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Brewster resident named Mass. USA TODAY Woman of the Year for plastic bottle ban efforts
Brewster resident named Mass. USA TODAY Woman of the Year for plastic bottle ban efforts
Brewster resident named Mass. USA TODAY Woman of the Year for plastic bottle ban efforts

Published on: 03/02/2024

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Woman of the Year Madhavi Venkatesan
A lightening round of questions for Woman of the Year Madhavi Venkatesan from Cape Cod

Madhavi Venkatesan is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have significantly influenced their communities and across the country. Meet all of this year's honorees at https://www.usatoday.com/women-of-the-year-2024/.

Late last year, Madhavi Venkatesan was driving toward Boston from Cape Cod and saw a driver chuck a muffin out their vehicle's window. The muffin, she said, its wrapper still attached, lay squarely in the middle of the road. As the driver continued on their way, Venkatesan, founder and executive director of Sustainable Practices, an environmental action group, pulled over, scooped up the treat and dropped it into a nearby trash bin. First of all, Venkatesan said during a January interview that the driver was littering. Second, the offender created a potential death instrument for an animal, which could have run into the highway to eat the muffin, she said.

"How we treat animals and the Earth is eventually going to be the way we treat ourselves," said Venkatesan, a faculty member in the Department of Economics at Northeastern University. "The decency and the compassion that you have shows how much regard you have for the most vulnerable."With economics and sustainability in mind, Venkatesan founded Sustainable Practices in 2016. Along with her nonprofit's team, she has seemingly broken the seal on plastic initiatives throughout Cape Cod and the Islands. In 2019, Sustainable Practices initiated a municipal plastic bottle ban, which focused on eliminating non-emergency single-use plastic bottles by town governments and the sale of beverages in single-use plastic containers on municipal property across Barnstable County. By June 2021, all 15 towns on the Cape had the policy in place. In 2020, the group also initiated a commercial single-use plastic water bottle ban, which called for the prohibiting the sale of non-carbonated, non-flavored water in single-use plastic bottles of less than one gallon in size within town jurisdictions. By 2023, a commercial ban went into effect in nine towns, including Brewster, Chatham, Eastham, Falmouth, Harwich, Orleans, Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Yarmouth.In January, Gov. Maura Healey recognized Sustainable Practices with a citation, recognizing the organization’s bottle ban efforts. On a state level, Healey followed the organization's lead in September, announcing she would sign an executive order banning the purchase of single-use plastic bottles by state agencies. “We have drawn attention to the single-use plastic issue but there remains much work ahead,” said Venkatesan.Part of that work is raising awareness about the realities of recycling and bottle bills, which obscure the issue of plastic disposal and increased plastic in the environment, she said."Single-use plastic is rarely recycled into an originating product. It's downcycled. This means more plastic is added to our environment as replacements are created.” Venkatesan, who was born in India, grew up in Illinois, and now lives in Brewster, said society needs to think about how economics and sustainability connect and how the current economic system is affecting the future of all the Earth's inhabitants. "Most of us are purchasing and behaving based on what's being marketed to us," said Venkatesan. "But the system is broken. If we don't inspire critical engagement, we will continue to contribute to our own existential threat."

Venkatesan answered the questions below during an in-person interview. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

It’s everybody from Ms. Matilda, who was my kindergarten teacher at Lads & Lassies (Preschool) in Evanston, Illinois, to Gerald Early, who was the director of the African American Studies Department at Washington University in St. Louis. He saw my dissertation when I was an assistant professor of business at Fisk and he asked me to give a talk at Washington University. That changed the course of my life because I met my now ex-husband in St. Louis. We moved to New York and I became an investor relations officer, which started my entire career path in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). Eventually, I divorced my husband and became a single parent, and met a man to whom; I became engaged. He was the reason I came to Brewster for the first time and fell in love with Cape Cod.All of these people, among many others, are a part of my journey. Each step I took, I didn't know what doors would open for me. But I wake up every day and I'm grateful.

When my son was in middle school, he was in a school contest. Part of that process was answering questions on stage. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was a single parent and I was commuting from the Cape to my work in Boston so he could stay in school in Brewster. I thought I had a meeting for work, but it ended up that I could stay. I sat in the balcony area and watched as he made it through to the very end of the contest. It was just him and one other person left on stage. When he answered the questions he was asked, I felt like, if I had jumped off that balcony, I could have flown. It meant a lot to me that I could be there for him — and for myself.

There are two. The first is when I lost my father in 2011. He died of liver cancer. My parents had gone to India and he was diagnosed there. When he came back, he was emaciated. It was then that I recognized how much my father meant to me. I was so busy taking care of my son and rushing through the day-to-day. I was just surviving. When he was gone, I quit my job at The Hartford (Financial Services Group, Inc.) and took a year and a half off. I had no job and I was depressed and so unhappy. The second lowest moment is when I got a phone call that my mother was in the hospital in September 2022. I drove straight from Cape Cod to Knoxville (Tennessee) and stayed with my mother. She never recovered and passed away in the hospital. I am an only child, but I have family. My mother has sisters. She had friends. But I did everything alone. I cleaned out the house alone and took care of everything myself. When I lost my mother, I became an orphan. Everyone is going to lose somebody. None of us are going to outlive this. But through my pain, I recognized that I needed to appreciate what I have when I have it.

Conviction. Perseverance. Resilience. No matter what happens to set you back, you have to be courageous to move forward — because you believe in what you’re doing. These three words are what I think of in relation to the nonprofit work that we do. It takes so much to maintain the status quo. Change is hard — primarily because most people don’t want to have to make any changes. The ugly side of people can come out. Unfortunately, I have people say hurtful things to me in person and through social media about the work Sustainable Practices does. Despite that, we keep going.

It changes every year. And it depends on the year and the desire and focus of that time. When I was young, my life centered around a song. When I did my doctoral dissertation, my song was Natalie Merchant’s song “Wonder." I played it over and over again so that I could get the work done. I was the wonder.

Now, Ambrosia’s “You're the Only Woman," is a love song to myself.

No one. I look up to myself. Because why would I want to set my standards so low? When I give a rubric to my students, and tell them what needs to be done, then that's all they’re going to do. When you give a general assignment, you promote their creativity and they outshine what your expectations could ever be. I guess that’s how I’ve chosen to live my life. I don’t want to be like anybody but me.

As we have organized plastic reduction initiatives, people have (verbally and through social media) attacked Sustainable Practices. But we have managed to form a cohesive group. No one (from Sustainable Practices) goes to any events by themselves. It’s easier to attack an individual than it is to attack a group. Cohesion within our group helps us overcome adversity. If there is something that happens, I can go back and talk to them. Because they recognize and know what we are trying to accomplish, we have that commonality.

On a personal level, everyone has a choice when bad things happen. You can be bitter or you can look at things another way. I chose not to be bitter a long time ago.

To remember that I’m going to die. When you're young, you feel like you have all the time in the world and you squander it. I realized that I would have a much more fulfilled existence if I recognized that my time is limited. I don't want to waste time worrying about what a person's opinion of me is. The greatest thing I can do is form an opinion of myself and hold onto that.

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News Source : https://www.capecodtimes.com/story/news/environment/2024/02/29/brewster-madhavi-venkatesan-usatoday-woman-of-the-year-sustainable-practices/72010157007/

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