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Creating an army of activist kids: Q&A with Stella Bowles

A photo of Stella standing in front of the Quarry at Evergreen Brick Works.
Top image caption: Stella Bowles at Evergreen Brick Works.

Published on September 07, 2018

Stella Bowles is a force of change in her community.

Three years ago, she asked her mom why she wasn’t allowed to swim in the LaHave River near her home in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia. Her mom said that many of the homes still use ‘straight pipes.’ As the name suggests, these pipes pump anything flushed down the toilet straight into water with little to no filtration. Bowles was 11 years old and even though she was surprised to learn this, she was also curious about the impact straight pipes had on the health of the LaHave River.

Along with a mentor, Dr. David Maxwell, Bowles learned how to test the water. After two years of testing, she found fecal contamination above Canada’s federal standards for swimming or boating. Hoping to share her results, but still too young to open a social media account, she begged her mom to start a community Facebook page. What started as a science project swelled into a platform with thousands of followers raising awareness about the polluted water.

Today, three levels of government have come together with a $15.7 million clean-up plan for the LaHave River to be straight pipe free by 2023. When Stella and her family drive through their community, they pass concrete septic tanks sitting on lawns waiting to be installed.

Outside her community, this feat has not gone unnoticed. She’s met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, been featured in various articles and received many awards including the Evergreen TD Future City Builders award and a Meritorious Service Medal (Civil Division). This fall, My River: Cleaning up the LaHave River, a book written by Bowles and author Anne Laurel Carter will be released. The book shares her story cleaning up the LaHave River and the lesson that kids can make a difference. Age is just a number.

Bowles jokes that she’s training an army of kids, and at 14 years old, she’s become something of a fearless leader.

The cover of Stella's book.

EVERGREEN: Other than starting grade 9, what are you working on right now?

STELLA: Right now, I’m going around the province and I’m providing young people with testing kits using the money that I’ve won or that’s been donated. I teach them how to test their water, they get a year-supply kit, and they have the choice to tell me what the results are or not. Hopefully we can get political if the results are bad and hopefully clean up our waterways.

EVERGREEN: Have you always been interested in science?

STELLA: I’ve always been interested in science. When I was little, my dad made an electric pickle machine. Essentially, it’s a light bulb and you hook it up to a pickle and the light bulb turns on. So you can run electricity through it. We always made bubble machines, where you put your hand through a sheet of bubbles. We’ve just always had fun experimenting.

EVERGREEN: You recently won another silver medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair for your work researching a correlation between foraminifera, a single-cell amoeba that lives in the soil along waterways, and the levels of fecal contamination in the water. Do you see more science in your future?

STELLA: I don’t really know. I like science, I like politics, and I like law and environment too.

EVERGREEN: What role did social media play in gaining awareness about the health of the LaHave River?

STELLA: Without social media, I would not have gotten anywhere. Nowhere. It’s huge, everybody uses it, and if somebody shares it then their friends get it and it just keeps snowballing. (laughs) I say this in my presentations, but Facebook is where all the older people are and they tend to be the voters.

EVERGREEN: In past interviews, you mentioned that being young helped elevate your voice. Did you encounter any hurdles in this journey?

STELLA: I didn’t really have any feedback that was negative, I think I was kind of protected by being 11. (I was) shaming the adults. If you have this little kid telling you that this is wrong and then you realize, “Why did it take a kid to tell us this? Why aren’t the adults doing something?” It stirred up a lot of talk in our community, that’s for sure.

EVERGREEN: What is your advice for other city builders?

STELLA: If you have a cause and you want to fight for it – fight for it. Don’t hesitate because you don’t know what’s going to happen if you don’t try.

Bowles reminds everyone, young and old, to ask hard questions. She also advises other leaders to utilize social media and back up their information with evidence and scientific data.