Mary Dougherty

Mary Dougherty lives in Bayfield, Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Superior. As she says, just about as far north as you can go in the state without getting wet. She is the author of “Life in a Northern Town: Cooking, Eating, and Other Adventures along Lake Superior.”

We talked about preserving the watershed of the world’s largest fresh water lake and how we need to look upstream at the sustainability and health of the community’s surrounding it in order to preserve the wellbeing of this vast, yet fragile resource for generations to come. 

“When you show up with tools, that implies that you have agency, that you have the confidence to do something, that you are willing to do the work.”

Mary Dougherty interview

“When you look at watershed, you’re talking about clean water and how important it is. It helps to  go upstream from that question or that topic and figure out what’s happening on land. What does it look like for the people that live in the places that ring the watershed? Do they have access to good jobs? Do they have access to housing? What’s transportation look like? 

Clean water doesn’t happen on its own. It happens from the sustainability and the health of the folks in the land that surround that water. And Bayfield is in kind of a tricky position. Right now we have a lot of challenges ahead of us as it relates to economic development and transportation and housing. I don’t think you can take out one thing without talking about the whole watershed. 

My old job was community organizing around factory farms, which are those huge CAFOs—concentrated animal feeding operation. With a bunch of other folks, we were able to defeat a 26,000 head swine operation. Those are those huge factory farms where your cheap bacon comes from. 

So I learned a lot about Lake Superior and watersheds dealing with that issue because I loved Lake Superior. We came up here 20 years ago on a sailboat—which is a very bougie thing to say—but it’s true. Came over from Duluth. I fell in love. Like you fall in love with a human. I pulled into this harbor and I just felt like a Lego piece that found its mate. There’s just something about this place. And so when I learned about the CAFO, I thought maybe I should learn a little bit more about the lake and how this whole thing works. 

We are on one of the largest lakes by surface area. But it’s really vulnerable. It’s vastness, it’s huge footprint it makes on the earth, it makes it really vulnerable, because like I was saying earlier, the health of the lake is entirely dependent on the land around it. And so its size is great when the land isn’t being used in ways that are harmful to the water. But there are thousands of miles of land with different ideas about how the land should be used. Different jurisdictions, different governmental agencies that are—or are not—interested in promoting land use that’s healthy for water.

Yeah, it is the biggest lake, but it’s vastness is its greatest vulnerability. It’s vastness is also why so many people want to come up here. I live in on the shores of a lake that literally is an endangered resource. The night sky is an endangered species. I was out on our boat at Stockton Island. There’s lots of people in this world that will never see the stars that I saw two nights ago. That’s an endangered experience. 

We lived in Minneapolis before. If I would go down to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis and sit near the water down there, my understanding of a lake would be so much different than my understanding up here. And so coming from a place where I didn’t have a Lake Superior to live near and realizing that these 26,000 hogs were coming in, it gave me a great opportunity to bring into sharp focus what I value and what I could do as an individual to protect or preserve what I value. [The concern being] the spreading fields, that the manure would go into the lake. 

We have something undiscovered and very special here in Bayfield. We’re in kind of a weird position. We want to be a community of people that live here full time and that have the heartbeat that all communities have, but we’re only 400 people. And so how do we welcome and balance—find peace with—the tourists that come up here? I want them to fall in love. Like I fell in love with this place. Because you protect what you love.

But then, how do you create balance? You don’t want to love it to death. For instance, Viking Cruises—which is a big cruise ship company—they’re visiting Bayfield for the first time next year. They built a ship, a cruise ship that holds about 400 people, which is the size of our town. And they’ll be visiting three or five times in 2022. And they’re billing the cruise as the Undiscovered Great Lakes. They’re starting in Milwaukee, they’re stopping in Bayfield and Duluth. And then up to Thunder Bay and back to Milwaukee. 

We’ve got to figure some stuff out because things are changing. We live in a space where people don’t have access to what we have access to every day, and people are hungry for what this looks like. It’s quaint. It’s beautiful. It’s relatively quiet. We don’t have any stop lights. All that stuff. 

There has to be symbiosis and working together. Porous boundaries. Because if anything gets out of whack, it throws everything else out of whack. The question always is, do you want to be right? Or do you want to win? And what does the win look like? Being right is very much ego-based and finding a winning solution for everything requires a little surrender of ego and taking a more expansive view of whatever issue you’re grappling with. 

It takes a little courage to do it as well. As a community organizer, I went around the country and I’d go into new towns that I didn’t know, but I knew they had a CAFO coming in or a factory farm coming in and I would start with three questions. Because I don’t know the community, I don’t speak the shorthand that develops between community members. It’s too hard to try to translate what the values are. It’s easier for me to just ask three questions. “Who are you guys?” “What do you value in this community?” And we would spend a lot of time talking about those two questions. And then we would start when we’d get to the final question, which is, “What are you going to do about it based on who you are and what you value?” 

And so people come in, they’re moms, they’re post office workers, they are dog lovers. And you’d get to the value part and they value their family. They value their kids. They value clean water, they value snowmobile trails…all these different things, and then you could kind of map out what the community is. There’s a lot of commonality in that someone might like to kayak and they like clean water for kayaking. Someone had cigarette boat and they like clean water too. Or they like to fish. 

And so on its face, those groups can look real different if you’re just focusing on kayaks, fishing, bass boats, and cigarette boats. But when you go high enough into that upstream—so to speak—they all want clean water. They want clean lakes. And so when you’re in that space of, “you told me you like this, how does 14 million gallons of manure work? What does that look like? Or how does this land use impact property values? How does that work?” It’s just a different way to skirt around all that individuality and good old American individualism. 

The creative process and community organizing go hand in hand. In my opinion, you can’t separate those two. It is the fertile ground for change because those two concepts—creativity and community organizing—[both] work on this premise that things are constantly moving. There’s a lot of inputs and a lot of outputs that happen. And it’s in that space that people can find room to realize, “Boy, we have this in common. I never would’ve guessed.” It’s a way to put unlikely bedfellows on the same issue that causes our elected officials or the folks in power to go, “Why are those two talking to each other?” 

There’s always been more of us than there is of the people that control the purse strings and write the legislation. My interest in community organizing was identifying who can give us the win. Our elected officials are the ones that can give us the wins that we need. The big wins, the wins that say there’s millions of dollars that we’re going to allocate to a better way to farm. There’s millions of dollars we’re going to allocate to a better way to feed people. And they choose not to. Because they’re busy being told you have to stay in office. They’re busy having to raise money to stay in office. 

You know, elected officials should be community organizers. Those voices down here should be percolated up in a straight fashion. But it’s the money. They have to go seek the money and the lobbyists write the legislations. And that’s how a lot of this stuff happens where we find ourselves in these positions. But I can tell you, when you get a bunch of people together in a room that agree, there’s a lot there. It’s easy to get unlikely bedfellows in the same room when you’re talking about home. I think what we can just hope for is that people love their home as much as we do. And when they’re faced with something, they come together because can you imagine what would happen if people decided to just operate from that affection for place and home and where they’re living their lives, where the stories of their lives are written? That’s a powerful thing to tap into. 

I’m not a person that gets weepy. And I’ve been in county board meetings where I feel the community’s voice was heard and the county board votes or creates something, drafts something that is reflective of what the community wants. And that’s romantic to me. That is where I get excited. It’s a beautiful thing because it’s complicated and it’s hard. And it requires having conversations with folks that maybe you aren’t sure how they’re going to go. Or it’s trying to assess the landscape and go, “Who’s a good messenger to talk to this person? Who’s a good messenger so we can find where our common ground lies?”  

Community organizing can be a little idealistic. It’s a very thin line to walk. There has to be some strategy. You have to understand that there are pieces that might appear calculating, but that calculation is really a way to respect the folks who you’re speaking to. You’re trying to figure out,  “How can I share my thoughts with them in a way that they can hear it?”

Like, the conservative frame is you work for what you get. No one gets a free handout. If you are not doing well, it’s because you haven’t pulled yourself up by your bootstraps. The progressive frame is more, everyone needs a helping in hand. That’s my frame. So I’m like, “Well, who the hell wouldn’t think that?” But the question becomes, if I come from a progressive mindset, how do I say the things that I believe to be true in a way that doesn’t trigger someone with more of a conservative frame to hear what I say and they immediately shut it down because it doesn’t fit into their worldview. How do you say what you want to say in a way that is heard?

One word causes a cascade of assumptions that may or may not be true. And then you’re being washed away by this cascade. It happens to me too. We like to sort people, we like to know where people belong. I think about this stuff all the time. And it’s just so ingrained. 

I have five kids. My oldest is 26 and my youngest is 18. And talking to them and talking to their friends and seeing how they view the world, they know what they’re up against. And they still have hope. They still want to have good lives. They know climate change is a massive elephant in the room that no one seems to talk about. But they are young and they have a different way of tackling problems. They have a different way of using words. 

I’ve learned so much just hanging out with Denise and Sarah, about some of the words that I use and the way I frame things. It isn’t inclusive enough, because I have a lot of assumptions. I have 52 years of assumptions about what it means to be a white woman of a certain socioeconomic class in the Midwest. They don’t have the calcification of age and assumptions. 

We didn’t get here overnight and we’re not gonna get outta here overnight and I think it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. I think that when you look at things in like the hero’s journey—you know, the Joseph Campbell myth thing—there’s a certain arc to the hero’s journey, right? 

And it involves a rejection from your people. Typically the hero’s journey has an exile component to it. We have to be able to, as a culture, decide that we have the nerve and the bravery and the vulnerability to complete that cycle. 

I love the imagery of murmurations, those large groups of birds that fly collectively and move in beautiful forms. I use that analogy a lot in community organizing because it’s beautiful, it’s graceful. And you think from our human mindset, we’ve been told that there needs to be a leader. Well, where the hell’s the lead bird making all that stuff happen? 

And so I started Googling, researching it. And there’s been a couple studies that show that each individual bird communicates with its seven closest neighbors. It doesn’t communicate with more than seven because if it’s more than seven, it’s too noisy for that individual bird to take in the logistics of what’s going on. So seven’s a small number in a flock of thousands. It’s complete conversation and communication throughout that entire flock. But it doesn’t in any way mean that that individual bird loses its individuality. It doesn’t lose who it is. It’s just getting data from its seven closest neighbors to understand what’s going on. So it can calibrate its own behavior. And if we look at it from that perspective, then a granular approach to community organizing is all we need to do. 

This is gonna sound really crazy. No, this is really crazy. 

When I first got into community organizing, I had this dream where I was talking to Pope Francis, which is nuts. I was raised Catholic. I don’t identify as a Catholic anymore, but I do think Pope Francis is trying to create change in an organization that’s caused a lot of harm and it also has a lot of power. He is doing as much as he could. I appreciate someone that’s trying to do something different. So I think that’s why he came in my dream, but he’s getting ready to address a bunch of people. And he said, “What do you wanna tell them?” And I said, “Well, I wanna tell ’em that they can be like me. People can just decide to stand up and stand for what they believe in.”

And he said, “No, don’t tell them that.” He said, “Your only job here on this planet is to build and maintain your signal fire. And the divine is the wind that takes your embers to start new fires or to add to fires already burning.” 

And that’s what got me thinking about this murmuration. Beause I was like, “Well, if our only job on this planet is just to do what fuels our fire and that action of being in alignment with your purpose, your vocation, makes your heart happy, whatever makes you sleep at night…if that’s enough, then we can surrender this sort of individualistic control.

It just comes down to your signal fire. When I think of the word peace, peace comes when I realize that if people could just build and maintain their signal fire, that lets people know who they are, what they value, what they’re doing, what gives them joy and surrender the rest of it. Maybe there is something bigger, greater that is gonna take those embers or start new fires or add to fires burning. 

I went out to Standing Rock and there was this Native American guy next to us at the campsite. We were hanging out with him by his fire and this young kid came and asked him if he could take some of his embers to start his fire, two [sites] down. But this young man didn’t show up with a shovel. And this guy with us said, “Well, where the hell’s your shovel?”

And that dream I had came back. I realized at that point that the other message I got was that you don’t show up and you don’t take from people that have their fire burning. You have to show up with a tool or something to make it. We’re not here just to take, take, take. I’ll share my embers with you, if that’s what you want, but you gotta show up with a shovel. You gotta show up with the tool to make it happen. 

The fire thing was huge in that part of my life. And it really impacted how I show up for people. I show up with inquisitiveness and with curiosity, but I don’t show up empty-handed, which is another thing that’s very much part of the indigenous culture. You do not show up empty-handed. You bring something to contribute. And that goes back to how does this whole thing happen? Like, how do we right the ship, so to speak, of where we’re going? 

If people show up with what they think is helpful, then you have millions of people showing up with tools in the same space. When you show up with tools, that implies that you have agency, that you have the confidence to do something. That you are willing to do the work.”


“I think peace is this weird kind of performative word. It feels like a veneer word when it shouldn’t. And I think for me peace means balance because when you look at what people are really getting at when they say peace, it means safety. It means not being off-kilter. It means kind knowing what to expect. And so for me, that word peace means things are in balance that there’s ebb and flow. 

I like facilitating spaces of discomfort and tension because ultimately that’s what leads to peace. I liken it to the birth canal, like when you’re having a baby. You know what that whole process looks like. The tighter and tighter and tighter you get, then the baby starts coming out. You know that something’s gotta give. It can’t stay there. So the baby’s born and that process for the child is its first experience with that transition into a space of peace. That’s gotta be terribly uncomfortable to be born. I can’t imagine. 

There’s all this stuff you’re trying to figure out. You need to get somewhere else because here isn’t working. At least for me, that intense feeling of relief and being back and balanced and peaceful when the child came out and then also for that child, I think that is our first experience. That birth analogy for me…there has to be that space of tension and conflict to understand what peace feels like.

It’s really easy to stay where you’re at. And so if I’m feeling peaceful, but everyone around me isn’t feeling peaceful, is that really peace? Like going back to George Floyd, there were a lot of folks in Minneapolis that didn’t feel peaceful when all of those riots were going on and people were speaking up and standing together and that space of tension caused some sort of crack in the facade, some sort of crack in their peace, that the light that they thought they understood was shaded a bit because of someone else’s UN-peace. So I think peace is a big word that can mean a lot of things, but for me it means balance.” 


“Think like a watershed. What I mean by that is, realize that we are all sharing the work. Watersheds operate to feed one common source, but some people are class four rapids. Some people are intermittent streams. Some people are wetlands. Some people are creeks. But if we’re all sharing that work of getting to that common body of water—whether that’s community, whether that’s actual water, whether that’s finding peace…When you think like a watershed, watersheds don’t judge. They don’t say the class four rapids are more effective than the wetland people. There is balance in a watershed, 

Someone from Ontario has a whole different understanding of this lake than I do in the Apostle Islands, but we’re both living on that same lake. And so if we think like nature—which we probably should do a little bit more of—that would help us see the mirage of divides are just a mirage. That’s been put in our midst to keep us scrapping. And that scrapping is not serving the work of getting to that common body of water.”

There’s work for all of them and all work matters. No one is armchair quarterbacking and saying, “That’s better than this, or you’re not doing enough or calling someone out.” As long as we’re in alignment that our work, our movement, our thoughts are moving towards that common body of water, whatever our understanding of that water might look like. 

Discussion questions:

-What is your water story? Talk about a water memory that is powerful.

-Have you been to Lake Superior?

-Do you have experience with a place that you worry is being loved to death?

-What does Mary mean when she says, “It helps to go upstream…?”

-Have you had experience with community organizing?

-What do you value in your community?

-What are the issues that are in need of your attention?

-Who are the unlikely bedfellows who might be able to work together on that issue?

-When have you seen people work together across difference to address a common issue?

-What does Mary mean when she says, “You have to show up with a shovel…?” When have you done that?

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