squabble, and other thoughts on the history of struggle, working with existential threat, “forest bathing”, leaning on a higher power, and a bit of motivation from Helen Keller.
Courtney Bowie joined the Northeast office of Earthjustice in New York as managing attorney in January 2020.
A champion of civil rights, Courtney brings to Earthjustice a wealth of litigation and management experience from her 20-year legal career fighting for social and racial justice with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she most recently served as a Senior Advisor for Affiliate Legal Programs, and with the Southern Poverty Law Center. She has advocated for justice on behalf of her clients while at the ACLU in several states including North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. While Legal Director of the ACLU of South Dakota, Courtney represented protesters at Standing Rock and challenged South Dakota’s unlawful attempts to prohibit advocacy and protests against the Keystone XL pipeline.
Prior to joining the ACLU, Courtney was an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, where she directed the Mississippi Youth Justice Project and litigated systemic claims on behalf of students with disabilities in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Courtney also served as an adjunct professor at New York Law School and began her legal career in civil litigation at Goodwin Procter LLP in Boston. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and the University of Texas School of Law.
Learn more at EarthJustice.org.
The Action Catalyst is presented by the Southwestern Family of Companies. With each episode, the podcast features some of the nation’s top thought leaders and experts, sharing meaningful tips and advice. Learn more at TheActionCatalyst.com, subscribe below or wherever you listen to podcasts, and be sure to leave a rating and review!
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR RSS FEED: https://feeds.captivate.fm/the-action-catalyst/
SUBSCRIBE ELSEWHERE: https://the-action-catalyst.captivate.fm/listen
(Transcribed using A.I. / May include errors):
Intro: On today’s episode, host Dan Moore is joined by Courtney Bowie, managing attorney for Earth Justice, the premier non-profit public interest environmental law organization with time spent at the A C L U as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center. Courtney is a champion of civil and environmental rights, drawing from the experience of a 20 year legal career to bring a strong voice to those in need. We hope you enjoy the discussion.
Dan Moore: Everyone. Welcome to the Action Catalyst. Today our guest is Courtney Bowie, who’s got an amazing background, a great story, and she’s making a difference for our world every single day with what she does, and since Action Catalyst is about making a difference, we’re delighted to have you as a guest.
It’s interesting how our family of companies is connect because I understand that a young recruiter named Jess Martinez is the reason that you joined Earth Justice. Could you give us a bit of background on that?
Courtney Bowie: Sure thing. I was working with the A C L U and I’d been the South Dakota Legal Director for a number of years, and when I moved back to New York in 2019, Jess reached out to me about Earth Justice and it was perfect timing because I just worked collaterally with Earth Justice because I’d been representing protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest in Standing Rock, um, near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. And I was really interested in the work. The environmental movement and environmental justice.
Dan Moore: That’s a great connection. Jeff’s is part of Thinking Ahead, which is a full service search and recruitment firm that’s part of our family of companies. So I’m glad you had that connection.
Courtney Bowie: Yeah, she was amazing. She shepherded me through the entire process of applying for the managing attorney role in the northeast region for Justice. And it was a really, just, like I said, a, a really helpful and good connection for me.
Dan Moore: I know you didn’t start off thinking that you’re gonna be in public service law. You started off in a, in a law firm in. Can you kinda share with us some of the most significant periods in your, in your life as you look back on it? In other words, the point A led to point B, led to C, led to B, but some are more significant than others. So what, what caused you to kind of take the route that you’re in now over these many, many years and great successes?
Courtney Bowie: I went to law school initially thinking I was going to be in public interest law, or more specifically criminal defense law. And I went in the mid nineties and I had been living in Boston for a number of years, loved Boston, shout out to Boston, and I had worked at a small non-profit in Boston before I went to law school.
So after college I joined a non-profit called Nccj, which I think is defunct. But it was the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It later became the national conference and it, they may have some offices now, but it used to be a nationwide organization. We did a lot of really great fun, interesting work around equality and justice and iss.
I ran a camp called Anytown North of Boston, which brought together urban and suburban kids to get to know each other. And it was delightful. And I thought, you know, I’ll go to law school and continue. Working on criminal justice issues, defending people who’ve been, um, accused of crimes. And then my first summer, after my first year at University of Texas, I came back to the Northeast and worked as an intern for a judge in the Supreme Court of New York, which is the felony trial level in New York.
Most states, the Supreme Court is, is an appellate court in the New York, the Supreme Court. Where felony trials are handled and I was in the Bronx and I realized I didn’t have the stomach for it. I believe very much that people deserve criminal defense and. I know people work on both sides of that. I didn’t wanna prosecute the people who were coming before the judge, but I also did not, I didn’t have the stomach for, you know, getting into the facts of those cases.
I did it for three months. It was more than enough, and so I went back to law school, kind of reassessed my second and third year and went to a defense firm. Met great people, learned a lot, learned how to be a really good litigator at a firm in Boston called Goodwin. But I also, after a little while there, I knew, you know, I wanted, I really do wanna do this civil rights thing, or lead law, and so I just applied to every civil rights position in the country.
Social justice position that I could think of. And Southern Poverty Law Center was hiring and they had one office at the time in Montgomery, Alabama. I’d been to Alabama once and actually I’d been to Tuskegee once on a visit in high school that, you know, they offered me the role and I sold everything in Boston.
My condo packed up my stuff. Drove to Alabama and started working in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s how I ended up kind of into social justice law world initially, just because there was a 0.4 years after I started at Goodwin that I thought, you know, I don’t really wanna practice law, or I just want to use law to do good.
Dan Moore: Exactly. That’s quite a journey.
Courtney Bowie: It was, Alabama was really quite a different, it was a change from Boston where I’d spent most of the last 10 years.
Dan Moore: And Alabama’s the side of so many social justice milestone moments for our whole country.
Courtney Bowie: Indeed. It’s a really amazing place. There’s a rich history, rich culture. I met amazing people in. P C and other non-profits. It’s a relatively small, progressive community, and so it wasn’t hard to get to know everyone because there aren’t that many people on the progressive side of things in Alabama.
Dan Moore: Right. But that progressiveness is such an important thing to keep fanning that flame. Absolutely. Along the way, Courtney, you have bound to hit some pretty significant brick walls, things that were just showstoppers at the moment. What are some strategies or advice you could share with us when you hit one of these unexpected things that you can’t see around it? Can’t see over, can’t see under, what are some coping strategies you could share with us?
Courtney Bowie: So there are different types of brick walls and I, I’m thinking of the, I mean, so there are brick walls that you hit because you think, you know, this social problem is not so, and I think a lot of people probably feel that right now in many ways. And a lot of the work that I’ve done, both like racial justice, voting rights, Women’s rights and environmental work.
So that’s one brick wall. And then the other brick wall is like just me personally, like I just need a break or professionally, like this isn’t going the way I want it to, so I need to, I need to step back. The first one I think is more existential in kind of thinking about. How do I go forward in this profession, in this world when the deck seems so stack?
And I think that’s what’s so cool about what you talk about and what, what you have to try to keep in mind when you’re doing this type of work is that most change is incremental, but it requires people who are good. And I think there are people who are good in every state, in every race, in every place.
Like good people have to stand up and. And have the courage to say, I think this is wrong or that is wrong. There’s a toll and there’s a cost when you do that. It can be exhausting and that can cause a brick wall because you do it and you sometimes feel alone, but you don’t realize when you do that, it helps other people come around and say, you know what?
Yeah, this is wrong, or, or I can see a better future or a different future or future that doesn’t involve continuing to do the same thing if in fact this thing is unjust and sometimes it requires really doing a lot of. And research or media to show that something’s unjust or not right, or it’s not going to end well.
Sometimes it just requires naming something that we all kind of feel is not right. I take heart by understanding this history of this country and, and history in general. I’m a big history buff and understanding that. At every moment in the country’s history. I mean, there was a point in the 1860s most people didn’t think the country was going to survive, and we went through a period of civil war that resulted in three the most significant amendments to the Constitution.
The 13th Amendment outlying slavery, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection to all citizens, and the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. That was after years of bloody struggle. Many, many people dying and being maed and, and I think you have to keep that history and that context and moment, right.
Dan Moore: That gives you some strength when you realize that the history of struggle is not necessarily one hit and you’re done. It’s a process. It can take generations, in fact to accomplish.
Courtney Bowie: Absolutely. And also that people have been in it for years.
Dan Moore: Well, they really have, you know, I was in middle school when Rachel Carson’s book, silent Spring came out and I woke up everybody because D D T was the main pesticide used in farms.
It was even used in homes. And I remember what a tremendous wake up that book was for so many of us. I remember when I was in high school and the Clean Air Act pass in the Clean Water Act pass, and this was against an awful lot of industrial opposition. And those things have been real difference makers.
Courtney Bowie: Yeah, I think you’re pointing to a really important recent moment, right? Like that’s what I love about coming to environmental law from civil rights and social justice, like I’m talking about 1865. Rachel Carson is late sixties. And all of these laws were passed in the seventies, so they’re 50 years old.
And I think when people, and it’s particularly some of the younger people who are coming into their careers and wanna get involved in the work of protecting the environment because it’s going to impact them more than it’s going to impact me. Part of that is, Making sure they know that 50 years is not a long time for law.
That we had the 14th amendment on the books in 1865, but it was the 1960s where a lot of those rights became real for people. And we can change them. We can amend the laws if we need to. We can keep fighting. We can keep bringing cases. One case isn’t going to make a difference.
Dan Moore: No, but it’s gonna take that groundswell of people saying, enough is enough. We’ve gotta pull this together. And when it comes to the environment, last time I checked, we only have one.
Courtney Bowie: We do only have one. We’ve got one shot at this, and I think it’s in charity right now. I mean that everyone becomes aware and becomes a protector in the way that my indigenous clients in North Dakota and South Dakota used to, I mean, they’re all water protectors.
That’s what they call themselves. And I thought it was, was really appropriate. Its book got me. Environmental justice work. I was thinking the issue out there was race. They were saying the issue for them was protecting their water because water is life and they’re absolutely right. We don’t have water.
Nothing else is really going to matter. All of these other things are going to feel very secondary.
Dan Moore: True. So water protectors, what a great term.
Courtney Bowie: They were coming together around protesting the Keystone Excel pipeline. There are a number of tribes, obviously a lot of tribes in South Dakota and North Dakota.
They called themselves the Lakota, I believe, but the term we use is Sue. That’s the French term. When they got together to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was crossing the Missouri. Just above the water intake for the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. It was the first time the tribes of the Lakota had come together since the 1860s.
So the, the camp was called Oceti Saee because that’s the Council of Seven Fires. And those seven tribes got together in a way they hadn’t in what, 150 years. And then also, almost every tribe in the country came to South North Dakota, excuse me, and brought their flag, and they walked with a ceremony and drums.
It was really beautiful. It was a camp where people were camping and praying, and this was in August of 2016 that folks are protesting this pipeline because of the threat to the Missouri River, which is a huge drinking water source, not just for Standing Rock City Reservation, but for millions of people.
They all came and got together for the first time in the history of this continent, right? These are all separate sovereign nations. These tribes, they had always been. And so it was an amazing thing to see tribes from all over the country, from the northwest, from Maine, from Florida, coming up to North Dakota with their flag to say, we support you.
And then camping for a day or two. And it was really a beautiful thing until the oil company, you know, started bringing lawsuits against people for interfering with pipeline and civil trespass and things of that nature. But, um, it was really quite an amazing thing to.
Dan Moore: It, it, it truly is. You know, a lot of our listeners are also very cause driven and sometimes it’s against overwhelming odds, but what do you do to keep from just getting discouraged in the face of these massive forces that seem to be working against you?
Courtney Bowie: I mean, I, I’ve always found great friends in the cause, and also I take little mini breaks when something’s going. You go full throttle and you, you know, you show up When the thing was happening in Dakota, in North Dakota, and I was the South Dakota Legal Director, which also covered North Dakota. I just went back and forth to North Dakota in 2016 until the end of the year and wrote a lot of motions and wrote letters and met with people.
I did what you do as an ACL U attorney. At the time I was the A C L U Earth Justice was working on a permitting They. A tremendous job, you know, making sure that that permit was environmentally reviewed and doing everything they could in court to get that stop. But a lot of people were just kind of in it.
And then when the Alexia occurred and the permits were granted, and the court case was still going on, but it wasn’t my piece, it took a little break and I, I hung out with my family. You know, I get out in nature, I like to hike, I like to, And I, I just kind of step away from everything in terms of what’s going on in the courts and just focus on the now and focus on the now.
Like I don’t read books about climate change. When I’m doing that. I just step away and make sure that I’m rejuvenated so that when there’s time to get into a squabble, I’m ready to go and I can lead my team. I have an amazing team of people at Earth Justice. I manage, um, really talented lawyers, lobbyists. Senior analysts, policy folks, and we need to be ready.
Dan Moore: I was gonna ask if you kind of insist that your team also take those breaks. Sounds like you do.
Courtney Bowie: Absolutely. I think it’s crucial because I think a lot, it’s hard when you’re in this work to like take a day off because you think the work is so important.
You have to just keep grinding. And I certainly entered the work that way, like thinking, you just go, go, go. And it’s really kind of disrespectful to the cause to. A night off or a weekend off, you know, you need to be going 24 7. But what I realized is if you don’t like stop and take care of yourself, you’re, there’s something’s going to stop you.
You know, your body is going to stop you or your mind is going to stop you and you’re gonna give up altogether. And so I am a big fan of telling people, you know, this work is incredibly, I. There’s nothing more important than, you know, the threat to our existence. It’s, it’s an exist, it’s an existential threat.
The work we’re doing in environmental justice is, is trying to stop an existential threat to humanity. But you need to be ready to do it. You need to be okay and in order do that. Sometimes you’re gonna need to take breaks and that’s okay too.
Dan Moore: Think it’s really, really sound advice, Courtney. Now here’s another question. Do you have a morning routine, a way you’d like to start your day? That’s kind of a standard way you get rolling in.
Courtney Bowie: Yeah, I mean, I think I actually like going into the office, you know, so I was, I was really sad when, when Covid closed everything down, because I like seeing people and I like interacting with other humans on a regular basis.
I have an A office routine and then an in office routine. My in-office routine get a, I like Peloton, so I do a Peloton workout. And then because I love the music, the music’s amazing on Pelo. The workouts are great, and I always work harder than I would if I just did the workout on my own. I get dressed and take a couple of minutes to myself.
The 2030 minutes it takes for me to commute from Jersey City into New York City, and then I always treat myself to coffee out when I go into the office on the way in, I listen to NPR share a little bit about what’s going on. It’s normally not super upsetting the way who the other news stations are, and, but it’s informative and then I get in and, and get my day.
Dan Moore: I think that’s fantastic. Get your brain in the right frame and get you ready to make things happen that day. In some ways, it’s like an urban version of a forest walk. You know, a lot of, uh, Japanese businesses require their people to take forest bathing. It’s called every day. They have to take 10 minutes in the forest outside the office because it’s so rejuvenating. They call it forest bathing.
Courtney Bowie: I’m going to Google forest bathing when this is , then sound amazing.
Dan Moore: And there’s some parks in every, every city. One of the great things about our country is that somebody had the wisdom to not develop every single square inch and make sure that we have good green spaces and and the lungs of New York, of course, for Central Park.
Courtney Bowie: Oh, and it’s an amazing space. The northern part of the park is also really kind of untouched in a way that it’s hard to believe you’re in a city part. When you get into some of those trails.
Dan Moore: It’s absolutely true. It’s beautiful there. Now, some of our listeners, their lives are just trucking along really in a great pace. They’re happy with what’s going on. We’ve got some others that are so discouraged and frustrated right now. But what advice could you give somebody that is just doesn’t know where else to turn?
Courtney Bowie: Well, in terms of thinking that the economy’s bad or the environmental. Crisis work facing is, is kind of hopeless or, I mean, I’m a person of faith and I, I believe people should have the right to believe or not believe and then to believe in the way that they wanna believe.
But for me, I wanna say that I wanna use I statements here. I believe that there’s a higher power and that, and this is. Corny, but that, you know, it’s the Martin Luther King quote. The arc of justice bends towards justice, but it bends very slowly, and I am completely, it’s savaging that quote. I know that I did not say that necessarily in the right way, but what I mean is I’m a person of faith and when I get really discouraged, I lean on my faith and I encourage other people to lean on whatever their higher power is, if they have one, and if they.
Even if people don’t have higher power, sometimes they do have things that help them, like yoga or meditation or something like that. Um, and that’s not very practical. I know it’s not the same as saying, here’s a way to earn money to cover your rent bill if you don’t have your rent paid. I’d say get involved with the politics at a local level that would address those things.
If it’s, you know, your rent’s too high and you can’t afford it, or there aren’t living wages, like get involved at the city level and see if your city and state will pounds, you know, different minimum wage loss and rate control. It’s a way of feeling power too.
Dan Moore: There are things we can do instead of just feeling stuck. Helen Keller once said, I am only one, but I am one. And so the good that I can do, please let me do it. And if we just remember, we may be only one, but we are one. And that’s way more than zero.
Courtney Bowie: Absolutely. I mean, I think we need tons of work at the federal policy level and state policy level to address climate change and making sure our water’s.
You know, we can make individual choices that will help the planet. You can choose to keep your air conditioner at 78 or higher. I mean, we don’t want people who are sick to suffer if they need it lower. That’s one thing. But I’m just saying if you’re okay, well you can make choices that will impact our policies and how much energy we’re using as a country.
Dan Moore: We can find the recycle center instead of just throwing it in the normal trash. Absolutely. A cumulative efforts of millions of people make a difference, but it all starts with that individual person saying, it’s on me, not anybody else. Exactly. Courtney, thank you for being with us today and, and thank you above all for the good that you do.
Courtney Bowie: Thank you so much for having me. This has been delightful. It was nice to meet you and to chat. Thanks for your work on the podcast.