Fran Silva-Blayney’s awareness of the world around her results from a life-long accumulation of keen observations. Now that her passion for addressing environmental issues is manifested in her work as a Sierra Club activist, many of those observations have come full circle. “I feel a sense of urgency with regard to finding climate solutions,” she says. “As a society we have to make some serious, hard choices about what we value.”
A love of the outdoors came early to Silva-Blayney, a first-generation American who grew up in rural Los Angeles County and whose mom and dad are from Mauritius and Hong Kong, respectively. “They didn’t grow up camping, fishing, and hiking, but they sure raised me and my three brothers to do it,” she says. “Dad was always loading up the purple station wagon with gear for visits to national parks and forests. I’m a huge fan of fishing; I owe that to my Dad.”
She attended the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) on a running scholarship in the 1980s, when the school was building its women’s sports programs. But her political science major and track-and-field activities weren’t the only education she received there. “Going to Texas was the real awakening of my social conscience,” she says. “Before that I hadn’t witnessed extreme poverty, but looking across the Rio Grande into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and watching people dig through trash dumps and landfills—the stark contrast between the first world and developing world was mind-boggling for my 18-year-old self.” (This border crossing is currently in the news for reasons that echo her long-ago observations of society’s haves and have-nots.)
Silva-Blayney says that lesson informed the appeal of volunteer activism with the Sierra Club. “There’s the realization here that social and environmental issues are often working in parallel,” she says. “As you become aware of environmental issues and dive down to the root source of a problem, more often than not you see it’s really a social justice issue.”
She met her husband, Jim, at UTEP; they married and following graduation had two daughters, Sophia (now 23) and Natasha (now 30). They moved to L.A., but the poor air quality fueled big life changes. “It really made me aware of how the environment was going to affect my kids,” she says. “We also realized that living there wasn’t going to give us access to the outdoor lifestyle we love. And we wanted a life that didn’t involve living in a car, hauling children back and forth.” The decision was made to move to Colorado Springs, where they’ve now lived for 20 years.
While environmental issues have always been a passion, Silva-Blayney chose to focus on educational policy when her girls were young by getting involved with the local PTA. While she held jobs in the corporate world, her primary focus was parenting. “Generally, I think of my first career as raising my daughters,” she says. “We wanted to make sure they grew up to be socially conscious and aware, kind human beings. I’m so proud that’s who they are. Community environmental activism is my second career, now that I have time to devote to it.”
To that end, in 2011 she returned to school at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where she earned her Master’s degree in public administration, as well as certificates in local government management, national security intelligence, and nonprofit management. “I gained an understanding of policy making at the intersection of conservation, the environment, and local and state government,” she says.
For her Master’s capstone project she partnered with a local environmental group, Green Cities Coalition, to study how some Colorado cities had turned waterways into amenities that included water parks, kayak-friendly zones, and areas where improved water quality supports sportfishing.
Having grown up in California, where droughts are a regular occurrence, Silva-Blayney is particularly attuned to water issues. “I learned how to conserve water as a child, and that shaped the way I view it—as a precious, limited resource,” she says. “I live near Fountain Creek, which is over 70 miles long and should be a wonderful amenity, with recreational and economic benefits to our town. But it’s a cesspool—there’s E. coli and selenium contamination—and I realized what an undervalued resource it is. But so far we lack the political will to turn it around.”
In 2013 she joined the Sierra Club Pike’s Peak Group, and the following year stepped into an organizational role with the Fountain Creek Water Sentinels, a collaborative project of the Pike’s Peak and Sangre de Cristo Groups of the Club’s Colorado Chapter.
The Sentinels perform water-quality monitoring, and when Silva-Blayney looked around to see what other nonprofits they might work with she found River Watch of Colorado, which uses federal and state funds to support water testing by public volunteers. “We partnered with them two years ago, and it’s been an amazing collaboration,” she says. The group tests for 13 metals, measures water health, and performs macroinvertebrate testing.
Silva-Blayney is emphatic about the importance of data. “The water-testing idea was born because we need science to understand the issues,” she says. “Solutions lie in science-based data, and right now there’s an attack on facts and truth. We wouldn’t get into a fight unless we had the data behind us and, because we have it, people view us as a stakeholder in the community.”
Grassroots volunteer work doesn’t provide an income, but Silva-Blayney and her husband accept the tradeoff. “I do this work instead of getting a new car or putting down new flooring in my house,” she says. This is the choice we’ve made—we want to make the world a better place, so we’ll make the sacrifice.”
Silva-Blayney holds numerous leadership positions in the Colorado Chapter and Pike’s Peak Group and was recently voted onto the Council of Sierra Club Leaders, which meets annually and functions as an advisory group to the Club’s board of directors.
Her parents have relocated from Hawaii, where they had retired, to be near their daughter in Colorado. Recently Silva-Blayney, her parents, and daughter Natasha rallied together in Colorado Springs at a protest organized by the Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. They demanded that the local utility perform and report on the legally required testing of ground water near a landfill with coal ash residuals from the Martin Drake power plant.
“It was a hoot that they all came to the protest and are supportive advocates for the environment,” she says. “On the way home my mom commented about there being so many problems, but I know this is why we do the work. We focus on the local and the specific…and we make a difference.”