Brian Wingbermuehle
Brian Wingbermuehle

Wel­come to the sev­enth install­ment of NPI at Net­roots Nation 2022, a spe­cial lim­it­ed pod­cast series record­ed live from the David L. Lawrence Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in Pitts­burgh. NPI staff jour­neyed to Steel City this past week to par­tic­i­pate in the nation’s largest annu­al gath­er­ing of pro­gres­sive activists.

As part of our con­fer­ence cov­er­age, we’re bring­ing you a series of con­ver­sa­tions with key move­ment lead­ers and elect­ed officials.

In this install­ment of NPI@NN, we’re hon­ored to be joined by Bri­an Wing­ber­muehle, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Com­mit­tee per­son for St. Louis Coun­ty. Press play below to lis­ten to the audio, or read the tran­script below.


Read the transcript

(Note: this tran­script has been edit­ed light­ly for clarity) 

CAYA: Wel­come to NPI at Net­roots Nation 2022, a spe­cial lim­it­ed pod­cast series from the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, record­ed live from the David L. Lawrence Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia! I’m your host, Caya Berndt. We’re glad to have you with us! For this install­ment! We are excit­ed to be joined by Bri­an Wing­ber­muehle, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic com­mit­teemem­ber for Meremac Town­ship of St. Louis Coun­ty. Thank you so much for join­ing us! 

BRIAN: Thank you so much for hav­ing me today. 

CAYA: Thank you! So, Bri­an, can you tell us a lit­tle bit about your­self, about your orga­ni­za­tion? Just what is it that you do? 

BRIAN: Yeah, so, I wear a lot of hats back home in St. Louis, Mis­souri. I hold elect­ed office. I’m the Demo­c­ra­t­ic com­mit­teep­er­son of Meremac Town­ship of St. Louis Coun­ty, which includes a few munic­i­pal­i­ties in South and West St. Louis Coun­ty, Fen­ton Val­ley Park, Bald­win, Wild­wood, Ellisville, Eure­ka, and Pacif­ic. I’m also the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of a small con­ser­va­tion based non­prof­it called the Mis­souri Bio­di­ver­si­ty Project, which I incor­po­rat­ed back in 2020.

CAYA: Alright! And, kind of an odd ques­tion, but how old are you? 

BRIAN: Right now, I’m twenty-two.

CAYA: That is… incred­i­ble. It’s an incred­i­bly impres­sive resume for some­body your age. And I think you men­tioned that you were named as one of the 30 Under 30 for the Mis­souri Times, isn’t that right? 

BRIAN: Yes. I was the 30 Under 30, actu­al­ly, when I was twen­ty, back in 2020! It was very fun­ny, I actu­al­ly got the phone call while I was at the gar­den cen­ter one day from the edi­tor of the Mis­souri Times. And he’s like, “We’re gonna do this.” And I was like, I did­n’t know I was eli­gi­ble for such a thing!

CAYA: How did you get start­ed in your polit­i­cal career? How did you get involved in all of these things?

BRIAN: So it’s a real­ly inter­est­ing sto­ry. I nev­er thought I would go into pol­i­tics. I was pret­ty hell-bent on going into plants. There’s a pro­gram that I looked real­ly heav­i­ly at, at Lon­don’s Roy­al Botan­ic gar­dens at Q. That is a mul­ti-year pro­gram where you learn on the job, and tran­si­tion into just work­ing in the garden. 

And I was real­ly inter­est­ed in a pro­gram like that, where I could just trans­fer into anoth­er botan­i­cal gar­den. I was in high school, of course, when… a bunch of teenagers were shot and killed in Flori­da at Park­land’s [Mar­jorie Stone­man Dou­glas] High School. And from there we began orga­niz­ing. Me and my friends start­ed out with a lit­tle GroupMe chat that just grew, and grew, and grew.

We start­ed adding kids from oth­er schools, and we just, through per­son­al net­works, grew to more than thir­ty schools across the St. Louis area. It was the wildest few weeks of my life. The Wash­ing­ton Post con­tact­ed us, they flew Jen­na John­son, the White House cor­re­spon­dent out, and she fol­lowed us around for the week­end and filmed us. I was con­tact­ed by Teen Vogue. 

They actu­al­ly paid me to write an op-ed before I grad­u­at­ed high school! 

My lan­guage arts teacher at the time did­n’t even make me take my final. And she told the whole class, she’s like, well, when you write for Teen Vogue, you don’t have to take your final. It was tru­ly the wildest, like, six or eight weeks at the end of my senior year. I was just con­stant­ly in and out of the prin­ci­pal’s office. 

And then from there, I start­ed work­ing on Cort VanOstran’s cam­paign, which real­ly brought Mis­souri’s sec­ond con­gres­sion­al dis­trict into play. He came the clos­est ever to unseat­ing Repub­li­can Ann Wagner.

It is still today, even after redis­trict­ing, the most com­pet­i­tive con­gres­sion­al dis­trict in Mis­souri. It rep­re­sents parts of sub­ur­ban St. Louis. 

I worked on maybe a dozen oth­er cam­paigns, from alder­woman to Con­gress, and helped out friends and elect­ed offi­cials in all kinds of weird ways.

CAYA: And you said that you were also involved with some of the redis­trict­ing in Mis­souri as well, right? 

BRIAN: Yes. Com­mit­tee peo­ple in St. Louis Coun­ty redraw our leg­isla­tive dis­tricts, or at least they are select­ed by their party’s cen­tral com­mit­tees. Those names go onto the St. Louis Coun­ty Exec­u­tive, this right now it’s St. Louis Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Dr. Sam Page, and I was very lucky. There’s sev­en Democ­rats, sev­en Repub­li­cans, one from each of the sev­en leg­isla­tive dis­tricts, and I was cho­sen and appoint­ed. I was the youngest redis­trict­ing appointee in St. Louis Coun­ty his­to­ry. And it was a blast! We had pub­lic hear­ings – it was very strange, I kind of thought we would have some help from St. Louis Coun­ty. We did not. 

They told us that we were on our own in our very first meet­ing. We quite lit­er­al­ly had to use Dav­e’s Redis­trict­ing open source redis­trict­ing software. 

I had to make an appear­ance in fed­er­al court in front of four of the sev­en St. Louis Coun­ty coun­cilmem­bers, one of whom is the for­mer chief of St. Louis Coun­ty police. I was… they sent dis­cov­ery requests and all sorts of things, and a judge end­ed up final­iz­ing our redis­trict­ing map. 

CAYA: That real­ly draws atten­tion to how fraught and imper­fect these process­es are. The redis­trict­ing process can have earth-shat­ter­ing con­se­quences for what the leg­isla­tive make­up for a state might look like.

BRIAN: Oh yeah! On our coun­ty coun­cil, actu­al­ly, the map that was final­ly approved by a fed­er­al judge, actu­al­ly drew Tim Fitch, out of his dis­trict. He’s my coun­ty coun­cilper­son. He decid­ed not to run for reelec­tion. So it entire­ly changed the com­po­si­tion of the St. Louis Coun­ty Council. 

CAYA: So, with every­thing that you are doing, what’s your five year plan? Like, when you see your­self in five years… I know you prob­a­bly get that ques­tion a lot, but I’m gen­uine­ly curi­ous to know, what do you see your­self doing in five, or even ten years from now? If you’re a long, long term planner. 

BRIAN: I, regret­tably, am not a plan­ner at all! I think that part of how I find myself in all of these sit­u­a­tions is that I just sort of go with the flow. I mean, I was elect­ed to com­mit­tee per­son after a friend asked me to [run].

She asked – we have a gen­der par­i­ty in St. Louis Coun­ty. So there is a man and a woman, which is imper­fect, and I think a lit­tle bit out­dat­ed for trans­gen­der and non-bina­ry peo­ple who may want to serve St. Louis Coun­ty, but it’s up to the state leg­is­la­ture to change those rules. And, unfor­tu­nate­ly, with a Repub­li­can super­ma­jor­i­ty, that’s prob­a­bly not going to hap­pen any­time soon.

But, she asked me to run. She was going to run for com­mit­tee­woman, and I decid­ed to do it when I was… she asked me when I was nine­teen. I decid­ed to run pub­licly when I was twen­ty. I real­ly, tru­ly, did­n’t plan on it that year. 

We were dis­cussing, as a cen­tral com­mit­tee in St. Louis, the redis­trict­ing process and I was real­ly inter­est­ed in it. I’ve always loved redistricting. 

I love pol­i­tics, broad­ly. And I thought that this was an incred­i­ble oppor­tu­ni­ty for a young per­son to have a seat at that table, right. I was twen­ty-one when I got the call from Dr. Sam Page that I had been appointed. 

And I believe so inher­ent­ly that young peo­ple deserve a seat at the table, and they deserve to hold posi­tions of pow­er, espe­cial­ly for some­thing like a leg­isla­tive map, which is gonna be in place for the next decade. 

I mean, peo­ple were always ask­ing me ques­tions about the incum­bent coun­cil mem­bers and things like that. I don’t wan­na say this to hurt any of my friends on the coun­cil’s feel­ings, but… I almost don’t care, right? 

In ten years, I don’t think any of them are going to be on that coun­cil any­more. It was about fair maps for St. Louis Coun­ty, and a map that was going to work for, frankly, peo­ple as young as me. 

I dropped out of col­lege in 2020, and that’s when I incor­po­rat­ed my foun­da­tion. It was, again, some­thing that I had nev­er real­ly planned on, but I had always dreamt of. I’ve been col­lect­ing plants since I was ten. So now, I’ve got almost over half of my life, I’ve been col­lect­ing plants. I have a very large pri­vate col­lec­tion, and of course our foun­da­tion has its own col­lec­tion as well. I had always, tru­ly since I was ten, dreamt of one day either work­ing in a botan­i­cal gar­den, or maybe even doing some­thing like that myself one day, and it just felt right when I had the extra time. It feels like that’s where I was meant to be. 

CAYA: Tell me a lit­tle bit more about that foun­da­tion. What is that? What is its pur­pose? What does it do? 

BRIAN: Yeah, we work with a lot of North Amer­i­can natives. I’ve got a cou­ple of large col­lec­tions that I like to talk about. One is car­niv­o­rous plants. There’s a num­ber of car­niv­o­rous plants native to the Unit­ed States. You can find pitch­er plants in a genus, Sar­race­nia, from Flori­da all the way to Alber­ta, Canada. 

There are, depend­ing on who you ask, about two dozen species. Sev­er­al of them are now endan­gered or crit­i­cal­ly endan­gered. We’re very lucky that my foun­da­tion actu­al­ly has sev­er­al spec­i­mens of both the crit­i­cal­ly endan­gered Ser­race­nia oreophi­la, as well as Ser­race­nia alaba­men­sis. Both of those are now fed­er­al­ly crit­i­cal­ly endan­gered. A num­ber of them are threat­ened in their home states, as well. And those were sup­plied by anoth­er non­prof­it locat­ed on the east coast. 

We also work with a lot of alpines. 

Alpines, I find, are just these incred­i­ble lit­tle plants.

Actu­al­ly, a lot of them come from places like in the Pacif­ic North­west! A lot of them come from the Rocky Moun­tains and the low­er Rock­ies, just because Mis­souri’s very hot. A lot of plants adapt­ed to the upper Rock­ies, frankly, just can’t han­dle the heat that we get in a St. Louis summer. 

I think it’s hov­er­ing right around a hun­dred degrees back home right now, humid­i­ty is 80% or high­er, and that is, unfor­tu­nate­ly, just not the envi­ron­ment that they’re adapt­ed to. I love to describe alpines as almost like you’re snor­kel­ing over a coral reef. A lot of them [are] high on moun­tain tops and on the sides of gorges and canyons. The envi­ron­men­tal pres­sures are incred­i­bly intense. 

There’s extreme heat. The atmos­phere is thin­ner, so there’s intense ultra­vi­o­let light. There’s very lit­tle soil, intense wind, often intense shifts in tem­per­a­ture day to night again because of the thin atmos­phere, and so they are tough. But that often means that they have evolved to be as small as possible.

You find plants that look very sim­i­lar, right? And of course they are close­ly relat­ed to many oth­er North Amer­i­can natives. Things like Heucheras, which a lot of peo­ple will grow in their gar­dens as lit­tle gar­den plants. 

We’ve got a vari­ety of Heuchera pul­chel­la, which grows lit­er­al­ly on the gorges of the walls of the Grand Canyon. And they’re almost minia­ture! Some of them, you can lit­er­al­ly hold quar­ters next to them. There’s this incred­i­ble lit­tle iris, Iris suave­olens, from East­ern Europe, from some of the Balkans. 

It is endan­gered in its native habi­tat, and it looks just like your gar­den iris, right? It has those lit­tle fans of foliage that’s kind of gray, green and waxy, and it gets a stan­dard Ger­man iris flower, but the whole thing, even when in bloom and it has its flower spike above it’s fan of foliage, I mean is maybe three inch­es tall. And a stan­dard gar­den iris would be two or three feet tall. It’s tru­ly just a minia­ture ver­sion of some incred­i­ble plants.

And unfor­tu­nate­ly, we know that our moun­tain­tops, our Arc­tic tun­dras, those habi­tats are par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to the impacts of cli­mate change. We’re los­ing our alpine species at a rate that is much high­er than we do down here at sea lev­el. Even though I know we’re in Pitts­burgh, some­where in the mountains.

So it’s real­ly, I think, key for orga­ni­za­tions to be focus­ing on these plants. You also have to remem­ber, moun­tains are incred­i­bly iso­lat­ed, which is prime for genet­ic vari­a­tion and plants evolv­ing over thou­sands, tens of thou­sands, mil­lions of years, to be incred­i­bly diverse. You will often find alpines grow­ing on one moun­tain, or on one moun­tain range and nowhere else on Earth. So that’s why they are just so, so, so vul­ner­a­ble to the cli­mate cri­sis we are expe­ri­enc­ing right now. 

CAYA: That’s incred­i­ble. So, you have a pret­ty impres­sive resume, and a pret­ty impres­sive breadth of things you do. And I agree with you, that young peo­ple need to be brought to the table. I think that there can be a lot of… I don’t wan­na say dis­crim­i­na­tion, but almost a dis­missal of young peo­ple and young activists for one rea­son or anoth­er. Have you faced any chal­lenges through­out your expe­ri­ences as being a younger, and in some case, the youngest, per­son in any of your fields?

BRIAN: Absolute­ly. With­out a ques­tion. I’m very lucky, I’m six foot eight, so some­times peo­ple almost don’t know that you’re twen­ty-two. I was talk­ing to some­body ear­li­er at this con­fer­ence, and they’re like, “You know, you’re so inter­est­ing, and then your face, you look like a boy.” 

And I was like, “Well, that’s because I am.”

I know that dur­ing the redis­trict­ing process, we came under a lot of scruti­ny. There’s a lot of things in the St. Louis Post-Dis­patch peo­ple can read up on. I am also privy to hear­ing things through the grapevine. 

There are a lot of peo­ple who, I think, ques­tioned our abil­i­ty and things like that, espe­cial­ly with a‑then twen­ty-one, twen­ty-two year-old draw­ing the leg­isla­tive map. And I think that I’ve always just had this strat­e­gy of [ignor­ing it], and that I have work to do. All of their, for lack of a bet­ter term @#$% talking. 

I had a job to do. We had a dead­line, it was some­where right around Thanks­giv­ing, where this com­mis­sion had to come to an agree­ment on a leg­isla­tive map, and I was there to do that. You can talk about it all you want, you can ques­tion my com­pe­tence. I’m okay with that. Come to the pub­lic hear­ing, let’s talk about it! You’ve got feed­back on the map. I’d love to hear it. And I think I’ve always sort of tak­en that to heart, and real­ly tried to just do the task at hand and not let them weigh on you. That’s what it does, right. It’s pointless. 

CAYA: So, we’re com­ing up on time, so I just have a cou­ple of ques­tions for you. For some­body who was want­i­ng to get more involved in pol­i­tics, and get more involved in activism at any age… but I think some­times, espe­cial­ly when you are younger, it can seem like you can’t get a foothold in. You don’t know where to start. What sort of rec­om­men­da­tions would you give to some­body who was want­i­ng to become more involved in issues and orga­ni­za­tions that they were pas­sion­ate about? 

BRIAN: Yeah. I think the num­ber one thing is to find your objec­tive. Know what you’re rough­ly look­ing to do. And I know that every­body tells young peo­ple to think about what they wan­na do when they grow up, and things like that. And I don’t. I don’t mean it in that way. I don’t know what I wan­na do when I grow up.

Peo­ple seem to think I have my life fig­ured out. I promise you that I do not. I think that if you find some­thing you’re at least adja­cent to, right, find the ball­park and you can start there. I know that one of the ways that I found myself in pol­i­tics so quick­ly was befriend­ing law­mak­ers and politi­cians and things like that. 

And we’re in a unique space right now where a lot of our politi­cians are sig­nif­i­cant­ly old­er than myself. A lot of them are not savvy with their web­sites and Face­book pages and social media. The way I found myself in the door almost was: “Let me help you. I’ll log into your Twit­ter account. We’ll send some tweets, we’ll get some good pic­tures.” I was able to befriend a lot of them and help them in any way that I was able to, and they were able to help me out.

And it was a great way to get involved at a young age. Pol­i­tics is real­ly unique, because you have a lot of upward mobil­i­ty. I mean, like, I got involved in my first polit­i­cal cam­paign when I was a senior in high school. 

And now at age twen­ty-two, we get exec­u­tive orders from the White House and things like that. It’s real­ly an incred­i­ble envi­ron­ment where you can grow real­ly quick­ly. And it real­ly ben­e­fits young peo­ple in that way. 

CAYA: If you could go back and tell your­self one thing at the begin­ning of your career, like five years ago, what’s one piece of advice you would’ve giv­en your­self, know­ing what you know now?

BRIAN: Know­ing what I know now is… don’t sweat how much peo­ple will talk about you. That’s the thing, the crit­i­cism, the gos­sip, things like that. Because there will be a lot of it. It real­ly both­ered me when I was younger. I would stay up at night. I would get red in the face. It real­ly both­ered me. And I think that as I’ve got­ten old­er, I have adopt­ed this approach of, I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do and I’m not gonna let peo­ple both­er me. I’m not gonna let them have that pow­er over me. And I wish I would’ve learned that a lit­tle sooner. 

CAYA: One final ques­tion, and this is some­thing that I like to ask every­body at the end of our inter­views is, in these times, what is bring­ing you joy these days? 

BRIAN: I think that I con­tin­ue to find joy often­times in plants. That has been a real source of seren­i­ty for myself. Plants don’t gos­sip about you. That’s real­ly nice. And you get to know that you’re doing some­thing on a very small scale. 

Like, one native plant may help a few bees and but­ter­flies, but it’s the but­ter­fly effect, right? There’s a rea­son they named it that, and you can have lit­tle bits of impact like that. Over time, I found a lot of peace and seren­i­ty in [the] sort of tac­tile nature of gar­den­ing and in work­ing with plants. You get to see them grow, and bloom, and all of those things. And it is a real­ly valu­able, real­ly won­der­ful foil to the often very hec­tic world of politics. 

CAYA: Alright, well, thank you very much, Brian.

BRIAN: Absolute­ly, I’m so glad we had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­nect today.

CAYA: I am, too. 

Alright, that was Bri­an Wing­ber­meuh­le here at Net­roots! I will drop the infor­ma­tion for some of the orga­ni­za­tions he’s men­tioned if you are inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about them. Tune in next time for our next install­ment of NPI at Net­roots Nation 2022! For NPI, I’m Caya Berndt.

To learn more about Bri­an’s work with eco­log­i­cal activism, lis­ten­ers can vis­it the web­site for his foun­da­tion, The Mis­souri Bio­di­ver­si­ty Project.

About the author

Caya is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor based out of Spokane, Washington, writing about Lilac City politics, the Evergreen State's 5th Congressional District, and related politics. She previously hosted the inaugural episodes of NPI's PNWcurrents podcast. She works at the Unemployment Law Project and is a graduate of Central Washington University, with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and sciences. Caya also has a minor from CWU in law and justice.

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