On Valentine's Day, Muna Galbayte stood at a podium at the Minnesota State Capitol to speak about an issue more pressing than the day's romantic implications.
“I wish I could stop being so afraid, but no one can look me in the eye and tell me I’m safe at school,” the Eden Prairie High School senior told a room of reporters last Thursday morning.
Feb. 14 marked one year since 17 people died in a mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Galbayte spoke alongside leaders and supporters of anti-gun violence organization Protect Minnesota to call for action from their legislators.
"I'm ready for some change. I'm ready to put our lives ahead of special interest lobby groups," Galbayte said. "The youth in Minnesota will be voting in the next election, and you guys need to be prepared for that."
Galbayte is a part of the Students Demand Action anti-gun violence group at EPHS that sprang up after the Parkland shooting. She was a panelist at December's community forum on the gun incident in which an Eden Prairie man allegedly pulled a gun on several teenagers in a local McDonald's and expressed strongly that although no one was injured in the incident, it still counted as gun violence.
Galbayte has been involved with Protect Minnesota for four to five months, she said after her speech, and the two groups are closely aligned in their agendas because protecting students from gun violence means protecting all people from gun violence.
Protect Minnesota's agenda falls along six core issues:
All three of Eden Prairie's state elected officials have named gun regulation as one of their top priorities. In interviews with Eden Prairie News, DFL state representatives Laurie Pryor and Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, both of Eden Prairie, expressed support for "red flag orders." Kotyza-Witthuhn identified herself as a "safe and responsible" gun owner and said that such orders would protect the public as well as people who may want to self-harm.
"(Families) know best when someone in their family, most of the time, is struggling, and that they’re either a danger to themselves or others," she said.
Freshman U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Eden Prairie, has already sponsored two bills aimed at gun regulation. On Friday, Feb. 15, his office said in a statement that the congressman is an original sponsor of a bill that would reinstate a national ban on assault weapons.
“Thoughts and tweets don’t save lives,” Phillips said in the statement. “Courage and action saves lives. The facts are staggering, and the need is clear; thousands of Americans, including children, are being massacred at an alarming rate by weapons that were designed for the battlefield. Data shows that an assault weapons ban saves lives. I believe the science, and that’s why I’m taking action to prevent weapons meant for military combat from appearing on our streets and in our schools.”
Phillips, a gun owner, is also a sponsor of a bill that would require universal background checks on all gun sales and is a member of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.
Back in the Capitol, 17-year-old Galbayte said she's grown up in a world where school shootings are "normal" and communities are becoming "desensitized" to gun violence.
"I'm always just so scared," she said. "I can't vote yet, so it's my civic duty to do something."
Representatives from Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and Hopkins gathered on Saturday, Feb. 16 to discuss a variety of environmental programs in their cities before an audience of residents that expressed a need for urgent action to mitigate climate change.
Councilwomen Kathy Nelson of Eden Prairie and Deb Calvert of Minnetonka, with councilman Brian Hunke of Hopkins, shared strategies for environmental preservation and economic development at an event organized by the League of Women Voters. A crowd of around 20 attended the meeting in the Minnetonka City Council chambers.
All three representatives celebrated the actions their cities are taking to conserve energy, preserve natural spaces and save taxpayers’ money.
Nelson noted that Eden Prairie adopted an ambitious energy conservation plan in 2005 and by 2015, the city had exceeded all of its goals and saved taxpayers 2 percent in city taxes.
“It wasn’t one-time money, it was year after year,” Nelson said of the tax savings, which came from replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs, upgrading the city’s cars to more efficient models and modulating residents’ water usage.
Eden Prairie is planning for the long-term in their next conservation steps, she added, noting that no timeline is too long if it will save energy and money.
Minnetonka has an extensive list of energy-saving projects, Calvert said, and the city has prioritized the projects with the highest return on investment: Replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs, using efficient motors and furnaces and installing low-flow faucets. She also emphasized the city’s plethora of green space initiatives, including installing rain gardens, incentivizing native plantings and building more foot paths and bike trails to reduce car usage.
As the wife of a career wild land firefighter who spent last summer fighting California’s Mendocino complex fire, Calvert brought the growing danger of climate change into the conversation.
“It is increasingly clear that the topic here is increasingly urgent,” she said.
Hunke laid out Hopkins’ methodical approach to conservation. The city is using the Minnesota GreenStep Cities guide, which includes 29 actions to increase conservation efforts and drive environmentally-conscious economic growth. Hopkins has taken the first three steps of the process, which focus on identifying savings in existing buildings, Hunke said, and is examining if further steps make sense financially. The city recently reconstructed multiple storm water systems to reduce pollutant loads in local streams, which keeps nearby lakes healthy, he added.
Audience questions drew the speakers away from the broad picture to address more immediate issues.
Several questions zeroed in on what incentives exist to bring private citizens into the conservation effort and how cities can accelerate their environmental agendas. Hunke pointed to Hopkins’ reduced price home energy inspections that reveal opportunities for residents save money and make their home more energy efficient, and Calvert pushed back against the suggestion of a tax on residents’ carbon footprint.
“We do have residents who do not believe in climate change, who pay taxes and are vocal about it,” she reminded the audience.
Nelson pointed to the free market approach to drawing businesses in.
“As people demand more for their own homes, it forces businesses to change because it affects their bottom line,” she said. “You have to get to the point where neighbors are talking to neighbors.”
Lia Harel, 18, is a student at Hopkins High School and a Minnetonka resident who attended the event with Julianna Deibel, 17. They’re part of the Minnesota Can’t Wait initiative that calls for urgent action to mitigate the effects of climate change for the next generation, and Lia asked the speakers how they plan to include youth voices in their cities’ environmental programs.
The responses varied: Nelson said that there are students on every Eden Prairie city commission, with such a high level of interest that student commissioners sometimes rotate each semester to allow more involvement. Calvert replied that Minnetonka is looking to include students in the future, and Hunke echoed her enthusiasm with the caveat that there are no active plans for student commissioners in Hopkins at this time.
After the event, Harel and Deibel reflected on the urgency of climate change as they look to their futures.
“It’s not just about preserving the green spaces,” Harel said. Climate change has drastic implications for the public health, food security and economic growth of their generation.
“No matter how much we feel like we’re doing, there’s always more that we could do,” Deibel said.