Erin Mendenhall wanted to be a dentist. Thankfully for Utah’s environment, her life path instead led her to activism that has everyone breathing better.
Mendenhall first completed her Bachelor of Science thesis, examining how Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites affect men and women differently. Her passion for the environment then led to her involvement with “Mom’s for Clean Air” and then “Breathe Utah,” where she brings a science-based approach to the debate.
For 10 years now, she has been a moderate voice in the often-shrill chorus of advocates calling for cleaner air. She emphasizes collaboration through partnerships, education and reasonable policy change to improve Utah’s air.
Her environmental profile helped get her elected to the Salt Lake City Council and also garner an appointment to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Quality Board – an entity that sets air quality policy and regulations for the entire state.
As Breathe Utah’s policy director, Mendenhall also walks the halls of the state Capitol lobbying for clean-air laws. Her group has developed curriculum in classrooms that teach students about air pollution, its impact on health, and the actions they can take such as the idle-free campaigns.
It’s this type of action that is at the heart of Mendenhall’s approach to serving her community – both in the broad sense and at the grassroots level.
Somehow, amazingly, she is a tireless advocate all while juggling her duties on the City Council, being a mom to two boys and a newborn daughter. And if that wasn’t a full plate, this fall she enrolled in the University of Utah’s Professional Master of Science and Technology Program where she hopes to expand her scientific knowledge of public policy as it relates to broader environmental issues. HER Magazine™ caught up with Mendenhall at City Hall.
What inspired you to get involved with air quality issues?
Erin: It was January 2006 and I was holding my baby and listening to KCPW reporting on an air pollution study that showed exposure to poor air in the Salt Lake Valley could take two years off your life. I was holding this baby and thinking ‘Oh my God, how can I raise you here? We have to go.’ But it didn’t last because I love Salt Lake City. I asked a friend who is a physician what can we do and that led to my involvement with Moms for Clean Air.
Why did you and others split from the group?
Erin: I think there’s a place for all activism. Too much of one kind creates a dialogue vacuum. I prefer the moderate approach that works collaboratively with others to get things done and see results.
What prompted you to run for office?
Erin: I’ve worked for other people’s campaigns, like Ben McAdams, helping him formulate his environmental policy. When my representative (Jill Remington Love, District 5) decided not to run I couldn’t stand the thought of a potential all-male council. From my work with Breathe, I lobbied at the Legislature and worked with the State Office of Education and I figured I could be effective on the local level. I like people. The kind of work on the City Council is like being a good neighbor.
Who are your role models?
Erin: All the women in my life because of their tenacity, commitment to pursue their choices with freedom. That’s what feminism is to me. To create a society free to act as we can chose.
What would you like your legacy to be?
Erin: I would like to be known for my community involvement. I think we all have a responsibility for the contributions we make, whether good or bad, and the ability to do better every single day.