Unsung Santa Cruz: Climate activist Pauline Seales bridges generational divides on environmental issues

Pauline Seales hanging out with the plants outside
(Via Pauline Seales)

A retired teacher, Pauline Seales has worked behind the scenes on some of the county’s most high-profile environmental campaigns. But beyond political issues, Seales works with youth to restore fragile natural habitats and raise awareness about the changing climate.

For a person who has helped spearhead some of the most high-profile environmental campaigns around Santa Cruz County in recent years, Pauline Seales is hardly a household name. That’s by design. She has a distinct style when it comes to climate activism: quiet, but efficient.

Seales runs The Climate Action Network, a group of 1,700 members that works to raise awareness and mitigate the effects of climate change through education, organized marches, public events, and other efforts. The network’s leader since 2015, Seales has helped organize campaigns on public transportation, clean air, green space and renewable energy.

Seales, 78, was a key organizer in recent environmental initiatives such as Measure O, the unsuccessful November ballot measure to prevent a mixed-use library project on a downtown Santa Cruz parking lot, and the opposition to Measure D, a ballot measure to block plans for a rail-trail project from Watsonville to Davenport that voters rejected in June.

Both her supporters and those who have been on the opposite side of issues such as Measures O and D, say they admire her hard work spending long hours explaining these issues to the community and going door-to-door to raise awareness rather than taking public-facing roles.

“She’s everywhere and certainly dedicated,” says former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane, who served as a spokesperson for opponents of Measure O.

Matt Farrell spent time with Seales tabling at the farmers market to inform the public about No on Measure D earlier this year, but the two ended up on opposite sides of Measure O. Still, Farrell credits Seales’ passion for the cause. “I don’t know anyone who works more tirelessly on the things she believes in,” he says. “She walks the walk. She does the hard work to make things happen.”

Erica Aitken, a fellow activist who has worked with Seales on several environmental campaigns, points to Seale’s work educating and mentoring high school and college students on climate activism and acting as a unifying force between generations of environmental activists.

“Young activists and older activists don’t mix that well,” Aitken says. “Measure O was all older people, very few young people. There’s a generational divide now when it comes to issues.”

UC Santa Cruz sophomore and president of the Student Housing Coalition, Zennon Ulyate-Crow, has been a housing advocate since he was 15, and frequently works with Seales on the intersection of housing and climate change in the community.

The two worked together earlier this year writing letters of support for Assembly Bill 1919, the Youth Transit Pass Pilot Program, vetoed by Governor Newsom in September, which would have allowed free public transit for California students. Seale’s has also invited Ulyate-Crow to give presentations to the Climate Action Network.

“I’ve always felt welcome in her presence,” he said. “She does a great job bringing people in and even if they have friendly disagreements about certain things, she can still make people feel welcome in the dialogue.”

Ulyate-Crow opposed Measure O because he believed the long-term advantages of the planned additional housing units outweighed the potential environmental impacts. But he and Seales found common ground when it came to opposing one key component of the city’s plan for Lot 4: the parking garage, which Ulyate-Crow felt encouraged a detrimental car culture. So the Student Housing Coalition and Yes on Measure O campaign combined forces to speak in opposition to the initial city council approval of the parking structure.

A retired teacher, Seales continues to work with kids and young adults on a number of initiatives outside of her campaigning work. She has developed lesson plans with the Climate Action Network on topics such as sea level rise, greenhouse gas emissions, and coral bleaching. Before the work was put on hold by the pandemic, Seales taught week-long climate change lessons, lectures and workshops by invitation from teachers at schools such as Shoreline Middle School and Sierra Pacifica High School.

Retired teacher Pauline Seales
Retired teacher Pauline Seales (kneeling, in front) continues to teach young people about climate activism and environmental awareness.
(Via Pauline Seales)

“The kids really get that this is important to their lives,” Seales says. “It isn’t just some stuff you’re telling them because it’s in a list of things they are supposed to know.”

The youths who first inspired Seales to become active on environmental issues were her two sons, who informed her that increases in CO2 concentrations were warming the planet, which they learned about as first years studying at UCSC in 1991.

“I came from a family that never got involved, if you know what I mean,” Seales says. “They voted, but they never got involved in public affairs.” She credits writings from the Sierra Club, as well as a Climate Change class through Cabrillo College for encouraging her passion for climate and environmental issues.

Originally from Nottingham, England, Seales emigrated to Silicon Valley in 1967 and studied engineering, before later retraining as a teacher. She taught physics and AP Environmental Science at various school locations around Santa Cruz County and San Jose, such as Aptos High School and Pacific Collegiate Charter, which helped to further develop her spirit for climate activism.

Seales’s career in environmental activism began in 2014 when she joined an event held by 350 Santa Cruz, an environmental advocacy group working to mitigate the effects of climate change. She helped support a ban on hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — passed by voters in San Benito County. She joined The Climate Action Network, founded by Michael Gasser, later that year.

Pauline Seales (middle) attending a rally at the county courthouse
Pauline Seales (middle) attending a rally at the county courthouse with fellow activists, Susan Cavalieri (right) and Ernestina Saldana (left), on October 29, 2018, to support the 21 youth who filed a lawsuit against the United States in a case known as the Juliana Case
(Via Pauline Seales)

Though retired from teaching for the past decade, Seales continues to educate and be educated by young people around the county. She tries to stay current on policy issues and scientific advancements by attending seminars, webinars, conferences, and classes, such as Climate Reality online training.

She also teaches students about native plants and ecosystems while volunteering at Natural Bridges State Park. She has personally maintained a section of Natural Bridges for the last 17 years, pulling invasive species to help ensure that the natural ecosystem can flourish.

“The area has made huge strides compared to how it was years ago,” she says. “It’s not a perfect park, but it’s way more of a natural park than it was 17 years ago.”

Using handouts and real world examples, Seales trains students to identify native and nonnative plants at all stages of their growth cycle, then supervises them as they pull out the nonnative species.

As a teacher, Seales started bringing her own students to work in the park 12 years ago so they could complete their state mandated community service hours to graduate. Pacific Collegiate School, for instance, requires middle school grades to complete at least 10 hours a year, and high school students at least 20 hours a year. Now she trains individual classes who inquire about volunteer work with the park.

She is often asked to work with school groups due to her extensive knowledge of native plants. She oversees both middle and elementary school students to educate them on native plants, such as Yellow Lupin, and to pull invasive species such as Wild Radish, non-native grasses, and thistles, which had previously overgrown the endemic species.

Santa Cruz High School senior Nicola Ross Hall worked on several social media campaigns with Seales. Ross Hall says Seales is unique in that she doesn’t only care about climate change, she also gets stuff done. “I mean the networking she does, the amount of people that she knows she can contact is really really impressive” says Ross Hall, who adds, “Seales isn’t trying to get credit or anything. She’s doing the work because she thinks the work is important.”

While working with students, Seales says she encourages them to take leadership instead of taking the lead herself, and doesn’t force her opinion or point of view.

“Youth inspire me,” Seales says. “Climate change is a horrible problem that the ignorance of my generation has imposed on the youth. When I see them out there, fighting in a positive way, not pointing fingers at their grandparents, but working in a really positive way for the future. It really gives me hope.”


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