A Pioneering African Environmentalist's Legacy Lives On

By Bob Seay   |   Thursday, October 13, 2011
2 Comments   2 comments.

Oct. 14, 2011

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai with Linda Harrar in 1989 in Nairobi's Karura Forest, Kenya. (Jill Singer)

BOSTON — Last week, three African women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia; a peace activist Leymah Gbowee, who helped to end Liberia's 14-year civil war, and human rights activist and journalist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, who has been called "the Mother of the Revolution" in that country.

These three women follow in the footsteps of another pioneering African woman leader.

Making History

Last month, the world heard news of the death of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai (pronounced wan-GAR-ee mah-THI), who in 2004 became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai was the leader of the Green Belt Movement, a women-led effort to plant trees.

Using segments from an interview in WGBH's Media Archive from the 1990 series Race to Save the Planet, former Nova producer Linda Harrar offered this personal remembrance.

"The first time I met Wangari Maathai, in 1988 in Nairobi, Kenya, she was a little reluctant to be interviewed. She shook her head and said, 'I get into a lot of trouble because I have a very big mouth!' Then she burst into laughter, flashing her unforgettable smile," Harrar said.

A Vision Is Born

As a strong critic of the government, and a courageous fighter for the environment, Maathai did get into a lot of trouble over the years because of her outspokeness. During the 1980s, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi labeled the Green Belt Movement "subversive." Maathai was arrested, beaten unconscious and thrown in jail for her protests to save parks and forests from development. But she managed to capture the attention of the world, and through her willingness to put her own life on the line, won many of her most important battles.

Maathai started her career wanting to work on preventing childhood malnutrition. In the process, she realized soil erosion was one of the root causes, and that planting trees would be key to solving it.

In the 1990 WGBH series Race to Save the Planet, Maathai said, "I know for certain that the soil is the sustainer of life. Without it, we cannot live. On this continent, we have seen too much suffering, starvation, due to degradation of the soil, and it has taken millions of years to build this topsoil. It is so important to protect it, because if we don't, we are on our way to the end."

Bringing Home The Brains

While Maathai received some of her education in the United States, afterwards she returned to live in Kenya for the rest of her life. Linda Harrar recalled why this was important to Maathai.

"Wangari hated the 'brain drain' of Africa's brightest students being lured away from home, and she believed that Africans need to develop their own leaders to solve the continent's problems," Harrar said. "But she also understood the need for foreign aid to get some promising programs started."

After earning her PhD in Kenya, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which organized communities of poor women to plant trees and tend to them until they were strong. The women earned a small income for doing this work, in a land where jobs are very hard to find. The Green Belt Movement also taught children to grow green belts around their schools. And it taught farmers to plant trees in rows between their crops, which helps to restore nutrients to the soil.

Dr. Wangari Maathai in 2007 at a garden dedication at the Al Raby School for Community and Environment in Chicago. (via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Making The Mission Possible

Maathai wanted her movement to start with planting trees because it is something that anyone can do. The universality, she said, would help people access the movement.

"Then during the tree-planting campaign, you bring out all the other issues that are very much related: the issues of food production, firewood crisis, soil erosion. All these are part and parcel of what we are discussing, but when we first discuss, we start with the immediate problems, the local problems, the problems we can see every day," Maathai said.

Harrar says the movement planted over 30 million trees.

"Maathai would sometimes say that the healing of Africa is still only a dream. But she understood her own power to inspire people, of all ages and cultures to get behind her," Harrar said.

Maathai also had her human moments of doubt.

"Sometimes I get very discouraged because the problems are just enormous, and although the people are very willing, sometimes they really think that you can solve all these problems at once, and you can't," Maathai said. "But sometimes I also get very encouraged, especially when I see these trees growing in the nursery, or when they're so big that you see the farmers happy in their fields. It's very satisfying. So I go up and down all the time. And most of the time, I think I'm on the better side."

Crossing The 'Vale Of Tears'

What did Harrar find most striking about Wangari Maathai's work?

"Perhaps what I admired so much was Wangari's ability to keep fighting for what she believed in – and to inspire others not to lose heart. I last saw her just after 9/11, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she was comforting us as Americans for all that we had lost when the Twin Towers fell. One of her best friends had lost a daughter. She of course knew that life can be what she called 'a vale of tears,' but she would always find a way to find strength in what she believed in," Harrar said.

Maathai reflected on why the work mattered so much to her.

"I don't really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me there is a problem and I have got to do something about it, so I'm doing something about it," Maathai said. "I think that that is what I would call the God in me. And all of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet. And it must be this voice that is telling me to do something. And I'm sure it's the same voice that is speaking to everybody on this planet, at least everybody who seems to be concerned about the fate of the world, the fate of this planet!" Maathai said.

Linda Harrar said Wangari Maathai's legacy should serve as a source of inspiration for all of us.

"So here's an idea. If you're feeling sad or depressed, or cynical about the many problems of the world, think of Wangari Maathai's example: Get out and plant a tree, get your kids to plant a tree. It's something you can do for the future. And it would make Wangari smile that dazzling smile," Harrar said.

Remembering Steven Paul Jobs

By Bob Seay   |   Wednesday, October 5, 2011
2 Comments   2 comments.

Oct. 6, 2011

steve jobs

Steve Jobs in 1990. (via WGBH Open Vault)


BOSTON — With the loss of Steve Jobs, we have our own remembrance of him, in a superb WGBH interview from 1990. It's from a series called The Machine That Changed The World, a BBC-TV/WGBH Boston Co-Production. In it, Jobs talks about how that revolutionary device, the Macintosh personal computer, came to be and the particular gifts of the people who made it.

Here are some excerpts from the extended interview with Steve Jobs conducted for that series:

Steve Jobs: "I think the Macintosh was created by a group of people who felt that there wasn't a strict division between science and art. Or in other words, that mathematics is really a liberal art if you look at it from a slightly different point of view. And why can't we interject typography into computers. Why can't we have computers talking to us in English language? And looking back, five years later, this seems like a trivial observation. But at the time it was cataclysmic in its consequences. And the battles that were fought to push this point of view out the door were very large."

Jobs talked about the people on his design team and what they were like.

Steve Jobs as seen in his 1990 WGBH interview. (via WGBH Open Vault)

Jobs: "My observation is that the doers are the major thinkers. The people that really create the things that change this industry are both the 'thinker-doer' in one person. And if we really go back and we examine, did Leonardo [da Vinci] have a guy off to the side that was thinking five years out in the future what he would paint or the technology he would use to paint it? Of course not. Leonardo was the artist but he also mixed all his own paints. He also was a fairly good chemist. He knew about pigments, knew about human anatomy. And combining all of those skills together, the art and the science, the thinking and the doing, was the exceptional result."

"And there is no difference in our industry. It's very easy to say, 'oh I thought of this three years ago.' But usually when you dig a little deeper, you find that the people that really did it were also the people that really worked through the hard intellectual problems as well."

On Feb. 10, 1982, the Mac design group had a small party. Along with their cake and champagne, they each signed a large sheet of paper. Jobs had those signatures copied and engraved into the mold for the Macintosh case.

Another frame of Steve Jobs in his 1990 WGBH interview. (via WGBH Open Vault)

Jobs: "The people that worked on it consider themselves and I certainly consider them artists. These are the people that under different circumstances would be painters and poets but because of the time that we live in this new medium has appeared, in which to express one's self to one's fellow species and that's a medium of computing and so a lot of people that would have been artists and scientists have gone into this field to express their feeling, so it seemed like the right thing to do."

If you're the owner of a Mac128K, 512K, or Macintosh Plus, they signed your computer, too. When the new machine was presented at a shareholders meeting in early 1984, the design team was there.

Jobs: "The first few rows had all the people that worked on the Mac. About a 150 people that really made it happen were all seated in the first few rows and when it was introduced, after we went through it all and had the computer speak to people itself and things like that, the whole auditorium of about twenty five hundred people gave it a standing ovation and the whole first few rows of Mac folks were all just crying. All of us were. I was biting my tongue very hard because I had a little bit more to do. But it was a very, very emotional moment because it was no longer ours. From that day forward it was no longer ours. We couldn't change it. If we had a good idea the following day it was too late. It belonged to the world at that point in time."

You can view the entire unedited 45-minute Steve Jobs video interview on the WGBH Open Vault. Please be patient, the interview doesn't start immediately.

Tiger, Tiger: Driving Andy Rooney's Car

By Emily Rooney   |   Monday, June 18, 2012
0 Comments   0 comments.

June 18, 2012

andy rooney's car

It was just like I remembered it — the car I learned to drive on when I was 16 years old.
That year, 1966, my dad handed me the keys to his brand new Sunbeam Tiger, a British-made sports car with a Ford V-8 engine, and said, “Try not to grind the gears.”
All I can remember from that day is sitting in the driver’s seat with my twin sister Martha next to me with the car rolling about 60 mph backwards down a steep hill as I tried to figure out how to use a clutch, the gear shift, the gas pedal and the brake all at the same time.
Now, 46 years later, I am driving that car again, heading to a small farm-style arts community in upstate New York where we plan to bury my dad's ashes.
For the past 10 years or so, the Tiger had been sitting in the garage in that upstate home. The garage was unheated but the car was a comfortable winter home for squirrels, mice, chipmunks and a range of mountain vermin who nestled into every nook and cranny of the car from the engine block to the seats. An axle had dropped. The car was undrivable.
So in the fall of 2009, I took it and brought it to a specialty refurbishing place near Hopkinton. I planned to have it back the next spring for dad to see, not drive, even though he still was driving at age 90.
It was not to be. I got it back earlier this month — 7 months after Dad died. A breathtaking rehab. But it still smelled the same, and drove the same — it’s gassy, and fast and hard to control. I was nervous. So I drove it around Boston suburbs for about 60 miles before I dared take it on a 250-mile jaunt on the highway.
I took off around 4 p.m. on a beautiful crisp blue Friday afternoon, top down, engine roaring in idle. I had not gone 2 miles before I started getting beeps and thumbs-up. By the time I reached the end of the Mass Pike a hundred cars and large trucks had honked — startling me every time — hands flying out the windows signaling their approval.
The last 38 miles of the trip were through mountain back roads, which I know well. I thought about Dad. I remembered him telling me he once hit 140 mph on Interstate 87. I floored it — hitting 90 before I felt the new Nardi wheel begin to rattle and I backed off. It was exhilarating.
And so Dad, who had never ridden in the passenger seat, much less the small back landing where the dog and grandkids used to perch, got a final ride after all. We put the burled maple urn containing his ashes in the back and drove his beloved Tiger to the cemetery where we revved the engine a few times before placing him in the earth. We left a nip of Maker’s Mark while we were at it.
I’d like to say the story has a happy ending, but only kind of. The Tiger was packed for my return to Boston. The weather conditions were the same as when I arrived. I had one more person to see: the small-town guy who used to repair Dad’s car. I found him home. He said, “Car looks better” but “you’re losing antifreeze.” I left it there.

In The Crowd For James Brown And Kevin White

By Jordan Weinstein   |   Wednesday, February 1, 2012
0 Comments   0 comments.

Jan. 30, 2012

BOSTON — In 1968, a day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Boston famously played host to a James Brown concert at which Mayor Kevin White gave a speech that was supposed to inspire unity and peace:

"Twenty-four hours ago, Dr. King died — for all of us, black and white, that we may live together in harmony, without violence and in peace," he said. "Now I'm here tonight, like all of you, to listen to James. But I'm also here to ask for your help. I'm here to ask you to stay with me as your mayor and to make Dr. King's dreams a reality in Boston. This is our city, and its future is in our hands — tonight and tomorrow and in the days that follow.

But what did the fans think?

WGBH jazz host Al Davis was in that audience. He was 17 years old. And White's words didn't ring out so loudly to him.

"We wasn't really too impressed with Kevin White," he says now. "The reason he received that round of applause is because James Brown introduced him. James said he's cool? All right, we'll work with that." Brown was sort of a spokesman for young fans: "Whatever he said, we listened." In this case, Brown said the mayor was "a swinging cat."

The fans felt uncomfortable about the mayor, Davis says. "We knew what he was about. And we listened, but — we didn't listen. ... I personally didn't think he was really sincere because of what was going on at the time. But he had to do that because of the position he's in, being mayor. He had to make this presentation." 

They saved the listening for Brown, whose concert was "wonderful" — and who told everyone to go straight home after the show and not start trouble.

The start of the famous concert, with White's speech and Brown's first song:

Mayor Kevin White: Complete WGBH News Coverage

By WGBH News   |   Wednesday, February 1, 2012
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Feb. 1, 2012

BOSTON — Former Boston mayor Kevin White died on Jan. 27, 2012 at the age of 82. We look back at his legacy over four terms of change.


Mayor White's Funeral — Boston luminaries gathered on Feb. 1 to pay their last respects.

from the vault

From The WGBH Vault: Trying Times — These exclusive WGBH videos show key moments when White tried to negotiate tensions over race.

kevin white james brown

In The Crowd For James Brown And Kevin White — In 1968, White spoke at a James Brown concert to promote interracial peace. Attendee (and now WGBH host) Al Davis talks about how that message sounded from the audience.

landsmark soiling of old glory

Boston's School Desegregation Era — Civil rights leaders, politicians and residents examine mayor White's role in one of the most tumultuous periods in Boston's history.

charlestown high school

Revisiting Charlestown — In the late '70s, this neighborhood made headlines for its opposition to court-ordered school desegregation. We dig into WGBH's archives and return to the high school to see the many changes since then.

tregor bill

The Toll Of The Tregor Bill — The 1981 political standoff pitted every conceivable stakeholder against one another. There was money, politics, gamesmanship and personalities. In the end, Boston may have won ... but its mayor lost.

black leaders

Insights Into Mayor Kevin White And His Era — Watch and hear analysis and memories from people who experienced the changes under White's tenure — whether they were attacked on City Hall Plaza or arguing inside the building.

boston herald

Beat The Press: White's Passing Re-Ignites Feud — During the Kevin White funeral coverage, WGBH's "Greater Boston" briefly became the news when an argument broke out on-set over a 30-year-old spoiled scoop. Watch some of the footage we didn't air.

Remembering Mayor Kevin White: The Funeral

By Emily Rooney, Jared Bowen & WGBH News   |   Wednesday, February 1, 2012
0 Comments   0 comments.

Feb. 1, 2012

LISTEN: to the service in its entirety (2 hr 8 min)

BOSTON — Hours before Kevin White's funeral began on Wednesday, mourners lined up outside St. Cecilia's Church in the Back Bay. Then one by one, Boston's living political history made their way inside. Rep. Barney Frank, Sen. John Kerry, Gov. Deval Patrick, the Boston Redevelopment Authority's Peter Meade, former State Sen. President William Bulger, White's successor as mayor Ray Flynn — on and on it went. 

White, credited with revitalizing downtown Boston and shepherding the city through the court-ordered busing crisis in his four terms as mayor, died Jan. 27 at the age of 82 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Bagpipers led the funeral cortege. Arriving at the church, White's family cheerfully greeted his honor guard: a who's-who of the city's present-day founding fathers and mothers. White's widow Kathryn advised them to remember: This funeral was a celebration. 
White's lifetime companions were at his side as the casket rolled down the aisle and the church bulged with the family, friends and Everyman White had touched.

LISTEN: Mayor Thomas Menino's eulogy (7:55)

Boston mayor Tom Menino was the first to speak: "So much of what we love about our city began with him. The style, his wit, his big smile, he made us proud to be Bostonians. For those of us in public service, he showed us what difference one leader can make."
When he took the city's highest office, Menino said, "One of the first calls I made: 'Mayor White, it's Tom Menino.' To which he says, 'Wait a minute, hold it. I'm Kevin. You're Mayor Menino. I'm not Mr. Mayor. You are.' Which is when maybe I started to believe it myself."
But, Menino concluded, "on one point he was wrong. He will always be Mr. Mayor to us. May he rest in peace."

LISTEN: Rep. Barney Frank's eulogy (14:00)

Rep. Barney Frank — unscripted and off the cuff — remembered what it was like being one of White’s young aides.
"Let’s get this right about Kevin: He was a great political leader," Frank said. "But he wasn’t somebody who thought it was necessary for himself to work 12 hours a day on the phone. He understood the values of delegating, but he also understood that if you were going to delegate to people, first you had to pick the best people for the right job."
In physical and verbal gestures eerily reminiscent of his father, Mark White said that life was always filled with the unexpected. 

kevin white hearse
Kevin White's casket arrives at St. Cecilia's on Feb. 1. (Jared Bowen/WGBH)

"I remember one Christmas morning when I was 13. We were all downstairs, the lights were on, the fireplace is roaring, we’ve already opened our stockings and are halfway through opening our presents. Suddenly in this Norman Rockwell–like setting, my father jumps up with those piercing blue eyes and leads us out the front door to Mt. Vernon Street to an awaiting surprise for us all. And there standing on the sidewalk was a horse. And a bright red bow around its neck."
That kind of thinking had ramifications for the whole city, Mark White said: "When my father would come up with what seemed at their conceptions to be equally disturbing ideas, absurd ideas, like Summer Thing, Faneuil Hall, Tall Ships, James Brown concert the night of Martin Luther King’s death, First Night and so many others, most of you had the same initial reactions that the horse and my mother had that Christmas morning: Kevin, what are you thinking."

The son concluded, "He was quite simply the most interesting, imaginative, fun and loving father and friend a son shall ever have. I shall miss him dearly."
Lifelong friend Bob Crane, former state treasurer, brought the crowd to tears and a standing ovation for his tribute to Catherine White.


kevin white hearse
Pallbearers carry the casket into the church. (Sarah Birnbaum/WGBH)

"Back when you were Kevin’s wife, he made a promise in church that went something like this: in sickness and in health, until death do us part," Crane said. "I’m not sure how long it’s been — nine years, 10 years, 11 years, since his illness began to take him from us, but what I do know is that through every painful step along the way, Mary and I have watched you keep that promise with the love and devotion that touched our hearts in ways I can’t begin to describe."
And Crane addressed Kevin White as well: "My dear friend, thank you for everything. Thank you for everything you’ve meant to me and everything you’ve meant for everyone here today. Surely, goodness and mercy did follow you every day of your life and you dwell of the house of the Lord forever. God bless you, Kevin. The song has ended but the melody lingers on."
Following the funeral services, White's funeral cortege resumed to the strains of the bagpipers' "Amazing Grace" and to applause. It marked the final passage of an era marked distinctly by White's successor, Mayor Ray Flynn. 

About the Authors
Bob Seay Bob Seay
Bob Seay is the host of NPR's Morning Edition on 89.7FM WGBH Radio. He got his start in radio during college at WMUH, got involved with WGBH TV while in graduate school at Boston University and formerly hosted ME at WRNI in Rhode Island.
Jordan Weinstein Jordan Weinstein
Jordan Weinstein is a news anchor for NPR's All Things Considered on WGBH, 89.7 FM in Boston.
The WGBH News team comprises the WGBH radio newsroom, The Callie Crossley Show, The Emily Rooney Show and WGBH Channel 2 reporters and producers from Greater Boston and Basic Black. 


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