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Sunday, August 28th, 2022
NPI at Netroots Nation 2022: Talking youth activism, plants with 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.
# Written by Caya Berndt :: 8:22 PM
Categories: Events, Our Environment, Policy Topics, Series & Special Reports
Tags: Conservation, Netroots Nation, NPI@NN
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