Grassroots Guru of New Paltz

Rosalyn Cherry sat shuffling giant pieces of construction paper filled with notes on all of the environmental efforts made in her small upstate New York town of New Paltz. She sipped unsweetened ice tea, which she put her own sugar in, donning her typical look: magenta shirt with matching scrunchie in a side ponytail, unique to her personality.

But she was nothing out of the ordinary here in New Paltz.

Cherry’s long, brown hair in her signature side ponytail atop a tie dye sweatshirt can often be seen throughout the bustling Main Street of New Paltz or at any environmental activism event in the town. But what isn’t seen at first glance is the dedication for the causes she spearheads not just for her seemingly hippie community, but to literally save the world.

As a 72-year-old woman in retirement for the past seven years, Cherry devotes most of her time to helping coordinate environmental events, protests and awareness.

Whenever there is a question in New Paltz about environmental action and who to talk to, the phrase, “Rosalyn would know,” is commonly heard throughout the community.

“Your life can be so much richer when you are engaged with activism that directly connects to your life and your future,” Cherry said, sipping on her tea.

Cherry’s activism is a part of many local grassroots efforts in New York State. New Paltz helped push Ulster to become the first county in New York to ban the use of by-products of hydraulic fracking (brine) to be used on county roads to melt ice in the winter and keep dust down in the summer. This could not have been accomplished without the immense community reaction to the issue, where the Ulster County Community College gym was rented and hundreds showed up, Cherry said.

Right now municipalities, including the town of New Paltz, Rhinebeck and Newburgh, are passing bans on the Pilgrim Pipeline. The pipeline would go through Ulster County and would transport crude oil and refined petroleum products between Albany, New York, Linden, New Jersey and Washington D.C.

Filled with excitement, Cherry cited other efforts New Paltz has made to promote action against climate change. She fanned her note-filled pages of construction paper on past and present efforts ranging from gardens at New Paltz schools, leasing an apple tree and chartering a chicken program, farmer’s markets and community composting.

Recently, New Paltz put on seven days of events for Earth Week, ranging from carnivals to clean up efforts and Rosalyn was spotted at most of them.

Project Coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group Eric Wood said when he first moved to New Paltz, he heard of how much the community was driven by community activists.

“Shortly after I met Rosalyn Cherry and immediately understood what everyone was talking about,” he said.

He said Rosalyn’s history of dedicated activism in all realms of social justice is admirable and awe-inspiring.

“I don’t know if I deserve all of the praise I really get,” Cherry said. “I just know a lot of people. New Paltz is a hub of environmentalism. We have such beauty here, I think that makes us want to do more for the environment.”

Grassroots efforts like Cherry’s have been more and more frequent in recent history in New York State, pushing environmental issues more than ever before.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of injecting liquid with hundreds of chemicals at high pressure into rocks to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas.

Because of localized town efforts like that of Cherry throughout the state, fracking is now banned in New York.

“Our elected officials do not hold environmental protection as a top priority,” Wood said. “If we don’t hold them accountable through grassroots efforts for environmental activism, they will continue to ignore the importance of public health and access to clean air and drinking water.”

Because of dedication to causes, New Paltz activism is taken seriously by policy makers. They know that the New Paltz community will not give up until the issue is driven home, according to Wood.

On Friday, April 17, because of these grassroots efforts by the town, policy makers, congressmen and federal workers came together in New Paltz to discuss climate change at a conference hosted by the State University of New York at New Paltz.

SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian said that with leadership of professors and community efforts, the university was able to address the important issue of extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels, specifically focused on New York in the climate change conference.

Kevin Wisely, Director of Office of Emergency Management in the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, spoke about how climate change has such a large impact on local communities. He noted that without combined efforts, environmental disasters will be much harder on these municipalities.

“It’s so important that we come together to collaborate,” Wisely said. “It’s not if the next event is going to occur, we all know it’s when.”

New York Congressman Chris Gibson noted the importance of coordination in combating these environmental issues at the conference at the Lecture Center of SUNY New Paltz.

“We absolutely need to better organize at all levels to bring forth cures and solutions,” he said. “This has very much been constituent driven, not only from the experts but from citizens that live in our community.”

Cherry is no exception.

Before moving to New Paltz, she had never written a letter to the editor in her entire life. Cherry did not have a television, but she did have a computer, where she began her crusade.

But one letter led to many more not just to The New Paltz Times but to other weekly papers from Ulster Publishing in Woodstock, Saugerties and Kingston.

Now she has written over 100 letters to the editor and to Congress on environmental issues through the Climate Action Coalition (CAC), a local activism group fighting climate change. She said her main goal with her efforts are to give people in the community specific actions they can take to make it easier for them to make a difference.

Since her first letter, Cherry has gotten involved with dozens of local organizations in New Paltz. Along with being active in the CAC, Cherry started to go to campus meetings of Sustainable Agriculture and The Environmental Task Force (ETF).

Through the ETF, Cherry personally spearheaded a trip to Dimock, Pennsylvania, a town devastated by fracking disasters that left much of the drinking water undrinkable.

“I wanted to go to Dimock but I didn’t have a car,” Cherry said. “Understanding fracking against the backdrop of the oil and gas industry and their lobbyists and well-funded think tanks has enriched my life.”

After her planning, in April of 2012, 50 campus and community members took a bus to Dimock, filling the luggage compartment of the bus with hundreds of gallons of water to deliver to the homes they visited on the trip. On the bus were retired and current faculty members, students, several local reporters and columnists and community members not just from New Paltz but from all over Ulster County, Cherry said.

Cherry has accomplished so much in such a short amount of time, mainly learning the issues from the New Paltz community over the past seven years. Before that she bounced from math teacher to massage therapist, to professional organizer to environmental activist. Cherry’s career has been as unique as her style.

But it hasn’t always been letter writing and rallying for Cherry.

On Sept. 11, 2001, as the news spread of the disaster of the day, so did the unfortunate diagnosis of breast cancer. As a survivor of ovarian cancer for 22 years, Cherry has powered through every obstacle that came her way.

She was born in Philadelphia and after living in Camden, New Jersey for a few years, moved to New York City in 1970. She lived there for 38 years, until she retired to New Paltz in 2008.

“It was a big change, but I was ready to leave,” she said.

Cherry has never owned a car or a house, and doesn’t plan to start now. The only time she had ever been in New Paltz before moving here was when the Trailways bus would go through the town.

“I fell in love with the energy of New Paltz,” she said. “It was just like the perfect place.”

Now, Cherry lives in the heart of the town, renting an apartment in the original carriage house of an old mansion just off of Main Street. Her cozy backyard houses a swing and a view overlooking the Shawangunk Mountains, where upbeat Irish music can be heard from the lively pub down the hill daily.

Being in the center of it all is important to Cherry, where everything she needs is only a 20-minute-walk or a short bus ride away.

Cherry shuffled around her huge construction papers filled with her passions.

Somehow in a few days, Cherry was able to pour her soul out on paper, relaying all of the events, people and causes she deemed crucial for action, all out in front of her.

“I just can’t imagine my life without doing all the things I have done and meeting the people I have met,” she said.