The Way it Was: A Founding Member Roundtable Discussion

In honor of our 20th anniversary, founding members Jean Downing and Logan Gewin recently reunited with Executive Director Casi (kc) Callaway to recount the early days when Mobile Baykeeper got first began as West Bay Watch back in 1997. You can also find this discussion, along with other articles highlighting our 20th anniversary, in our 20th Anniversary Magazine by clicking here


Why You Got Involved

Logan Gewin: I wanted to be able to breathe and know that it was safe. I would drive down the western shore and see those smoke stacks in the air. You just didn’t know how many companies they were going to try and bring in here. At one point, we just decided it was time to draw a line and tell them we don’t want all these plants coming here. To me, that’s what got me interested was the air quality. 

Jean Downing: The more we looked, the more we didn’t want to define our growth by industry. That’s it in a nutshell. As we talked to more and more folks, the more we agreed that the things we loved about the bay wouldn’t be able to co-exist with these chemical companies coming to the area. 

Logan Gewin: It was a few decision makers that were trying to decide the future of this entire area. They were never elected to decide how we were going to grow, but they decided it themselves, until a group of us decided we wanted to do something about it. 

Jean Downing: When you look back at some of the key players from the early days of this organization, most of us were people who spent their childhoods growing up on the bay. We wanted to be able to pass these memories onto our children and grandchildren, and knew we wouldn’t be able to if we kept growing like this.

What Set Us Apart

Casi (kc) Callaway: In my opinion, the thing that sets us apart is that we weren’t founded by people who cared about the birds and the bunnies. We were founded by people who cared about their health, who cared about their kids being able to play in the bay, and who cared about their property value.

Jean Downing: Everyone just had a true passion and love for the bay. They were realtors, fishermen, businessmen. There was so much support from so many areas. There were a lot of people who made things happen behind the scenes that helped Baykeeper become what it is today.

Logan Gewin: Getting Jack Greer involved truly solidified us a legitimate group. He was so reputable and well thought of. If Jack Greer of Greer’s Markets was supporting this environmental group, that opened the door to a lot of other businesses minded people to join us. 

Early Challenges

Jean Downing: Credibility. At the time we were thought of these crazy, radical people. Even my father was one of the people who said we didn’t know what we were talking about. So many of my friends thought we were crazy too. There was never a budget, never a plan at first. We were truly the roots of the grassroots. 

Logan Gewin: It was a clash of the old way of thinking versus the new way of thinking. Progressive thinking against the ‘Old Mobile’ way of thinking. That was certainly a challenge we had to overcome. 

Jean Downing: There were several under the table offers made by these companies to get us to be quiet and hope we would “go away”. That was the reality back then, and that confirmed that it was all about the money. We knew what was the right thing to do. 

Hiring the First Staff Member

Jean Downing: I remember when I came to the point and thought - I can’t do this anymore. There were too many things that came up that were slipping through the cracks. That’s when we knew it was time to hire somebody to take this on.

Logan Gewin: We were making a lot of waves, but we grew so fast and realized we weren’t able to cover everything like we wanted to. We would have all burnt out if it wasn’t for you (Casi). 

Casi (kc) Callaway: Y’all never checked out when I got hired, though, and that was important. Anything I needed, both of you were always there for me. That momentum you started early on has carried this organization for 20 years. 

Jean Downing: How did we even find you? I have no idea. It’s hard to think about how we did things before the days of the Internet. 

Logan Gewin: Once we hired you, it changed from a grassroots operation out of our dining rooms to a professional organization. That was the difference. 

Biggest Accomplishments

Logan Gewin: Changing the public perception and realization that we need to take care of our natural resources. We were 20 years behind the rest of the country and it wasn’t really in anyone’s mindsets back then. They just didn’t understand what we had, from a quality of life perspective. What you (Casi) and Baykeeper has done has now brought this to the forefront. 

Jean Downing: I’m proud that now we actually have a sincere appreciation for our water and this beautiful gift we have. Whether or not we are all ‘environmentalists’, I think one thing we can all agree on is that we need to take care of these resources so we can pass it on to our children and our grandchildren. 

Casi (kc) Callaway: When I started environmental work back in college, it was for the kid I didn’t have that I hoped to someday have. If y’all hadn’t started this, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I was called to do in a place that I love so much and feel so passionately about. Then I was able to have a child, raise that child, and watch him play on the beach, play in the bay, and experience the Delta just the way I did. We keep what our past generations give us for those future generations, and that’s huge. 

Jean Downing: Today, when there are environmental questions people have, they know where to go, and that’s Mobile Baykeeper. I think that is so important for people to have a resource to call upon when issues arise in our area. 

Changing Attitudes and Perceptions

Logan Gewin: Today, it’s a check and balance system now between the environment and industry. Because Baykeeper is here, these large recruited heavy industries can’t just run wild like they used to.

Jean Downing: I think the idea of environmental issues has turned into realizing it touches other issues as well. It’s much bigger than just putting a can in a recycling bin. It affects our health, our quality of life, and our economy. 

Casi (kc) Callaway: It really comes down to the triple bottom line - environment, economy, and community. If you aren’t investing in any of those, then the other two will fail. If you only invest in one and not the other two, they will also fail. We still have a long way to go, but I think we’ve changed a lot as a community. Now we have a mayor who is enforcing litter laws throughout the city. That certainly wasn’t the case 20 years ago. 

“When you look back at some of the key players from the early days of this organization, most of us were people who spent their childhoods growing up on the bay. Everyone just had a true passion and love for this area. We wanted to be able to pass these memories onto our children and grandchildren, and knew we wouldn’t be able to if we kept growing like this. We didn’t want the future of the bay to be defined by industry.”