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Maya van Rossum: the Delaware Riverkeeper making a difference

Words by Tess Becker

In environmental advocacy work, it’s hard to do enough. There are always more proverbial fires to put out than there are hands to put them out. And yet someone like Maya van Rossum seems to do the impossible: make positive change with whatever project she works on. 

Beyond anything, Maya wants to put out positive energy into the world, even signing off her emails “Smiling Maya.” When it comes to her environmental work, she traces everything back to her upbringing. 

“I had a wonderful mother that encouraged and nurtured my love of nature and my desire to stand up for justice whenever I could because that's what she did,” Maya tells Smiley News. “She was an environmental activist, but when she saw something wrong in the world, she would work to fix it.”

Maya’s efforts have taken her far and wide and it's hard to overstate the work that she’s done. She’s helped push legislation against fracking efforts, especially through Green Amendments For The Generations, a national nonprofit organization. She has also earned the title, the “Deleware Riverkeeper” for her work with the regional advocacy organization the Delaware Riverkeeper Network going back over 30 years. 

To succeed at much of the work she’s done, she puts her expertise in law to use, where she’s a licensed attorney in three states.

“When I was in college, I was trying to figure out my path, and what to do, and just by happenstance, I took a law course it was about contracts," she says. "I found it very fascinating and of course, I loved the environment.

"And so I went to a college professor and I said, ‘Is there a way to marry the interests I have in the law with my interest in standing up for the environment’ and he said, ‘yes, there's a thing called Environmental Law.’”

She didn’t want to be a lawyer though, she wanted to use her education to become a better activist. 

One of her primary focuses has been environmental racism, where there may be more environmental devastation and pollution in poorer areas often populated by people of color and other minorities. 

“The way it plays out is it's actually easier for communities or for developers to place their operations nearby communities of color indigenous communities, because those people have less political influence and less money to fight back against whatever it is that's being proposed,” Maya explains.

“And once they start getting all of these industrial operations placed around them, the environment is degraded. The argument that gets set up by the people with more money and affluence says, ‘well, that environments already harmed so just don't put your industrial operation in this clean, pristine piece of nature. Put it over there where the damage is already happening.’”

Put bluntly, Maya just wanted to make a difference, and has in her decades in the environmental activism realm, fighting for active green legislation in all 50 states.

This article aligns with the UN SDG Climate Action.

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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