When someone asks me, “Who are your heroes?” the people who come to mind are often strangers who live in other places or other times. Sylvia McLaughlin is the one whose picture I see every workday, reminding me that heroes are simply people who see what needs to be done and do it.
I started working at Save The Bay in 2011, as the organization celebrated its 50th anniversary year. It was an incredible way to connect with the history of this environmental movement. The story of these three women from Berkeley who stood up for a better San Francisco Bay is inspiring to all of us. Can you imagine if they hadn’t succeeded? Would our beloved San Francisco Bay be merely a polluted shipping channel? Before learning the history, it was easy to take the Bay for granted, a sparkling gem that defines the Bay Area. I am both inspired and humbled by the work that Save The Bay’s founders started in Sylvia’s home in the Berkeley hills all those years ago.
I was thrilled the first time I heard Sylvia speak in person, at our 50th anniversary gala event. She quoted her friend and co-founder Kay Kerr: “The San Francisco Bay is never saved, it is always in the process of being saved.” She encouraged each of us to keep working for a better San Francisco Bay. Her words resonated throughout the room, a reminder not just to look back at the fights already won, but to embrace the work of constantly improving our Bay.
When Sylvia McLaughlin passed away last month at the age of 99, she left a long list of accomplishments and an admirable legacy. As we honor her life, I’m filled with awe and gratitude of the impact she had on our region. The San Francisco Bay is no longer seen as a giant sewer or unused real estate. This thriving estuary is now ringed with parks and open space to give the public access to its shoreline, including McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, named in Sylvia’s honor. Each time we look out over San Francisco Bay, we can thank Sylvia.
A legacy of determination
I am so thankful to Sylvia for her persistence and determination. She and her friends faced what must have seemed like impossible challenges, and changed the course of history. Sylvia’s lifelong commitment to working for a better Bay is a legacy all of its own.
The ways that we interact with the Bay have changed in the last 50 years, and the challenges we face are new as well. In the face of climate change and the Bay Area’s growing population, the task at hand can feel as impossible as what our founders faced half a century ago. But just as Sylvia saved the Bay for us, I am confident that we can save the Bay for future generations.
We take inspiration from Sylvia’s vision for the San Francisco Bay, rooted in her deep love for this place we all come home. We will remember her courage when we face our own impossible odds. We’ll channel her tenacity when confronted by powerful interests. And we will share her faith that ordinary people achieve great things when they come together and raise their voices as one.