Tammie Cooper: A Woman Who's Making A Difference

“If you come to college in Utah, I’ll clean up the air.”  Tammie Cooper promised her son two years ago. Today, as Executive Director of Utah Clean Cities, she works to fulfill that promise every day.

If you’ve been anywhere on campus these last few weeks then you’ve undoubtedly noticed the new fashion trend: masks. Air filtration masks to be specific. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Salt Lake City achieved the worst air quality in the nation several days in a row. As our Pm 2.5 levels reached upwards of 59, we obtained Mandatory Action status for our Red Air Days. Simply walking from class to class across campus has made it clear to myself and other students that serious action needs to be taken to remedy the situation. Many organizations, such as Utah Clean Cities, are working to create and take the steps needed to achieve this goal. 

Utah Clean Cities is the organization responsible for the state’s big push toward alternative fuels as well as maintaining an idle-free Utah. They work with school districts, such as Canyons School District which is now completely idle free, in sustaining their campaign, “turn your key, be idle free.”

Tammie Cooper, a former U of U student herself, and one of the most down to earth women I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, advocates for the transition into these cleaner energy sources, educating and pushing the political policies which regard Utah’s air policies.

After graduating from the University of Utah having earned her degree in Organization Communications, as well as maintaining heavy involvement with The Chronicle, Tammie declared she would never go into public health or social work. Despite the declaration for the next years of her life this was exactly what she did. Her career and life choices always reflecting her values, “I care about the environment and the children, because they’re the ones without a voice.”

After working for four years as the executive director for the Family Support Center in the Uinta Basin, aiding in the lives of abused children and families, she was determined to give her children a warm childhood. Homeschooling her children until high school, she did all types of education development. From creating outdoor programs with other homeschooled children to holding art classes, Tammie was constantly working to keep her children’s lives social and intellectually stimulating.

Once her children were high school age, and began attending public school, Tammie worked in public health on the Indian Reservation, with Early Intervention and the Baby Your Baby Program for three years. After moving from Colorado to Utah, her son was deciding which college to attend. Wanting him to be in the same state, she pushed for him to come out to Utah. His reason for not wanting to come: Utah’s poor air quality. After promising to fix the air if he came to school in Utah, Tammie found her way to Utah Clean Cities, now sitting as the executive director, her son not too far down the road at Westminster.

After a week of refusing to leave the apartment without my own air filtration mask, I was ecstatic when she agreed to sit down and talk with me. After an hour of simply talking with each other, I walked away from her house feeling refreshed and hopeful, especially knowing Utahans have her looking out for us.

In light of recent shifts in political power, more and more I’ve been finding myself emotionally exhausted, the environmental consequences of our election weighing heavily on my mind. I wasn’t surprised with how quickly the topic came up during our conversation. 

“I think all of us have been grieving, because if we work as hard as we possible could on the trajectory we were already on we would be hard pressed to make a huge impact with environmental issues. This election has pushed us back. My funding comes from the department of energy and right now all of my friends in the DOE are having all of their work reviewed and any time they’ve mentioned climate change they get a mark, this is just so scary.” Tammie said, as she sat nestled into her couch of her warm and tidy living room. And yet, she didn’t seem to be drowning in despair the way my mind was starting to.

One of the most important skills one can learn when studying environmental sciences and sustainability is how to balance the cynicism with the power of optimism. Tammie Cooper, in all senses, has seemingly found that balance. Especially in regards to Trump.

“Don’t despair though Shaela. Your generation, my generation, we needed to be outraged. We really needed to get off our butts and the complacency of consumerism and capitalistic society.” Which is exactly what has happened since our new president’s election. Almost every week there has been a march, protest, call for action, even here in Salt Lake City. Our generation has indeed been outraged, and it’s seems we’ve recognized that if it’s change we want, if it’s progress we need, then we can’t depend on other people, such as our leaders to do it for us. The change we see comes from us.

“Democracy works at the local level. Be involved in your local politics, know your neighborhood, involve yourself in your community because that’s where you can make a difference,” said Tammie. Democracy is difficult to maintain in a large society, this much we know. Through her daily work and contributions though, Tammie has seen just how well it can work on the local level. “There’s only 530 people that are making decisions for us, It really only takes one million people for a whole nation to really untie and challenge it. In Utah if we had a thousand people that were constantly active on those issues we’d be shifting things.” This is exactly what Utah Clean Cities is trying to do; shift our state toward being more sustainable and having less of a detrimental impact on our environment.

You can imagine though, in a state with a government majority conservative, a government which is chalk full of climate deniers, it’s no easy task. As outspoken and passionate about the health of this environment as she is, Tammie’s learned that, in order to be diplomatic, she must sometimes hold her tongue. This is something I struggle with myself every day. And so it came out that Utah’s poor air quality actually functions in a way which helps her organization and others like it in changing our state’s environmental policies to be less conservative, while still holding their tongues.

“On some level it’s kind of a positive that we actually get to deal with what we put out in the universe,” Tammie said in regards to our notorious winter inversions. “We create this environment, we’re effected by this environment, and so we are forced to deal with what create.” The topography of the city puts us in a bubble, a bubble which leaves little to no room for climate deniers. Just last week was the Clean Air Caucus, an event which took place during the second red air day of the week. Lawmakers couldn’t even see out the capitol’s windows as they talked environmental policy.

Photo by Powder Magazine

“We have such a conservative government in Utah, that they wouldn’t do anything environmental if they weren’t sucking on their inhaler, if their kids weren’t sick and in the hospital. The negative effects are in their face, they can’t deny them.”

Once again proving her power to balance the positive and the negative, I couldn’t help but smile listening to Tammie speak. Our conversation went on, leading us away from air quality to agribusiness, one of the most environmentally destructive systems on the planet. After discussing my own decision to go vegan nearly a year ago, in effort to make an individual difference, I was beyond happy when she promised to someday make me a vegan dinner.  

Our conversation digressed, multiple times, to topics such as breastfeeding to science fiction. “This is the coolest place ever, no place could ever be as cool as this,” she said when I brought up the current fascination with moving to Mars. “Be obsessed with this planet. Take your creative genius and keep it here.” I couldn’t agree more.

The fact is, we have some amazing environmentalists in Utah, Tammie Cooper included. Our mountains and nature give us the opportunity to form such a love for this planet, and such a strong spiritual connection with our home. There will always be the deniers, the individuals who demand to see the facts: people Tammie deals with every day. It’s past that point though. Anyone who has been in Utah during one of our winters need only look outside for all the proof they need.

As I stood up to leave, a tapestry hanging on her front door caught my eye. “To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.” –Dalai Lama.

It was the perfect quote to read before leaving. Until we can become aware of our own faults, especially in accordance with the environment, we’ll never be able to make progress toward changing our lives, the lives of those around us, and the life of this planet.  Tammie Cooper, absolutely aware of herself, never claiming perfection, has dedicated her life to giving a voice to the voiceless in any way she can. Be it children or this environment, and for this I thank her.

“Don’t lose heart,” she told me. And after just one conversation with this amazing female leader, I know I won’t anytime soon.