Common Ground with… Don Ferber 

Common Ground with… Don Ferber 

A volunteer for the Sierra Club Four Lakes Group since 2003 and co-chair of the organization’s Wisconsin chapter since last year, Don Ferber is a longtime environmental advocate, especially passionate about achieving energy justice for all. 

Madisonians may see him tabling on Saturdays at the Dane County Farmers’ Market on Capitol Square, standing beside a poster board explaining the Four Lakes group’s objective to achieve safe outdoor access for all. The poster poses questions to passersby, such as, “Do you have or can you afford or access the gear you need for a recreation activity?” Part of Ferber’s board also details the ins and outs of Embridge’s Line 5 Pipeline, a point of contention in Wisconsin over concerns that the over-70-year-old pipeline will leak oil into the Bad River watershed, home of the Bad River Band in the Ashland County in northern Wisconsin, and into Lake Superior. 

On his table also sit a number of pamphlets—“Fighting for our Future,” “Clean Energy,”  “Protect Wisconsin’s Climate from Fossil Fuels” and “We Can’t Afford Fossil Gas,” among others—plus a clipboard of signatures he collects every week. Ferber joined the Sierra Club because he wanted others to have the privilege he has of enjoying the beauty of nature, something instilled in him by his parents. However, he thinks it’s time to start looking at the environment “in a broader sense,” he says, to make life better for everyone indoors and outside. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge our community faces?

It’s hard to say, but a lot of it really centers around the privilege in our community. It goes well beyond Madison, but the fact that we have so many people who don't feel as welcome as they’d like — some people are very privileged, and others are not getting by well at all. I think we need to do a better job of dealing with that and being a welcoming place where all can thrive. I think we need to look at environment in a broader sense. There’s “environment” and “nature” that we think about a lot, and I think that’s important to provide — we do a fairly good job of that here in Madison and Dane County with our park system — but when people can’t get to those places, don’t feel comfortable in those places or otherwise have all these impediments in their life to being able to feel comfortable and getting out and enjoying these spaces… I think that’s an impediment that we need to improve across the board. 

What do you wish people in our community understood better?

It is something about the level of privilege and how other people don’t have that. I need to learn more about what other people are experiencing and feel commonality with them. There’s still too much separation between people and understanding what peoples’ lives are and how we can make everybody’s life better by supporting those, especially those most in need. That is going to make life better for everybody and have a more friendly, welcoming community. I think there’s just too much divisiveness in the world, and I want to see us get away from that not just in Madison, but elsewhere. It echoes down into Madison, even though it’s a pretty good community. People need a way to support themselves or have support for their basic needs — that ought to just be a given to where we’re doing that — that support is essential. (We can) then build from there, to where people feel empowered. They feel welcome. They feel like they belong, and they feel safe and comfortable.

What is one change you would make if you could that would make life better for people in our community?

One basic thing is our minimum wage is ridiculous. It’s at $7.25 an hour or so. It ought to be at least $15 and maybe more than that, as well as making sure we have support so people (facing challenges) can get through school, get a good education [and] feel supported to go out and then be more empowered to do well in the workplace and out in society. It often starts very early on, when people are disempowered and having an opportunity for a good life is taken away from them. So having a good living wage would at least provide people with resources that many don’t have right now. 

What in our community gives you hope?

I think there are a lot of people here who care. It is a good progressive community. We’ve got some pretty good leadership and so on, and we’re to have good discussions; just looking around at some of the tables here. There’s a lot of diversity that you're not going to see in other places. So the fact we have this, I think it’s helpful, and I think we just have to try to maintain things in a more positive way because it’s really easy to get angry about things. It’s not that people shouldn’t get angry, but it’s how you deal with it,and how you deal with other people and respect them, that I think is really critical.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

Don Ferber. Photo by Miquéla V. Thornton.

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