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850Eco Founder Katie Dineen on how the 2010 BP Oil Spill led her to environmental activism

Katie Dineen


Sarah: Her first realization that the environment needed a voice, needed an activist came at just the age of ten years old, when the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill reached her hometown along the Gulf of Mexico.

Katie: I feel like my early childhood memory of becoming engaged and interested in protecting the environment comes from the BP oil spill, which happened when I was about ten or eleven. Just at that kind of age where you're starting to transition into from a child to having greater awareness about the world around you. I am the daughter of a fisherman, and so literally five days a week, my food was coming from the Gulf.

So I grew up very close, not only physically, but just at a food level. That's where my food was coming from. That's where my dad's work was. That's where the money in my home was coming from. All of a sudden, I'm seeing all the oil in my backyard, because I grew up on a little lake off of Choctawhatchee Bayou which connects to the Gulf of Mexico as well. I'd see the oil all the way in my backyard from the Gulf, it all just started to click.

I felt like my world had ended. I felt like the world had ended before I was even old enough to enjoy it. So that was like a really early wake up for me, that the adults around me obviously aren't doing this all as good as they say they're doing it, or else this wouldn't happen. Why did this even have the opportunity to happen? Why would we let it happen again?

But there was an element to it where the apocalypse didn't happen. I thought the apocalypse was happening, but it didn't happen in its completeness. It was like just another form of expression that there is a serious problem on our hands and it requires serious solutions.

Sarah: There is obviously no one solution to an environmental catastrophe, but on a personal level, for you, the solution was taking an interest and eventually an action, bit by bit, and slowly cultivating a community and a movement larger than yourself.

Katie: I was working for the school system as a substitute teacher before the pandemic. And I had already been cultivating some of these connections with people at the farmers market or people here. But there was nothing very strong. It was just kind of like a friendship here, friendship there.

I was in a position where I could take off my Fridays. You choose what days you're going to work as a substitute teacher. I just really wanted to commit myself to something I really believed in. I did that a couple of Fridays. I was dedicating Fridays to environmentalism in whatever shape that took, because I really wanted to find where my niche would be. Some Fridays that was going to the woods and really feeling this deep connection and learning names of things and becoming owned by my environment, becoming a better student of where I live. Some Fridays, it was like doing the political stuff, sending out emails and connecting with city council and just even doing my research, see what's even happening.

My friend La, was here studying chemistry, organic chem. They came up with the idea of calling it 850 Eco, which was just kind of catchy! Her and I were getting together enough that there were people just saying, like, hey, what are you guys doing? Can I be part of it? We were like, we should figure out what we're doing. That way people can be part of it!

There used to be town halls. There used to be public squares where people go out and where I feel like a lot of people find each other is through social media nowadays. So we decided to kind of focus our efforts to creating a space for people to connect and see each other and hopefully spark curiosity and community with each other in both the virtual and the real spheres.

So using our virtual platform to connect and broaden and to amplify and spotlight all these great things that are happening locally since everyone kind of has their niche of what they're into. Then bringing all those people who are into the different things, whether it be the Audubon Society or Ocean Hour or Healthy Gulf, or Bike Pensacola, all these different people together so that we can see each other and maybe get some cross pollination between the groups, because you don't know what you're into until you're exposed to it.

That we just started hosting these monthly meetings that had a different shapes to them. Sometimes they were community conversations and sometimes we did a UWF nature walk here where a professor led us through the woods and just kind of offered a basic education on our local ecosystem. That's kind of what eight 50 Eco is just this platform to connect and foster community locally because there's so many people who are here and it's just hard to see each other if there's no space for it. That's what our goal is to just amplify and connect people with each other so that more cool stuff can happen here.

Sarah: And what has the community response been like?

Katie: It's been just so beautiful, it's been so great. It just kind of quickly took off. It's all like these stepping stones. One action just leads to another and leads to another. And so through my involvement with this, I've been able to meet so many people and then step more into civic engagement. So I'm now serving on the environmental advisory board for the city. I just took that position and I'll be doing that for two years. It's just a volunteer committee, but that's another step into becoming more civically involved and on a real level where it's like making recommendations to policy.

But then also through 850Eco, I was just able to be invited to plan Earth Day Pensacola for this year and to be part of the festival planning board. It's just like all the doors just keep opening. Through Earth Day, I met so many people who are interested, engaged and involved and want to people. I think we just really want to be with each other. I think we're really craving true and honest and impactful connections.