On the Ocean’s Side: BHS student takes environmental issues head on

It started with her poet’s love for the Puget Sound, but over the past few years Chiara D’Angelo’s singular passion has evolved into a greater livelihood for environmental justice and protecting the earth. - Debra D’Angelo photo
It started with her poet’s love for the Puget Sound, but over the past few years Chiara D’Angelo’s singular passion has evolved into a greater livelihood for environmental justice and protecting the earth.
— image credit: Debra D’Angelo photo

The night when Chiara D’Angelo arrived at the Alabama-Coushatta reservation in Livingston, Texas after a full day of traveling, she walked upon what she would come to recognize as any other night at the Tar Sands Blockade encampment: campfires coupled with guitars and conversation centered around the state of the environment.

Flying first to Houston then taking a Megabus to Livingston, she traveled from Bainbridge Island to the southern half of Texas.

On her final leg of the trip, fellow Bainbridge Islander Ben Jones borrowed a car to pick her and four others up from the Livingston bus station.

It was the first week of January and the diverse group of protestors gathered on the reservation just outside of Houston to carry out a series of actions against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline—a pipeline that promises to carry crude oil underground from Alberta tar sands across the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico.

There had been countless protests and actions across Canada and the U.S. leading up to D’Angelo’s trip to Houston. And on the same week, in solidarity with each other there were actions also planned in various spots around the country including Boston; Detroit; Ames, Iowa; and Portland, Maine.

Out of the 100 or so protesters in Houston, however, D’Angelo was the youngest at 17.

“I wasn’t planning on going, but then I decided I have to,” she explained.

Just like it didn’t stop her from traveling across the country, her age has yet to stop her from standing up for what she has spent the last two years lobbying for — environmental justice.

Some may recognize the BHS senior from the plastic bag ban campaign and the city council meeting last March when D’Angelo stood at the podium and asked supporters of the ban to stand up.

More than half the room stood.

Council-woman Sarah Blossom would later say that if it weren’t for D’Angelo reaching out and meeting with her over coffee, Blossom may have never voted yes on the initiative.

D’Angelo came across the opportunity to go to Texas this past year when Jones, a BHS ’09 alumnus, visited the island from Oregon where he currently works for Cascadia Forest Defenders. At Kol Shalom Synagogue, Jones hosted a teach-in and fundraiser for the Tar Sands Blockade.

D’Angelo walked up to him immediately after the presentation and introduced herself by saying she was going to join him in Texas for the Blockade actions.

And just as she said she would, the next time she saw him was in Texas. She used her grandfather’s frequent flier miles to make it there.

On the first full day, D’Angelo and the other protestors participated in a round dance to show solidarity with the Idle No More movement. Idle

No More is a campaign being led by indigenous groups from where the tar sands start in Canada to the pipeline’s proposed end in Texas.

“I was less inspired by what it meant for me and more what it meant for Native American tribes and just the idea of the repression that they’re facing,” explained D’Angelo.

It was inspiring enough that after the dance, when they stood in a circle and one of the Blockade members gave a speech, she got chills and raised her fist first.

Everyone in the circle, likewise overcome with inspiration and the power of numbers, followed suit and raised their fists too.

For the next two days she listened and learned from organizers what direct action meant and about anti-repression tactics. She remembers it as one of the most pivotal lessons in learning to be a leader.

On the fourth and final day before leaving, she took her spot inside a green “pipe dragon” the activists made themselves.

Resembling something like a Chinese Dragon, the “pipe dragon” destroyed “homes” and poisoned “water” until it was in the end slain by the knights of the Tar Sands Blockade, Idle No More, Earth First and other activists. It was a theater show of sorts performed just outside the TransCanada Houston headquarters.

Other protestors, not including D’Angelo, took the show inside the building itself.

It was a life-changing experience for D’Angelo that reinforced her calling to take environmental action.

It’s like MLK’s march on Washington, D.C., D’Angelo explained. Are you going to watch the people march or are you going to march with them?

“The point is to get rid of those social boundaries that say you as a young person are not allowed to do something that really matters,” she said.

D’Angelo’s deep connection to the earth started with her passion for the Puget Sound. She has been swimming in it year-round since she was a small child, at first off the Kingston beach where she was born and now here on Bainbridge.

“Her love for the ocean has just been a part of her since I can remember,” said her mother, Debra D’Angelo. “I can’t tell you how many times I had to sit somewhere and watch her swim at midnight.”

But where they lived in Kingston, the beach started to stink. And where once crabs could be seen perching off the Indianola dock, seaweed was taking over. It used to be that fishing was as easy as sticking a pole in the water off the pier, now, not so much.

There were also changes happening at home.

In 2005, her mother was diagnosed and fell severely ill with fibromyalgia and lupis. This brought on challenges of their own. As a single parent and unable to work, Debra D’Angelo struggled to keep her family afloat.

Before her illness, she owned her own business working with at-risk children, youth and family, which often involved Child Protective Services and foster children.

“I spent my life studying the human condition and being a part of creating family,” Debra D’Angelo said. “I was disappointed that suddenly I was similar to my clients and no longer the hero.”

Despite everything, her daughter always had the ocean.

In D’Angelo’s college essay she writes:

“With guidance from mentors (teachers and friends) and family (primarily my mom), I learned that perception and attitude matter … I learned not to count on my circumstance or material goods to define or protect me ... Interestingly, my greatest stability comes from my passion for the ocean - both in swimming and protecting her.”

As a little girl, her family nicknamed her “Capable Kiki” for her ability to do things on her own and to make do with what she has. No one at the time realized it would carry on so far.

The attributes of her childhood nickname extend beyond just her environmental activism.

Alongside guitar and poetry groups, she mountain bikes. She joined the BHS Gear Grinders Mountain Bike Club her junior year with close to no mountain biking gear. She used the same bike she rode when she was 12 for the greater portion of her first season.

She got hurt a lot, but it never stopped her.

“She was just willing to step into it imperfect and just as she was,” said Debra D’Angelo. “That’s the courage on her part, on both my kids’ part. And people would embrace her and help her get her needs met.”

Later her team would help her get sponsored by the Nika Mountain Biking League to receive a new mountain bike from B.I. Cycle.

Some say “that’s Kiki.” Others call it spunk.

D’Angelo calls it doing what others aren’t willing to do themselves.

In any case, she has an energy that sweeps through a room.

“Chiara has a very strong presence,” said Karen Polinsky, D’Angelo’s former Earth Service Corps advisor. “She’s like a force of nature.”

In the past few years D’Angelo has worked to bring meaning to her life that has gone from involvement with adult-dominated groups like Bainbridge Island Conservation Voters and Beyond Coal to heading the high school’s Earth Service Corps in building the school’s environmental sustainability and awareness. And it most recently has meant traveling to Texas to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.

“I think it’s all about realizing your life starts now,” said D’Angelo. “It doesn’t take going to environmental school, activism starts now.”

Her mother said no at first to the idea of letting her teenage daughter get on a plane by herself and participate in a protest across the country.

“She did the old, ‘Mom. This. Is. Who. I. Am,’” her mother recalled.

So she switched tactics and asked her daughter for a plan: How is she getting there, what money is she using, who can she call in case of an emergency, and question after question.

“I think it’s the whole idea of giving your kid permission to think and be extreme and to join adults in their endeavors,” explained Debra D’Angelo. “Kids should be included in big decisions. You know, the bag ban, that’s a grown up thing — but not really.”

For D’Angelo, the age gap between 35 to 45 of environmental activists are the lost years.

And with that, she often asks people to “Check themselves: What do I do, and where can I do more?”

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