How I became a green activist

Member to Member

Volume 119, No. 5May, 2019

Kari Docter

BACK TO HER ROOTS: Kari Docter grew up in nature and now works with her family, friends and colleagues in NYC to inspire others to go green.

I grew up in Minnesota in the 1970s and 80s. It’s the land of 10,000 lakes…and many more mosquitoes! My parents are musicians and our house was always full of music. We all performed: my parents as singers, and my brother and sister and I as string players. The ship was tightly run: practicing in the morning before school, lessons and classes many days of the week. Music was our life and soul.

If music was our outright passion, nature was our way of life. After-dinner bike rides were a big treat, especially after a long Minnesota deep freeze, which often lasted from October to May. I remember throwing our old jack-o-lanterns in the mulch pile outside, only to discover they’d grown into mutant-size pumpkins the following fall. We would drive across the country in a pop-top VW van, camping through national parks on our way to visit the relatives in California. (Why were our parents the only members of the family to move to Minnesota?)

My uncle, a high school science teacher and an environmentalist before it was a word, rode his bike everywhere. My cousin dressed up as “solar energy” for Halloween. My dad was constantly asking, “Who left on the downstairs light?” There was an ongoing contest between my parents and my aunt and uncle about who kept their house coldest during the winter (to save energy!)

As I grew up and kept playing the cello, there were inspirations for continuing a sustainable way of life: an Earth Day concert with my youth symphony (; a local composer and friend writing about sustainability and ecological issues (; performing and competing as a member of The Lorax Quartet (named after the Dr. Seuss character…we “spoke for the trees”) all through high school.

But it was a summer experience in Sitka, Alaska, that brought this passion for environmental justice (and, connected to it, social justice) to the forefront. I was invited to come up to teach music at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp ( by an old friend of my brother-in-law, who grew up in Sitka. The setting is magnificent. Snow-peaked mountains with gentle rainforests roll down to the many islands of Sitka Sound. The staff is made up of artists, writers, musicians and performers from around the country. At this camp, there were many native kids that came from small villages all over Alaska. One such kid, a talented artist, came from a tiny village in Southeast Alaska, where only a few people lived. As we’ve all read over the years, villages like this were and are the most susceptible to global warming. He saw his village being taken over by the swelling river, which was growing as the snow was melting earlier and earlier. I’m sure that village must be gone by now.

One night, he sulked away from hanging out with the other kids and destroyed all of his beautiful drawings. He was angry. He saw the disappearance of his village as a personal atttack on his people. They had done nothing wrong, and now here, again, strange people in faraway places were ruining his way of life, his existence. I saw, firsthand, the freshness of this wound.

Fast forward almost 20 years, and here I am, living in NYC, with my husband and our two young children. Every day, we’re bombarded by news of climate change and what it is doing – what humanity is doing – to our home.

Back in the old days, it was a way of life for us to be outside. We respected nature and the environment. But these days, especially living in the city, kids  are spending more time inside, on devices that become obsolete after a couple of years.

How can we bring back healthy habits, like bike riding, or “leaving no trace,” or conserving energy? How do we inspire each other to do this?

Who better than our children to help us stop these bad habits? While I’ve been busy being a mom, I’ve become an activist! I am inspired by the Green Committee at my daughter’s public school, of which I have been a co-chair for a number of years. I am inspired by the countless number of other parents in New York City who are working on many sustainable projects, whom I’ve met as a co-chair of the District 3 Green Schools Group (see  I am inspired by my children. My son channels his grandpa with his question “Who left the downstairs light on?” And my daughter makes hair bows out of her plastic wrappers from her cheese sticks!

I am inspired by my dear friends in the Fry Street Quartet, who – along with climate scientist Robert Davies, composers Laura Kaminsky and Libby Larsen, and artist Rebecca Allan – have been traveling the country with their Crossroads Project (

I am inspired by my parents and my husband. My mom no longer buys drinks in plastic bottles. She is working tirelessly on a project called Crossroads for Kids to bring this message to the ones who will still be here to deal with our problems. My dad and my husband and our son constantly research electric cars, solar energy and the new technologies available to us as we move towards more sustainable choices.

My love for the earth comes to me organically from my childhood experiences, my lifelong passion for music, and my love for my family. I’m inspired to keep this world in good shape so that my kids’ kids will still be able to come to the Metropolitan Opera (hopefully it won’t be underwater!) to hear beautiful music, and to create their own music, whether it’s the music of human beings, or the music of nature and our natural world.

Cellist Kari Docter, a member of Local 802 since 2002, is a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.