Glen Hooks: Environmental concerns include birds, too

Lifelong activist is now policy manager for Audubon Arkansas, helping people understand and reduce climate change. His optimism and knowledge of environmental concerns help rally people 

Glen Hooks remembers being imbued with an interest in politics at an early age, thanks to the hoopla of America’s Bicentennial and a soft-spoken Southerner seeking the highest elected office in the land.

“I have a vivid memory of being a second-grader at Cato Road Elementary School, and I remember standing in an endless line in a muddy, hot field to see the Freedom Train as it came through, a big deal for everybody,” he says. “It was also the year Jimmy Carter was running for election.

“I really got captivated that there’s a Southern guy running for office. He was nice, and he was quiet, and he had beliefs. I was only 7, so I couldn’t get too deep into it, but I loved the idea that a Southerner was going to run for president. So, I followed him, and I was really excited that he won; it seemed like a personal victory.”

The fuse lit by the confluence of Carter’s win and the amplification of all things American on its landmark birthday left an indelible impression on Hooks, a lifelong activist who’s now policy manager for Audubon Arkansas. He became involved with student government during his time at the now-closed North Pulaski High School, an experience that would eventually show him the smarting side of politics.

“[Student Council] was full of very teachable moments,” he says. “In 10th and 11th grade, [elections] weren’t that hard; you put up a few posters and so forth. But going into my senior year, I ran for president of the student council, and I didn’t win.

“Looking back on that, the person who did win taught me a lesson on how to campaign. You just can’t assume that anybody’s going to vote for you, even though you’re friends. You really do have to ask people to vote for you, and I didn’t do that; I didn’t know to do that.”

Asked if he remembers his opponent’s name whose campaign taught him the first fundamental lesson that would fortify his professional life from then on, he doesn’t miss a beat.

“Melanie Fraser,” he says with a gentle smile. “I’ll never forget it. She was a very good friend of mine, and still is. She won, and she did a great job, smart, capable, all that kind of stuff. I didn’t expect to lose and 35 years later, I still remember she beat me in that student council race.”

TELL THE TRUTH

Hooks’ childhood was fertile ground for a future environmental activist to blossom, starting with his parents. Though they would split up during his growing up in Gravel Ridge, he sees clearly the individual gifts and ethics he got from each and, combined, they provided the most resolute element of his makeup.

“One of the biggest things in the house I grew up in was honesty,” Hooks says. “My parents could pretty much forgive anything you did as long as you told the truth about it. But if you didn’t tell the truth, and they found out about it, it was tough. I got pretty lucky when it comes to parents.”

Hooks’ high school dalliances with government carried over to Hendrix College in Conway, from which he would graduate in 1991 with a degree in political science and where he was active in the campus Young Democrats.

“I remember going to my first meeting and being a little frustrated with how it was going,” he says. “The question of the whole meeting that was hotly debated was. ‘Are we going to get T-shirts?’ and ‘What are they going to look like?’ Later on, I got heavily involved in the Young Democrats and loved it. But that first meeting, I was like, ‘This is not how I want to be spending my time.'”

Hooks didn’t need to wait long for a more important cause — the first Persian Gulf War — to mute the debate over apparel and give him his first real issue to stand on.

“As a young man, I was really concerned whether we were doing the right thing by being involved in this war,” he says. “I got involved in some anti-war efforts and went to the Arkansas Peace Center and helped them do some rallies and so forth.”

The Persian Gulf War began the process of knitting Hooks’ perspective and instincts into a cohesive political and moral philosophy, a process that continued throughout his college years and the three years at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law that followed.

“Sometimes, in a state like Arkansas, my beloved home state, certain voices are not heard,” he says. “I knew there were a lot of people out there who believed the way I believed, but sometimes they needed someone to stand up, so they knew they weren’t alone.

“So, going to law school after college, I knew I was going to do something in the political arena. I just didn’t exactly know what it was.”

Hooks originally envisioned himself putting his law degree to use hammering away at corporate scalawags or others whose actions denigrated human rights or exploited the poor for profit.

“I think everybody goes into law school with an idea of what they want to do,” he says. “When I went in, I knew I was going to be a progressive, liberal trial lawyer. I had my eye on one civil plaintiff rights firm that I wanted to get a job with and damned if it didn’t work. It worked out exactly.

“I ended up as a plaintiff-side civil rights lawyer with Kaplan, Brewer and Maxey that had a wonderful, storied history of being a great civil rights firm in Arkansas.”

Hooks says he learned many things from his first employer, foremost among them being how much he disliked being a lawyer.

“That was really disappointing. I’d executed my plan, I ended up at the exact firm I wanted to end up, and I discovered being a lawyer is terrible. Just awful,” he says with a loud chuckle.

“I liked law school really well, and I even ended up teaching for a while as an adjunct at the law school and at Hendrix and some other places. But the day-to-day grind of being a lawyer was just not a good fit for me.”

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM

Hooks lasted two years at the firm, counting his clerkship, then did a year in the Arkansas attorney general’s office before joining the state Democratic Party and eventually striking out on his own as a campaign consultant for ACLU, Planned Parenthood of Arkansas, Coalition for Choice and League of United Latin American Citizens.

In 2002 he ran across an ad by the Sierra Club hiring for the newly opened Little Rock office. Despite having no experience with environmental concerns, he was intrigued.

“I wasn’t even a member of the Sierra Club; environmental issues hadn’t been my focus at all,” he says. “I remember going to the interview and talking with this woman at the regional office. I said, ‘Look, I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t know anything about environmental issues, but I’m a very good campaign organizer.’ She said, ‘That’s exactly what we want. We can teach you the rest.'”

Hooks thought he’d spend a couple of years there while he sorted out the next step, but in accepting the position he’d unexpectedly found his life’s work. He stayed at Sierra Club for 18 years, 11 working with the national organization and the last seven as state director.

“I fell in love with the whole idea of being somebody who protects air and water and promotes clean energy,” he says. “I was doing stuff I loved to do, interacting with elected officials and building public pressure on folks to do the right thing.”

“Glen’s got a passion for the environment, and he’s knowledgeable,” says longtime compatriot and lawyer George Wise. “Sometimes people have a passion for an issue, but they don’t develop the knowledge base to act on that passion. Glen has taken his passion for the environment and really worked hard to develop a knowledge base to be a great advocate on environmental issues.”

Aside from the usual environmental lobbying efforts on legislation as it arose, Hooks says the predominant battle of his time with the organization was tackling coal-fired power plants.

“The [George W. Bush] administration decided it wanted to build 150 new coal-burning power plants to replace an aging fleet,” he says. “[Sierra Club] cared a lot about climate change, and we knew that if we built 150 to 200 more coal-burning power plants, those would stay online for 40 or 50 years each, and it was going to be lights out for the climate.

“So, we built a campaign called Beyond Coal with a pretty audacious goal of stopping every one of those plants. Over a period of years, kind of building the plane as we flew it, we stopped over 200 plants from being built. There were about 530 coal plants in the country at that time, and now more than half of them are either retired or scheduled for retirement.”

The effort delivered on its mission in part because it bought the solar industry time to perfect viable systems for homes and businesses as an energy alternative.

“There were certainly a lot of people invested in the status quo because of their business model, where they’re making lots of money burning coal and burning gas and burning oil to sell us power. They didn’t want to upset their traditional way of doing business,” he says. “The pivot point came after [solar companies] invested enough time in research and development to make solar panels incredibly efficient and a lot cheaper.

“So when the public service commission or some sort of regulatory body said what are we going to do to meet this power need, it was much easier to make the decision for clean energy because it’s cheaper, better for the environment, better for health, all that kind of stuff.”

Along the way, Hooks often found himself among strange bedfellows, allies he might not have envisioned rallying to the cause.

“I’d be at the Capitol making the environmental message and here comes some energy association making the economic business message, but we’re saying the same thing,” he says. “And then folks like Walmart got on board saying,, ‘We need better solar policy.’ People didn’t know how to handle that, because here are the environmentalists and the biggest corporation in the world on the same side of things.”

Hooks says his legislative audience is generally more informed on the subject of alternative energy than they once were, providing further opportunities to grease the wheels of change.

“You have to find people’s language and priorities and recognize the reality that politics gets in the way, so find a way to do this without hurting people politically,” he says. “For example, emphasizing the economic impact. I point to projects in Camden and Stuttgart and Benton and Springdale that are real, steel-in-the-ground projects that are lowering people’s electric bills, bringing jobs and adding additional tax revenue to those areas.

“I want people to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, but in the end, I just care about them doing the right thing.”

BIRD WATCHING

Hooks joined Audubon Arkansas in 2021, but those who thought he was abandoning previous causes for blue jays and pine warblers were sorely mistaken. It’s not because he’s that stubborn — although he is — but because environmental concerns are as important, if not more so, to a wildlife organization as to other groups.

“I hear a lot of, ‘You guys are a bird conservation organization, you should stay in your own lane,'” he says. “My argument is we’re absolutely staying in our own lane. Climate change is predicted to lead to the extinction of hundreds of species of birds. We’ve already lost hundreds of species of birds since 1967 in North America, largely because they don’t have the same habitat anymore.

“The birds are sounding the alarm, so we listen to the birds, and we listen to science. Getting involved in the fight to stop climate change from a bird perspective is the same work that I’ve done for almost 20 years.”

Now in his 50s, Hooks is uniquely qualified to carry forth this message, having spent decades developing persuasive strategies for any audience.

“The difference between Sierra Club and Audubon is, I think, that Audubon has a broader type of membership,” he says. “It’s folks on all sides of the political arena who are deeply passionate about birds but maybe they’re not activists, whereas other groups are innately activists. A big part of my job and my challenge is to translate the passion for birds and habitat into action for things that aren’t automatically understood.

“Environmental issues sometimes are really technical, and people who don’t have a science background often shy away because it’s intimidating. If I start talking parts per billion and pollutants to people, I’ve lost them. My job, as an activist and a leader in Arkansas’ environmental work, is poring through all that stuff, figuring out what it really means, finding where people can make a difference and explaining that in a way everybody can understand. ‘Hey, you love birds, you love birding, you love habitat? Well, a coal plant is going to do X, Y and Z to that, so please help me pass this solar policy.'”

People who know Hooks best say the things that still jump out at people first and loudest about him are the optimism he holds for his work and the faith he still holds in people to ultimately rally to a noble course of action.

“Glen has an infectious positivity, which is incredibly valuable,” says longtime friend April Ambrose. “He also has the ability to verbalize impact. He’s not one who’s going to stand up and just say, ‘This is terrible; this is tragic.’ His ability to verbalize the impact of different potential actions helps all of us understand the complexity and the nature of those situations better. He positions these issues for us to understand their impact better.”

“To stay an idealist in this kind of game, you have to have some perspective, you have to have some history and you have to make it fun. You can’t just do dreary stuff,” Hooks says. “Realizing you’re part of a long chain that didn’t start with you and it’s definitely not going to end with you makes you feel part of something amazing.

“I could not imagine having a career where at the end of the day I just went home and didn’t think about my job anymore. I can’t imagine myself in a job where I wasn’t talking to people and trying to help them find a way to do the right thing for the planet. I lucked into it, but I sure am happy to be here.”

 Glen Hooks, policy manager for Audubon Arkansas at Audubon Arkansas on 09/29/2022 for High Profile cover story (Arkansas Democrat Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Source: NWA Online

Spencer Pearce

Spencer Pearce

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