by Ellen C. Warren

What do you think when you hear the phrase, “Living in reciprocity with nature”? Does it feel familiar, like, oh yeah, that’s what we need to do? Or do you have some difficulty getting a picture of what that really means? Those raised with the Bible are aware of the idea that people are to be the “stewards of the earth.” But that requirement lacks the interaction, the give and take of the word reciprocity. Unless you are a devoted ecologist/conservationist, or an Indigenous person, you probably need some help with comprehending this idea.

Mia Rudolph-Schulta’s entry into her studies of Public Health found her wanting to work with community “and build community’s capacity to be resilient to climate change, to strengthen our relationships to nature and understand how we need to work reciprocally with nature. By caring for it, it would continue to care for us,” she explains.

She has chosen Riverwest to be her home “with no plans of moving anytime soon.” Being part of a happily diverse community that cares about itself and each other is a big draw. So are the beautiful, abundant natural areas and the variety of shops and restaurants. “It’s got everything!” she exclaims.

During the COVID lockdown Mia received guidance toward a better understanding of this reciprocal relationship through reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. An indigenous botanist and poet, Kimmerer borrows from the teachings of her people about living in reciprocity with nature and the need to care for it so it can care for us as a way of survival, a way of life. “Especially because of lockdown and how much comfort I received by being able to get out in nature so often, during a time that was really lonely and disconnected from other people,” says Mia, “I felt like I was able to get that from nature.”

Mia’s final year of graduate studies at UWM took place during the forced isolation of the pandemic. When she emerged with a more rounded view of how she wanted to ply her knowledge and energies in a career, in particular hoping to work in an area that focused on water, she became involved in a project that has been going on in Milwaukee since 2015. Called Watermarks, it “is designed to help its citizens better understand their relationships to the water systems and infrastructure that support their lives,” Watermarks (cityaslivinglab.org/watermarks) is building an interactive system to alert Milwaukeeans to times when their actions are needed (for instance, to cut back on water usage during heavy rains. Look for tall poles with a letter on each, which will serve as beacons. Riverworks is in planning with them for one of our own on the Beerline Trail. Eventually there will be a QR code on each pole to listen to the shared water stories of Milwaukeeans, another part of the project.

Grant funding was prohibitive for Mia’s continuation with Watermarks so in her pursuit of another situation, “I happened to stumble across this opportunity with the City of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office (ECO) … Working for this office was kind of a dream of mine in graduate school, and I would have thought it would have taken me a lot longer to get there,” she says with her accompanying unabashed giggle. The office is composed of seven staff and an intern, all working on different aspects of sustainability. Former Mayor Barrett charged ECO with carrying out a very broad plan which includes energy efficiency, solar energy, green infrastructure, water quality, creating green jobs, working on local food systems, expanding our local tree canopy and more.

ECO also supports other organizations involved in similar work, such as non-profit Reflo, which is responsible for the greening of schoolyards, as we just experienced at La Escuela Fratney.

Mia is managing three projects. The first, Homegrown, began as an urban agriculture program but has transitioned to installing pocket parks and orchards around the city. The Harambee neighborhood has several. Her role is maintaining them and keeping them active.

The second is funded by an EPA grant to address environmental justice. This project focuses on indoor environmental factors, promoting a healthy home environment. Through the 16th Street Community Health Centers and Walnut Way, resources and workshops are offered on air pollution and indoor air quality. An example would be instruction in how to clean lead paint, when removal is not an option.

wECO Neighborhoods Initiative is the third. Starting some years back, Lindsey Heights was the first designated neighborhood and Sherman Park is the second. “I am working with Century City on their designation,” says Mia explaining, “Four to six residents of the neighborhood sign a memorandum of understanding with our office to commit to doing a certain number of workshops and hosting events throughout the course of a year that are focused on promoting more environmental sustainability within their neighborhood.” Exciting stuff that’s not making the news!

With roots in the northern suburbs of Milwaukee, this brilliant young woman has reached far beyond her horizons to create a persona that has incorporated large swaths of experience, knowledge, and compassion. From caring for a mother who was a rather young stroke victim, to taking in the Killing Fields of Cambodia during a three-month trip through Southeast Asia, Mia has melded an understanding of life that few ever reach. And she wants to help us save the life of the planet by learning how to take care of all of it.