LIZ BENNEIAN can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in nature and the environment. I’ve asked her to think back because I’m curious to know how this dynamic conservationist, with over 20 years of experience in journalism, came to be the environmental conscience of Oakville, a community situated on Lake Ontario, some 35 kilometres west of Toronto.

Benneian eventually refers to the “gorgeous” English-style garden that surrounded the house her grandfather built in Windsor, Ontario, where she grew up. “It got wilder and wilder as you went further away from the house,” she recalls. “I was one of those girls who collected small animals and would bring them home. But I learned at an early age that they had to go back into the wild.” She insists that this is not an idle childhood memory, but is actually one of the ways she first recognized how everything around her was interconnected.

In 2005, Benneian took over as the full-time volunteer president of the Oakvillegreen Conservation Association, a grassroots community organization dedicated to conserving natural spaces in Oakville (population 165,000). She says her success with the group – now one of the community’s strongest advocates for sustainable development – is largely due to her ability to recognize important connections between individuals and groups within the community.

Benneian lived in Oakville for 10 years before moving across the lake to Vineland, Ontario. Together with her husband Ken and 12-year-old son Tyler, she has planted a large garden in her new backyard, complete with herbs, native nut trees, fruit trees and a berry patch. “We moved because we wanted to live in a more self-sufficient and sustainable way,” she says, insisting that “everything is maintained pesticide-free, of course.” Despite her move, Benneian is in close contact with Oakville. She says that besides having a deep love for nature, her experience as a journalist helped her to excel at environmental and community activism. “I learned how to ask the right questions and be a good listener,” she says. “It taught me how to really understand the subtext of things.”

As proof of her effectiveness, Oakvillegreen recently won a two-year battle with the Region of Halton, by convincing city councilors to scrap plans to build an $800-million waste incinerator, and instead focus their efforts on reduction and diversion. To Benneian, it seemed “ridiculous” to pour all that money into an energy source that depended on creating more waste. Her plan not only saved taxpayers’ money, it has also boosted the region’s waste diversion rate by 20 per cent. Benneian’s work within the community was recently recognized by a panel of judges comprising community, business and environmental leaders from across the country, who named her Canada’s 2009 Hometown Hero. The national award is handed out each year by Earth Day Canada. The Toronto-based, nonprofit environmental organization initiated the program five years ago in order to recognize local activists, such as Benneian, whose efforts often go unheralded.

“Hometown Heroes” are people who take a stand on environmental issues affecting their community. They are also those exceptional individuals who motivate passion and galvanize the support of others around a particular community cause. “I’m pretty effective at finding strength in people and making the most of their abilities,” says Benneian. She believes that it’s faith in others, plus the self-confidence to sit back and allow them to excel, that builds an organization. “A good leader allows people to run with things.”

That philosophy has helped out time and again during Oakvillegreen’s five-year string of successes. Beyond its recent victory on the incineration front, the group persuaded council to introduce a tree bylaw that limits developers from clear-cutting in Oakville and protects the region’s mature trees, as well as a bylaw that forbids the cosmetic use of pesticides within city limits.

In another lengthy but fruitful battle, Oakvillegreen stopped plans to pave a number of trails by convincing residents that the project would have had a negative impact on local ecosystems. In 2006, the group also helped establish the 260-hectare Glenorchy Conservation Area in north Oakville, and a year later it was involved in the successful designation of nine hectares at Wildflower Woods.

In an effort to get more people in the area involved in environmental initiatives, Benneian founded a volunteer tree-planting organization called Ground Breakers Oakville. The group has planted over 8000 native trees and shrubs in Oakville, but perhaps more importantly, these activities have motivated citizens. “When we deal with the public, we’re trying to empower them,” says Benneian. “People need to do something they can feel good about.”

It’s a conviction that Benneian bringsto Oakville’s surrounding communities as well. She helped establish two more organizations in Halton Region: Burlingtongreen and Miltongreen. “Liz is one of kind,” writes Amy Schnurr, the executive director of the now-thriving Burlingtongreen. “She successfully turned this individual commitment into reality by gathering Burlington citizens together to propose the establishment of an environmental voice for the city.”

As for Miltongreen, the story is typical of Benneian’s capacity for organizing at the grassroots level. At an Oakvillegreen meeting, she spoke with three women from Milton who each expressed the same wish for a similar organization in their home city. “I put them all together and said they should talk,” Benneian told me. She suggested that they find a few more interested people from Milton and to then give her a call. The non-profit was born soon after.

At the end of our interview, I ask Benneian whether she’s hopeful for the future. Her response, by turns optimistic and deeply pessimistic, reveals a woman who has spent years struggling to convince skeptics and get them to act. “People are ahead of politicians on environmental issues,” she insists. “I am hopeful that they will get moving, but it’s got to be from the top down and the bottom up. It’s got to be everybody working to make a difference.”

Benneian has always had to contend with Oakville’s suburban culture, which seems forever geared toward a caroriented, consumer lifestyle. But she sees reason for hope based on changing perceptions regarding the environment. “People used to look at me like I had grown horns, or was crazy,” she says. “They don’t look at me that way anymore.”

What does Benneian tell people who are still skeptical? “We’re going to have to start living within our means,” she says. “That’s the bottom line.” Referring to her own garden in Vineland, Benneian adds, “The environmental problems we face are huge, but when I see the rejuvenation in my own little patch of the planet over the past year, I feel hope.” 

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