Musician Turned Climate Justice Activist Inspires Mothers Everywhere to Join the Front Lines

Meet Abby. If she wanted to she could become one of the most sought after cello instructors in the region. If she wanted to she could earn a cozy job at a prestigious music conservatory. If you ask me, Abby could do just about anything that she sets her mind to do.

Abigail McHugh- Grifa in the Rochester Free Radio studio. This was her second time appearing on the Broken Spear Vision to talk about climate change activism
Thankfully for the rest of us who are not aspiring to master the sounds of Bach, Abby has chosen a different path.She will always be a musician at heart; but these days she is all about helping to save the planet by combating climate change. Rather than stay on the sidelines moaning and groaning about the worsening conditions of planet Earth, Abby is on the front lines trying to do something about it. And she is not just signing petitions and posting memes on Facebook. Like all genuine activists committed to their cause, she has put her money where her mouth is by engaging in nonviolent civil resistance.
Digital photograph by George Payne
On May 7 of 2015, Abby and thirty other Finger Lakes/Rochester residents rallied along Route 14, holding signs and banners with Mother’s Day messages and decrying fossil fuel build-out as a direct threat to their children. In the face of broad public opposition, Crestwood’s methane gas storage expansion project was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. With unresolved questions about geological instabilities, fault lines, and possible salinization of Seneca Lake, which serves as a source of drinking water for 100,000 people, the company continues to expand its plan to develop.
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New York City People’s Climate March in 2014. Photo by George Payne.


In protest, Abby was arrested and transported to the Schuyler County Sheriff’s department, charged with trespassing, and released.

During the arrest Abby, who was 35 at the time, said to a reporter, “I have a 16-month old son and I’m pregnant. If I’m going to create life, it’s my responsibility to protect it too. I’m very concerned about the climate and for my children’s future. The more money we invest in fossil fuel infrastructure, the deeper we dig ourselves in.  I want to do what I can to speed the transition to renewables. So, I’m here doing what I can.”

That about sums up the attitude Abby brings to everything she does. She may not be solving global warming by getting arrested, but it is the best she can do. It may not shut down Crestwod, but at least she is out there making her voice heard. Is it better than playing a cello and teaching at a university? I am guessing that this question is irrelevant to her. This is what she is called to do. She is out there risking her comfort and security not because it is easy and enjoyable, but because it is what the situation demands of her. She is doing it because she is a mother and her children need her to be vocal on their behalf.

Sixteen Mothers and Grandmothers Arrested in Blockade at Crestwood Midstream


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“We Are Seneca Lake” Mother’s Day Action at Crestwood Midstream Facility in the Town of Reading. Abigail was arrested for protesting natural gas storage on Seneca Lake on May 7, 2015.

Remarkably, Abby continues her professional life as a music instructor with The Eastman Community Music School (ECMS), which was founded in 1921 by industrialist and philanthropist George Eastman (1854-1932), founder of the Eastman Kodak Company. The Eastman Community Music School is a part of the world renowned Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester, and is a centerpiece of George Eastman’s grand vision of the power of music to enrich life. This is evidenced in the words carved on the front of the Eastman Theatre “for the enrichment of community life.” According to their website, the school is

 “Located on the campus of the Eastman School of Music, the ECMS has been educating residents of the Greater Rochester and Western NY State area for more than ninety years. We estimate that as many as 60,000 students have received music instruction at the school since its inception. The school is deeply embedded in the community and is one of the most important connections between Eastman, the University of Rochester and the residents of the extended area.

Grace Lee Boggs, the inimitable and prolific social justice activist from Detroit, once said, “The physical threat posed by climate change represents a crisis that is not only material but also profoundly spiritual at its core because it challenges us to think seriously about the future of the human race and what it means to be a human being.”


abigail mchugh grifa

Abigail McHugh Grifa playing the cello

Abby has responded to Boggs charge. Sure, there may be other ways that she could be spending her waking hours. After all, two little boys is enough to keep some mothers occupied 24/7. And this is probably not the career that she envisioned for herself when she was studying music education at Eastman. But it’s the life that she has signed up for because she knows that it is not just her life that matters. Abby is not the type of person to say let someone else do the heavy lifting. If there is a problem to be solved-even if it is a bewilderingly complex problem like climate change-she wants to help figure it out. She is a problem solver, pure and simple.




Abigail and the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition

One project that has consumed Abby’s time lately is the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition (RPCC), a network of diverse organizations unified around concerns about climate change. As she explained during our interview, RPCC includes businesses, faith groups, nonprofits, labor, media, civil servants, and others. Although she did not go into detail about the organization’s methods, she did mention that they include climate change legislation, education, and mitigation, and working with the media to amplify the message.

Formed in September 2014, RPCC continues to grow, collaborate, and build political will for climate action. (For a full list of member organizations and information on how to join the coalition, see here.) As she puts it, the mission of The Rochester People’s Climate Coalition addresses the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of global warming. The groups has four major goals:

  1. Build a major force for change that will influence legislators to pass meaningful climate action laws
  2. Educate the general public about man-made global warming and mobilize them for direct action
  3. Encourage local leaders to take steps to prepare our region for the future effects of climate change (e.g., update transportation and utilities infrastructure)
  4. Leverage our collective power to encourage local media to improve their coverage of climate-related issues

Abby also gave me a brief overview of the history of RPCC. It was formed in 2014 during the weeks leading up to the People’s Climate March, when 30+ organizations in the Greater Rochester Area joined together to voice support for the march and demand action on climate change.  Over a period of several months following the march, representatives from member organizations worked together to define the coalition’s mission, goals, and structure.

Shortly after the historic march, RPCC’s second big project took place in April 2015, when member organizations collaborated to organize 15 “Earth Week” events, including several public appearances by renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen.  Collectively, these events served to raise awareness about climate change and move local leaders and citizens to action.


Abby leading a climate justice march in Rochester, NY (Photo by George Payne)

From the looks of it, RPCC is garnering some impressive accolades from both local and national leaders in the climate justice movement. On their website, the group has been endorsed by author and influential environmentalist Bill McKibben, ecologist and activist Sandra Steingraber, NASA scientist and climate change whistle blower James Hansen, and U.S. Rep Louise Slaughter. RPCC Facebook

Tune in to Rochester Free Radio 106.3 FM every Sunday at 12:30 PM to hear social justice voices from the Rochester community.

In addition to her role as a Leadership Team member with RPCC, Abby has continued her involvement with the Rochester Chapter of Citizen Climate Lobby. CCL lobbies in support of a Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal by building friendly relationships with federally elected representatives. They aim to reach across the aisle with respect, appreciation and gratitude for the service of elected officials.

During our interview, she explained that CCL writes letters to the editor and op-eds, and meets with editorial boards to gain their editorial endorsement.They also facilitate presentations and table at events to promote CCL and introduce others to the Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal.

Basically, CCL believes that politicians don’t create political will, they respond to it. Moreover, they contend that citizens who are well-trained, organized by Congressional district and with a good system of support can influence the political process. Based on what climate scientists and economists say, members of CCL argue that the Carbon Fee and Dividend plan is the best first step to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to mitigate the impacts of a changing climate. Not only is Abby active with CCL. she has assumed a leadership position in the chapter and has traveled to Washington to lobby.

Author Elizabeth Kolbert once write: “Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.”

I think of Abby when I read this. She is someone who, without quite meaning to, chose a different evolutionary pathway. As a result, she is opening new doors while managing to leave old ones open. It is an amazing moment that we find ourselves in. I am glad that we have amazing people like Abby to match the moment. I am honored to have her as a guest on the Broken Spear Vision.

*To listen to my first BSV interview with Abigail McHugh Grifa, check out my friend Judy Bello’s archive on her blog, The Deconstructed Globe Selected Views through a Fractal Prism. Judy was gracious enough to preserve many of my early shows when the station was still getting its feet wet with the technology. Abby’s Interview is #4


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