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Every State, Every Race, Every Place, with Courtney Bowie (Legal, Environment, Civil Rights, History)
Episode 41217th January 2023 • The Action Catalyst • Southwestern Family of Companies
00:00:00 00:21:39

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Courtney Bowie, Managing Attorney for Earthjustice, shares her thanks to ThinkingAhead and her time in the New York Supreme Court, why 50 years in the legal world is just a short time ago, the huge misconception and history-making moment around the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the importance of resting up for a squabble, and other thoughts on the history of struggle, working with existential threat, "forest bathing", leaning on a higher power, and a bit of motivation from Helen Keller.

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Transcripts

Courtney Bowie:

On today's episode, host Anne Moore is joined by Courtney Bowie, managing attorney for Earth Justice, the premier non-profit public interest environmental law organization with time spent at the A C L U as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Courtney Bowie:

Courtney is a champion of civil and environmental rights, drawing from the experience of a 20 year legal career to bring a strong voice to those in need.

Courtney Bowie:

We hope you enjoy the discussion.

Dan Moore:

Everyone.

Dan Moore:

Welcome to the Action Catalyst.

Dan Moore:

Today our guest is Courtney Bowie, who's got an amazing background, a great story, and she's making a difference for our world every single day with what she does, and since Action Catalyst is about making a difference, we're delighted to have you as a guest.

Dan Moore:

Welcome.

Dan Moore:

Thank you.

Dan Moore:

Glad to be here.

Dan Moore:

Well, it's interesting how our family of companies is connect because I understand that a young recruiter named Jess Martinez is the reason that you joined Earth Justice.

Dan Moore:

Could you give us a bit of background on that?

Dan Moore:

Sure

Courtney Bowie:

thing.

Courtney Bowie:

I was working with the A C L U and I'd been the South Dakota Legal Director for a number of years, and when I moved back to New York in 2019, Jess reached out to me about Earth Justice and it was perfect timing because I just worked collaterally with Earth Justice because I'd been representing protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest in Standing Rock, um, near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

Courtney Bowie:

And I was really interested in the work.

Courtney Bowie:

The environmental movement and environmental justice.

Dan Moore:

That's a great connection.

Dan Moore:

Jeff's is part of Thinking Ahead, which is a full service search and recruitment firm that's part of our family of companies.

Dan Moore:

So I'm glad you had that connection.

Courtney Bowie:

Yeah, she was amazing.

Courtney Bowie:

She shepherded me through the entire process of applying for the managing attorney role in the northeast region for Justice.

Courtney Bowie:

And it was a really, just, like I said, a, a really helpful and good connection for me to, well,

Courtney Bowie:

Courtney,

Dan Moore:

I know you didn't start off thinking that you're gonna be in public service law.

Dan Moore:

You started off in a, in a law firm in.

Dan Moore:

Can you kinda share with us some of the most significant periods in your, in your life as you look back on it?

Dan Moore:

In other words, the point A led to point B, led to C, led to B, but some are more significant than others.

Dan Moore:

So what, what caused you to kind of take the route that you're in now over these many, many years and great successes?

Courtney Bowie:

I went to law school initially thinking I was going to be in public interest law, or more specifically criminal defense law.

Courtney Bowie:

And I went in the mid nineties and I had been living in Boston for a number of years, loved Boston, shout out to Boston, and I had worked at a small non-profit in Boston before I went to law school.

Courtney Bowie:

So after college I joined a non-profit called Nccj, which I think is defunct.

Courtney Bowie:

But it was the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Courtney Bowie:

It later became the national conference and it, they may have some offices now, but it used to be a nationwide organization.

Courtney Bowie:

We did a lot of really great fun, interesting work around equality and justice and iss.

Courtney Bowie:

I ran a camp called Anytown North of Boston, which brought together urban and suburban kids to get to know each other.

Courtney Bowie:

And it was delightful.

Courtney Bowie:

And I thought, you know, I'll go to law school and continue.

Courtney Bowie:

Working on criminal justice issues, defending people who've been, um, accused of crimes.

Courtney Bowie:

And then my first summer, after my first year at University of Texas, I came back to the Northeast and worked as an intern for a judge in the Supreme Court of New York, which is the felony trial level in New York.

Courtney Bowie:

Most states, the Supreme Court is, is an appellate court in the New York, the Supreme Court.

Courtney Bowie:

Where felony trials are handled and I was in the Bronx and I realized I didn't have the stomach for it.

Courtney Bowie:

I believe very much that people deserve criminal defense and.

Courtney Bowie:

I know people work on both sides of that.

Courtney Bowie:

I didn't wanna prosecute the people who were coming before the judge, but I also did not, I didn't have the stomach for, you know, getting into the facts of those cases.

Courtney Bowie:

I did it for three months.

Courtney Bowie:

It was more than enough, and so I went back to law school, kind of reassessed my second and third year and went to a defense firm.

Courtney Bowie:

Met great people, learned a lot, learned how to be a really good litigator at a firm in Boston called Goodwin.

Courtney Bowie:

But I also, after a little while there, I knew, you know, I wanted, I really do wanna do this civil rights thing, or lead law, and so I just applied to every civil rights position in the country.

Courtney Bowie:

Social justice position that I could think of.

Courtney Bowie:

And Southern Poverty Law Center was hiring and they had one office at the time in Montgomery, Alabama.

Courtney Bowie:

I'd been to Alabama once and actually I'd been to Tuskegee once on a visit in high school that, you know, they offered me the role and I sold everything in Boston.

Courtney Bowie:

My condo packed up my stuff.

Courtney Bowie:

Drove to Alabama and started working in Montgomery, Alabama.

Courtney Bowie:

That's how I ended up kind of into social justice law world initially, just because there was a 0.4 years after I started at Goodwin that I thought, you know, I don't really wanna practice law, or I just want to use law to do good.

Dan Moore:

Exactly.

Dan Moore:

That's quite a journey

Courtney Bowie:

there.

Courtney Bowie:

It was, Alabama was really quite a different, it was a change from Boston where I'd spent most of the last 10 years.

Courtney Bowie:

Mm-hmm.

Dan Moore:

and Alabama's the side of so many social justice milestone moments for our whole country.

Courtney Bowie:

Indeed.

Courtney Bowie:

It's a really amazing place.

Courtney Bowie:

There's a rich history, rich culture.

Courtney Bowie:

I met amazing people in.

Courtney Bowie:

P C and other non-profits.

Courtney Bowie:

It's a relatively small, progressive community, and so it wasn't hard to get to know everyone because there aren't that many people on the progressive side of things in Alabama.

Dan Moore:

Right.

Dan Moore:

But that progressiveness is such an important thing to keep fanning that flame.

Dan Moore:

Absolutely.

Dan Moore:

Along the way, Courtney, you have bound to hit some pretty significant brick walls, things that were just showstoppers at the moment.

Dan Moore:

What are some strategies or advice you could share with us when you hit one of these unexpected things that you can't see around it?

Dan Moore:

Can't see over, can't see under, what are some coping strategies you could share with us?

Courtney Bowie:

So there are different types of brick walls and I, I'm thinking of the, I mean, so there are brick walls that you hit because you think, you know, this social problem is not so, and I think a lot of people probably feel that right now in many ways.

Courtney Bowie:

And a lot of the work that I've done, both like racial justice, voting rights, Women's rights and environmental work.

Courtney Bowie:

So that's one brick wall.

Courtney Bowie:

And then the other brick wall is like just me personally, like I just need a break or professionally, like this isn't going the way I want it to, so I need to, I need to step back.

Courtney Bowie:

The first one I think is more existential in kind of thinking about.

Courtney Bowie:

How do I go forward in this profession, in this world when the deck seems so stack?

Courtney Bowie:

And I think that's what's so cool about what you talk about and what, what you have to try to keep in mind when you're doing this type of work is that most change is incremental, but it requires people who are good.

Courtney Bowie:

And I think there are people who are good in every state, in every race, in every place.

Courtney Bowie:

Like good people have to stand up and.

Courtney Bowie:

And have the courage to say, I think this is wrong or that is wrong.

Courtney Bowie:

There's a toll and there's a cost when you do that.

Courtney Bowie:

It can be exhausting and that can cause a brick wall because you do it and you sometimes feel alone, but you don't realize when you do that, it helps other people come around and say, you know what?

Courtney Bowie:

Yeah, this is wrong, or, or I can see a better future or a different future or future that doesn't involve continuing to do the same thing if in fact this thing is unjust and sometimes it requires really doing a lot of.

Courtney Bowie:

And research or media to show that something's unjust or not right, or it's not going to end well.

Courtney Bowie:

Sometimes it just requires naming something that we all kind of feel is not right.

Courtney Bowie:

I take heart by understanding this history of this country and, and history in general.

Courtney Bowie:

I'm a big history buff and understanding that.

Courtney Bowie:

At every moment in the country's history.

Courtney Bowie:

I mean, there was a point in the 1860s most people didn't think the country was going to survive, and we went through a period of civil war that resulted in three the most significant amendments to the Constitution.

Courtney Bowie:

The 13th Amendment outlying slavery, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection to all citizens, and the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote.

Courtney Bowie:

That was after years of bloody struggle.

Courtney Bowie:

Many, many people dying and being maed and, and I think you have to keep that history and that context and moment, right.

Dan Moore:

That gives you some strength when you realize that the history of struggle is not necessarily one hit and you're done.

Dan Moore:

It's a process.

Dan Moore:

It can take generations, in fact

Courtney Bowie:

accomplish.

Courtney Bowie:

Absolutely.

Courtney Bowie:

And also that people have been in it for years.

Dan Moore:

Well, they really have, you know, I was in middle school when Rachel Carson's book, silent Spring came out and I woke up everybody because D V T was the main pesticide used in farms.

Dan Moore:

It was even used in homes.

Dan Moore:

And I remember what a tremendous wake up that book was for so many of us.

Dan Moore:

I remember when I was in high school and the Clean Air Act pass in the Clean Water Act pass, and this was against an awful lot of industrial opposition.

Dan Moore:

And those things have been real difference makers.

Courtney Bowie:

Yeah, I think you're pointing to a really important recent moment, right?

Courtney Bowie:

Like that's what I love about coming to environmental law from civil rights and social justice, like I'm talking about 1865.

Courtney Bowie:

Rachel Carson is late sixties.

Courtney Bowie:

And all of these laws were passed in the seventies, so they're 50 years old.

Courtney Bowie:

And I think when people, and it's particularly some of the younger people who are coming into their careers and wanna get involved in the work of protecting the environment because it's going to impact them more than it's going to impact me.

Courtney Bowie:

Part of that is, Making sure they know that 50 years is not a long time for law.

Courtney Bowie:

That we had the 14th amendment on the books in 1865, but it was the 1960s where a lot of those rights became real for people.

Courtney Bowie:

And we can change them.

Courtney Bowie:

We can amend the laws if we need to.

Courtney Bowie:

We can keep fighting.

Courtney Bowie:

We can keep bringing cases.

Courtney Bowie:

One case isn't going to make a difference.

Dan Moore:

No, but it's gonna take that groundswell of people saying, enough is enough.

Dan Moore:

We've gotta pull this together.

Dan Moore:

And when it comes to the environment, last time I checked, we only have one.

Dan Moore:

No,

Courtney Bowie:

we, we do only have one.

Courtney Bowie:

We've got one shot at this, and I think it's in charity right now.

Courtney Bowie:

I mean that everyone becomes aware and becomes a protector in the way that my indigenous clients in North Dakota and South Dakota used to, I mean, they're all water protectors.

Courtney Bowie:

That's what they call themselves.

Courtney Bowie:

And I thought it was, was really appropriate.

Courtney Bowie:

Its book got me.

Courtney Bowie:

Environmental justice work.

Courtney Bowie:

I was thinking the issue out there was race.

Courtney Bowie:

They were saying the issue for them was protecting their water because water is life and they're absolutely right.

Courtney Bowie:

We don't have water.

Courtney Bowie:

Nothing else is really going to matter.

Courtney Bowie:

All of these other things are going to feel very secondary.

Dan Moore:

True.

Dan Moore:

So water protectors, what a great term.

Courtney Bowie:

They were coming together around protesting the Keystone Excel pipeline.

Courtney Bowie:

There are a number of tribes, obviously a lot of tribes in South Dakota and North Dakota.

Courtney Bowie:

They called themselves the Lakota, I believe, but the term we use is Sue.

Courtney Bowie:

That's the French term.

Courtney Bowie:

When they got together to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was crossing the Missouri.

Courtney Bowie:

Just above the water intake for the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Courtney Bowie:

It was the first time the tribes of the Lakota had come together since the 1860s.

Courtney Bowie:

So the, the camp was called Oceti Saee because that's the Council of Seven Fires.

Courtney Bowie:

And those seven tribes got together in a way they hadn't in what, 150 years.

Courtney Bowie:

And then also, almost every tribe in the country came to South North Dakota, excuse me, and brought their flag, and they walked with a ceremony and drums.

Courtney Bowie:

It was really beautiful.

Courtney Bowie:

It was a camp where people were camping and praying, and this was in August of 2016 that folks are protesting this pipeline because of the threat to the Missouri River, which is a huge drinking water source, not just for Standing Rock City Reservation, but for millions of people.

Courtney Bowie:

They all came and got together for the first time in the history of this continent, right?

Courtney Bowie:

These are all separate sovereign nations.

Courtney Bowie:

These tribes, they had always been.

Courtney Bowie:

And so it was an amazing thing to see tribes from all over the country, from the northwest, from Maine, from Florida, coming up to North Dakota with their flag to say, we support you.

Courtney Bowie:

And then camping for a day or two.

Courtney Bowie:

And it was really a beautiful thing until the oil company, you know, started bringing lawsuits against people for interfering with pipeline and civil trespass and things of that nature.

Courtney Bowie:

But, um, it was really quite an amazing thing to.

Dan Moore:

It, it, it truly is.

Dan Moore:

You know, a lot of our listeners are also very cause driven and sometimes it's against overwhelming odds, but what do you do to keep from just getting discouraged in the face of these massive forces that seem to be working against you?

Dan Moore:

I

Courtney Bowie:

mean, I, I've always found great friends in the cause, and also I take little mini breaks when something's going.

Courtney Bowie:

You go full throttle and you, you know, you show up When the thing was happening in Dakota, in North Dakota, and I was the South Dakota Legal Director, which also covered North Dakota.

Courtney Bowie:

I just went back and forth to North Dakota in 2016 until the end of the year and wrote a lot of motions and wrote letters and met with people.

Courtney Bowie:

I did what you do as an ACL U attorney.

Courtney Bowie:

At the time I was the A C L U Earth Justice was working on a permitting They.

Courtney Bowie:

A tremendous job, you know, making sure that that permit was environmentally reviewed and doing everything they could in court to get that stop.

Courtney Bowie:

But a lot of people were just kind of in it.

Courtney Bowie:

And then when the Alexia occurred and the permits were granted, and the court case was still going on, but it wasn't my piece, it took a little break and I, I hung out with my family.

Courtney Bowie:

You know, I get out in nature, I like to hike, I like to, And I, I just kind of step away from everything in terms of what's going on in the courts and just focus on the now and focus on the now.

Courtney Bowie:

Like I don't read books about climate change.

Courtney Bowie:

When I'm doing that.

Courtney Bowie:

I just step away and make sure that I'm rejuvenated so that when there's time to get into a squabble, I'm ready to go and I can lead my team.

Courtney Bowie:

I have an amazing team of people at Earth Justice.

Courtney Bowie:

I manage, um, really talented lawyers, lobbyists.

Courtney Bowie:

Senior analysts, policy folks, and we need to be

Dan Moore:

ready.

Dan Moore:

I was gonna ask if you kind of insist that your team also take those breaks.

Dan Moore:

Sounds like you do.

Courtney Bowie:

Absolutely.

Courtney Bowie:

I think it's crucial because I think a lot, it's hard when you're in this work to like take a day off because you think the work is so important.

Courtney Bowie:

You have to just keep grinding.

Courtney Bowie:

And I certainly entered the work that way, like thinking, you just go, go, go.

Courtney Bowie:

And it's really kind of disrespectful to the cause to.

Courtney Bowie:

A night off or a weekend off, you know, you need to be going 24 7.

Courtney Bowie:

But what I realized is if you don't like stop and take care of yourself, you're, there's something's going to stop you.

Courtney Bowie:

You know, your body is going to stop you or your mind is going to stop you and you're gonna give up altogether.

Courtney Bowie:

And so I am a big fan of telling people, you know, this work is incredibly, I.

Courtney Bowie:

There's nothing more important than, you know, the threat to our existence.

Courtney Bowie:

It's, it's an exist, it's an existential threat.

Courtney Bowie:

The work we're doing in environmental justice is, is trying to stop an existential threat to humanity.

Courtney Bowie:

But you need to be ready to do it.

Courtney Bowie:

You need to be okay and in order do that.

Courtney Bowie:

Sometimes you're gonna need to take breaks and that's okay too.

Dan Moore:

Think it's really, really sound advice, Courtney.

Dan Moore:

Now here's another question.

Dan Moore:

Do you have a morning routine, a way you'd like to start your day?

Dan Moore:

That's kind of a standard way you get rolling in.

Courtney Bowie:

Yeah, I mean, I think I actually like going into the office, you know, so I was, I was really sad when, when Covid closed everything down, because I like seeing people and I like interacting with other humans on a regular basis.

Courtney Bowie:

I have an A office routine and then an in office routine.

Courtney Bowie:

My in-office routine get a, I like Peloton, so I do a Peloton workout.

Courtney Bowie:

And then because I love the music, the music's amazing on Pelo.

Courtney Bowie:

The workouts are great, and I always work harder than I would if I just did the workout on my own.

Courtney Bowie:

I get dressed and take a couple of minutes to myself.

Courtney Bowie:

The 2030 minutes it takes for me to commute from Jersey City into New York City, and then I always treat myself to coffee out when I go into the office on the way in, I listen to NPR share a little bit about what's going on.

Courtney Bowie:

It's normally not super upsetting the way who the other news stations are, and, but it's informative and then I get in and, and get my day.

Courtney Bowie:

I

Dan Moore:

think that's fantastic.

Dan Moore:

Get your brain in the right frame and get you ready to make things happen that day.

Dan Moore:

In some ways, it's like an urban version of a forest walk.

Dan Moore:

You know, a lot of, uh, Japanese businesses require their people to take forest bathing.

Dan Moore:

It's called every day.

Dan Moore:

They have to take 10 minutes in the forest outside the office because it's so rejuvenating.

Dan Moore:

They call it forest bathing.

Dan Moore:

I'm

Courtney Bowie:

going to Google forest bathing when this is , then sound amazing

Dan Moore:

and there's some parks in every, every city.

Dan Moore:

One of the great things about our country is that somebody had the wisdom to not develop every single square inch and make sure that we have good green spaces and and the lungs of New York, of course, for Central Park.

Courtney Bowie:

Oh, and it's an amazing space.

Courtney Bowie:

The northern part of the park is also really kind of untouched in a way that it's hard to believe you're in a city part.

Courtney Bowie:

When you get into some of those trails, into the.

Dan Moore:

It's absolutely true.

Dan Moore:

It's beautiful there.

Dan Moore:

Now, some of our listeners, their lives are just trucking along really in a great pace.

Dan Moore:

They're happy with what's going on.

Dan Moore:

We've got some others that are so discouraged and frustrated right now.

Dan Moore:

But what advice could you give somebody that is just doesn't know where else to turn?

Courtney Bowie:

Well, in terms of thinking that the economy's bad or the environmental.

Courtney Bowie:

Crisis work facing is, is kind of hopeless or, I mean, I'm a person of faith and I, I believe people should have the right to believe or not believe and then to believe in the way that they wanna believe.

Courtney Bowie:

But for me, I wanna say that I wanna use I statements here.

Courtney Bowie:

I believe that there's a higher power and that, and this is.

Courtney Bowie:

Corny, but that, you know, it's the Martin Luther King quote.

Courtney Bowie:

The arc of justice bends towards justice, but it bends very slowly, and I am completely, it's savaging that quote.

Courtney Bowie:

I know that I did not say that necessarily in the right way, but what I mean is I'm a person of faith and when I get really discouraged, I lean on my faith and I encourage other people to lean on whatever their higher power is, if they have one, and if they.

Courtney Bowie:

Even if people don't have higher power, sometimes they do have things that help them, like yoga or meditation or something like that.

Courtney Bowie:

Um, and that's not very practical.

Courtney Bowie:

I know it's not the same as saying, here's a way to earn money to cover your rent bill if you don't have your rent paid.

Courtney Bowie:

I'd say get involved with the politics at a local level that would address those things.

Courtney Bowie:

If it's, you know, your rent's too high and you can't afford it, or there aren't living wages, like get involved at the city level and see if your city and state will pounds, you know, different minimum wage loss and rate control.

Courtney Bowie:

It's a way of feeling

Dan Moore:

power too.

Dan Moore:

There are things we can do instead of just feeling stuck.

Dan Moore:

Helen Keller once said, I am only one, but I am one.

Dan Moore:

And so the good that I can do, please let me do it.

Dan Moore:

And if we just remember, we may be only one, but we are one.

Dan Moore:

And that's way more than

Courtney Bowie:

zero.

Courtney Bowie:

Absolutely.

Courtney Bowie:

I mean, I think we need tons of work at the federal policy level and state policy level to address climate change and making sure our water's.

Courtney Bowie:

You know, we can make individual choices that will help the planet.

Courtney Bowie:

You can choose to keep your air conditioner at 78 or higher.

Courtney Bowie:

I mean, we don't want people who are sick to suffer if they need it lower.

Courtney Bowie:

That's one thing.

Courtney Bowie:

But I'm just saying if you're okay, well you can make choices that will impact our policies and how much energy we're using as a country.

Dan Moore:

We can find the recycle center instead of just throwing it in the normal trash.

Dan Moore:

Absolutely.

Dan Moore:

A cumulative efforts of millions of people make a difference, but it all starts with that individual person saying, it's on me, not anybody else.

Dan Moore:

Exactly.

Dan Moore:

Courtney, thank you for being with us today and, and thank you above all for the good

Dan Moore:

that

Courtney Bowie:

you do.

Courtney Bowie:

Thank you so much for having me.

Courtney Bowie:

This has been delightful.

Courtney Bowie:

It was nice to meet you and to chat.