Brigid Shea came to the College of Saint Benedict in fall 1973 to study communications. She worked at the college radio station, was editor of the student newspaper and, by the time she left, was already working as a reporter for WJON-AM in St. Cloud, Minnesota. That led to positions with a couple public radio stations, including one in Philadelphia where her career was destined to flourish – except for one small detail: she hadn’t graduated.
“I was a bad girl,” says Brigid, who nonetheless in 1977 circulated an announcement – including a photo of herself sneaking out a dorm window in a nun’s habit. “I didn’t finish my coursework in speech and world history. All these years later I can really hold myself up as an example of why you should make sure you finish what you start.”
In 1982, she applied for a Rockefeller Fellowship in religious studies for journalists. It required a degree. To correct the problem, she had to hunt down her former speech professor at another school and complete an explication of a section of War and Peace.
“I reached a point at which someone in the registrar’s office finally said ‘You’re done. Quit bothering us,’” Brigid says.
Realizing she was too passionate about some issues to remain a journalist, she moved on to other targets. First was the proliferation of nuclear weapons. As national press secretary for an organization that ultimately became Peace Action, she was on hand for the agreement on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by former president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1987.
No sooner did it appear the nuclear threat was disarmed than she read a front-page story in the New York Times detailing a briefing before a congressional committee about how burning fossil fuels was creating a blanket around the planet that was trapping heat from the sun and, if unchecked, at some point would make human life no longer viable.
“That was serious enough for me,” Brigid says. “I called my friends all over Washington and said we’ve all got to drop everything and get on this, or we can measure our coffins and get in.”
This battle is one she’s fought ever since. She joined Clean Water Action and moved to Texas when the organization tapped her to lead its environmental efforts there. She coordinated what became a nationwide effort to ban the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, then led a coalition that forced passage of the strongest water-quality ordinance in the nation, protecting Barton Springs, a three-acre spring-fed pool in Austin.
Switching to politics in the mid-1990s, she served on the Austin city council and helped start the first wind energy project in Texas. She reformed water rates and incentivized conservation. She launched consulting firms in profitable carbon reduction and environmental policy guidance and, in 2015, became a Travis County (Texas) commissioner. Her efforts permanently reduced demand for treated drinking water by more than 38,000,000 gallons a year. In 2020, she was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Texas Energy Summit.
She says the greatest social justice campaign possible is climate change. Its costs are disproportionate on the marginalized, as wealthy people can move or accommodate its effects. And, while 33 years fighting the same issue might leave others disillusioned, Brigid will always believe she can win.
“I don’t know where my optimism and determination come from, but I think some of it came from Saint Ben’s,” she says. “There were so many really powerful women teachers – mostly nuns. I think they helped me see my potential. I was blind to it. But they saw it and helped me understand. I wasn’t the best student. I goofed off in class. But they saw potential in me and other women who came before and after me, that we had the potential to change the world.”