BRIAN SHOBE, Turtle Tales Columnist
First consider her background: Sheila is a foster kid and a first-generation high school graduate (let alone college student). Then consider her college years: the protests she organized against the lack of racial/ethnic diversity on campus and her under-the-radar hosting of college overnight visits for an entire Girl Scout Troop on Brannon third. Finally, consider the full gamut of her career experience: from teaching English in the inner-city to training medical students on pelvic exams, from waitressing to case management, from community organizing to starting non-profits that empower teen mothers and survivors of sexual assault.
De Forest is an exemplary practitioner of the liberal arts. She transfers her skills and ways of thinking– what she calls “tools in her toolbox”–into new contexts. She synthesizes her experiences and differing viewpoints in her role as a Beloit City Councilor and she reflects on her identity, privilege and responsibility as a Beloit College alumna.
De Forest says, “I walked away from Beloit feeling empowered. That’s what a liberal arts approach does. It equips you with tools to think, work, and make a difference… I can write, think on my feet, and start organizations from the ground up. I can talk to a CEO, a grant funder and a Spanish-speaking city resident.”
In fact, De Forest’s toolbox has made her so versatile that she can no longer keep track of how many different jobs she’s had, projects she’s started, or programs she’s run. For her though, that’s the point of the Beloit toolbox—to share its power and teach others how to create their own.
Whenever someone asks De Forest about Beloit College, she tells the following story.
“I majored in English and Sociology… but I loved environmental biology. Biology professor Dick Newsome knew I was never going to be a biology major, but he encouraged my interest. He took me on prairie burns, we had conversations over coffee about environmental issues, and he even let me TA one of his classes.”
“Ironically, that schooling informs my work as a politician… Most of the decisions that have the greatest impact on the environment happen at the local level, like how we manage parks, wells, stormwater, waste treatment and road-surfacing.”
One day Professor Newsome told De Forest there was a seriously endangered prairie petunia growing at the base of the water tower across from the college, and that it wouldn’t survive if the city kept mowing it, so she made it her mission to save it.
To convince her colleagues to not mow the area, she had to educate them. To educate them, she had to pull out her environmental biologist tools from her toolbox. After fighting long enough to earn the nickname “the Petunia Lady,” De Forest got her way, and portions of the Water Tower Park are now restored prairie.
She concludes, “I’m not even a biology major and I helped save an endangered prairie petunia. How cool is that? That I had the power to do that—that’s Beloit College.”