Editor's note: Lisa Renstrom will be speaking at UNO Wednesday, March 8. The event, a forum that is free and open to the public, will begin at 7 p.m. in Eppley Auditorium. For more information, contact John McCarty at 402.554.2849 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Standing Tall with Sierra
by Shelly Steig
Whenever Lisa Renstrom sees a Hummer in a parking lot, she stops her Honda Insight – a space-age-looking hybrid that gets up to 70 miles per gallon – climbs out of the car and pulls a sticker from her purse. The sticker proclaims 'I WILL EVOLVE," including a picture of a tiny car. Renstrom doesn't remove the sticker's backing, but she does slip it under the much larger vehicle's windshield wiper.
While some radical activists might be tempted to slash the Hummer's tires or "key" its paint, hers is a lighthearted and non-confrontational approach to a sometimes contentious topic — environmentalism.
As the newly elected 51st president of the 750,000-member Sierra Club, the 1982 UNO graduate is determined to dispel preconceived notions about environmentalists, while at the same time finding collaborative solutions to environmental issues.
She took over the position in May 2005 after the organization's highest-ever voter turnout. As one of her initiatives, she spearheaded the Sierra Summit, the largest gathering of Sierra members in the club's 114-year history. Renstrom inked an A-list of keynote speakers – Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Arianna Huffington and Bill Maher – for the summit, which took place in San Francisco Sept. 8-11.
The gathering featured 1,000 delegates from across the country sharing their concerns in a town meeting format. Delegates then made recommendations on what the club's focus should be for the next five years on issues such as building a new energy future, promoting wise individual and consumer choices, and environmental protection.
Though such words weren't yet in her lexicon while growing up in Omaha, Renstrom was learning the preliminary vocabulary. Her father Carl, who was 56 when she was born, was a Swedish immigrant who epitomized the American dream. He was a hard worker who held odd jobs, including a stint as a Fuller Brush salesman, before following in his own father's footsteps and filing several patents. One of them, for a pencil-thin metal curler that provided the contrived-curl trend of the 1930s and 1940s, led to the formation of Tip-Top Hair Products. The company later produced popular pink, foamy hair rollers, providing enough of a bankroll for Carl to build a private retreat in Acapulco.
Through the years that retreat morphed into a Hollywood playground called the Villa Vera Hotel. It was the spot where Elizabeth Taylor married her third husband, Mike Todd, where then-President Nixon and his wife celebrated their 25th anniversary, where bombshell Lana Turner lived for three years, and where scenes were shot for Elvis Presley's "Fun in Acapulco" (Because of security concerns, Presley filmed off-location in Los Angeles.)
The hotel was named for Carl's firstborn daughter and Renstrom's 20-years-older half-sister Vera. Vera later had two sons who formed the band Meat Puppets, a group Curt Cobain cited as his inspiration. She died of cancer in 1996 at age 59.
Villa Vera's success led Carl to later open MaraLisa, another Acapulco resort property, and a shopping center. Renstrom remembers her father as a gregarious character who lived large and was proud of his achievements, but who also taught her valuable life lessons.
Look, Leap, But Don't Hesitate
"I grew up with a sense of fiscal responsibility and responsibility in general," she says. "In my father's eyes, ingenuity was the machine that made America great. There was a great sense of stewardship about the land and its resources – waste not, want not." She laughs, then adds, "But my father had two favorite sayings that kept confusing me, ‘Look before you leap' and ‘He who hesitates is lost.'"
Her mother, Betty Anderson, was a dental technician who met Carl while performing a routine cleaning. She was 30 years his junior. They married and moved to an 80-acre "gentleman's farm" near 100th and Pacific streets where the family kept horses, chickens and Charolais cattle.
Some sources have indicated that Carl was a devout atheist, but Renstrom disagrees. "My father was not a religious person," she says. "He did not promote any specific faith or philosophical perspective – except a lot of common sense based, living-well perspectives. My parents sent me to Catholic schools (Christ the King and Duchesne Academy) and sometimes went to Mass with me."
Renstrom transferred to Westside High School as a junior. About that time Carl's health began to fail. Wanting to stay near her father, Renstrom enrolled at UNO, where she received her BS in business administration. "My coursework at UNO was a great foundation," she says. "But I got my MBA by fire in Mexico."
That's an understatement considering what transpired south of the border. Carl had passed away in 1981 while Renstrom was taking classes at UNO. Soon after graduating in 1982, she and her newlywed husband, Omahan Mike Mangimelli, left the United States to manage three properties in Mexico. Even though she had spent time there during grade school and could speak the language fluently, it still was a culture shock for a young, blonde, female to enter Mexico's volatile business world.
Executor of Carl's will, Renstrom hired outside consultants to help her prepare the properties for sale. Her father's estate, however, was not clearly delineated and the previous management claimed an ownership interest. When she refused to back down, the disgruntled ex-employees filed criminal charges. Unlike the United States, she says, Mexico at the time considered accused "guilty until proven innocent" and she could not post bail. Only three years after arriving in the country, Renstrom found herself at Reclusorio, a women's prison in Mexico City.
Although mice skittered across her as she slept, the prison wasn't as bad as some might imagine. It previously had been a psychiatric hospital and had outdoor areas within the walls. For three weeks, Renstrom was held in a location for those under observation. The next two months, authorities placed her in an area for those awaiting trial. There were no bars, and she and her seven cellmates had their own keys. During the last three months she resided in a cellblock where her infant daughter Alex could visit on weekends.
Renstrom spent six months in Reclusorio until reaching an agreement with the plaintiffs, who dropped all charges.
Despite the fact that she desperately missed her daughter and had to match bravado with murderers, Renstrom insists that the half-year in prison was invaluable. "It was an unbelievable experience that I wouldn't trade for the world, even though at the time I didn't know if I would be swallowed up in the system. Perhaps I equate it to going to war. You're not facing your death, but you're certainly facing limitations – the loss of your freedom, the loss of being able to live the life that we take so much for granted: showers, cleanliness, friends, family."
Renstrom was released from prison in the spring of 1987 and returned to the United States, semi-settling in Los Angeles. She then tallied some serious frequent flyer miles commuting to Mexico to manage and initiate efforts to sell the Mexican properties (finally settled in 1993), and also to Boston to complete an executive management program at Harvard University Graduate School of Business.
Her personal life went through some major transitions, too – she divorced her first husband and later relocated to Charlotte, N.C., with her mother, daughter and current husband, Bob Perkowitz.
In Charlotte, Renstrom intended to settle down and become a stay-at-home mom. But she didn't want to stagnate, so she began searching for an environmental organization that didn't require a specific expertise for involvement. She visited a nearby Sierra Club meeting and shortly after was named the group's political chair. Renstrom then worked her way from local to state and national posts, serving on the board of trustees and board of directors during the next nine years.
Making the jump from successful businesswoman to soccer mom to environmental activist was not a huge leap, says Renstrom. "I believe everyone is an environmentalist at heart. But they come to it in different stages and for different reasons in their lives. It really wasn't until I moved back to the United States and joined the Sierra Club that I was able to turn these thoughts into any sort of action that meant anything. I also felt that bringing the economic and business background from school and from my work in Mexico was something that the environmental movement needed."
She later became executive director for Voices & Choices of the Central Carolinas, a 14-county organization in the two states that encouraged citizens, elected officials and business leaders to seek sustainability economically and environmentally.
She also began an ongoing collaboration in a project with Harvard professor Marshall Ganz titled "National Purpose, Local Action." Its goal is to evaluate, through self-assessment surveys, how the Sierra Club and similar organizations can be more effective at the state and local levels.
During her term leading the nation's oldest environmental group, Renstrom will continue focusing on sustainability — choosing goods and services that minimize the usage of irreplaceable natural resources while not producing toxic byproducts — in what she considers to be the third era of the environmental movement. At its inception and first era, the Sierra Club concentrated on conserving land, such as that in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. During the second era, which reached its zenith in the 1960s, activists saw the implementation of clean air and water acts.
Renstrom believes the club has led the way for two eras, and she is excited to be at the helm in the third era as the organization concentrates on working with communities at the local level to solve climate change issues, teaching responsibility and fairness, and encouraging energy independence. Because family is important to Renstrom (her mother lives with her in Charlotte; her 19-year-old daughter was supposed to have begun her freshman year at Tulane University but now will study in London though a Syracuse University program) she also emphasizes the need to focus on the health, welfare and security of American families.
Renstrom also believes that as a registered independent she can find common political ground when it comes to the environment. She does it at home, at least; though her organization leans left, her husband is a Republican.
She is determined to focus the organization on providing fertile soil for friends and neighbors to nourish seeds of sameness. She sees the Sierra Club as a big tent and adds, "You can be an NRA member and a Sierra Club member. You can be pro-choice or pro-life and still be a Sierra Club member. Environmental values are part of all of us. They are neither
Republican nor Democrat.
"People just need to look into their hearts and ask, ‘What is important to me and my children, and how do I want to leave this world?'"
Shelly Steig is a contributor to The UNO Alum, the magazine of the UNO Alumni Association.
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