Walking into the Amigos Bravos office in Taos, a vibrant painting on an otherwise barren wall captivates your attention and sizes up the passion behind its artist, Brian Shields, co-founder of the nonprofit. This one piece serves as a metaphor for the inherent passion for the land, the art and the diverse cultural traditions that combine to make up Taos.
At the center of Shields’ painting, is a passion for the water — the thing that drew Shields to Taos in the first place, and became his life’s work. Amigos Bravos, or Friends of the River, started innocuously. Shields, after receiving his Art History degree in New York, came to Taos to teach, and eventually became a river guide. After witnessing the degradation of the pristine rivers around Taos, Shields decided to do something about it. More than 25 ago, he and his partner-turned-wife, Swanie Morris, created what has become one of the most well respected non-profits, not only in Taos, but statewide. The couple has almost singled-handedly brought area mining companies, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Los Alamos nuclear plant, to their knees. To read about their victories, click here.
While this modern day David and Goliath story both entertains and inspires, one wonders how a tiny operation like Amigos Bravos instigated such effective change. For Shields it’s simple community grassroots campaigning.
For many of my generation, the idea of a grassroots movement is inherently cool. Essentially, people from different walks of life come together for a common cause. In this day of political stagnation, it’s refreshing to such passion for changing the often destructive status-quo. Shields claims, “The power of the people is still there, its still true, and its still a democracy.” This belief drives Amigos Bravos to include a grassroots aspect to their campaigns. For rural towns like Taos, social media takes a backseat to the community-building necessary to make an impact. Later this year, Amigos Bravos will begin its first major Facebook campaign to combat dirty practices in the dairy industry. Thus, relationships drive groups like Amigos Bravos to continue protecting water for future generations.
While Shields will plainly say the main issue for Amigos Bravos comes down to human health, it also becomes obvious that spirituality plays into his passion as well. “In a way you have no other choice but to be involved, and in another way it’s a spiritual practice.” Love of the water and land transcends the soul. For the people who work here, this level of dedication is about the the resources. For Brian and Swanie, the work is greater than just them. This is evident in their grassroots outreach. In one of Amigos Bravos’ biggest victories, the Valle Vidal Campaign, vestiges of overwhelming community support becomes obvious.
This reverence for the land extends beyond Amigos Bravos and Taos. It is woven through the art and literature of New Mexico. By harnessing the emotional connections to the water, nonprofits like Amigos Bravos cut across cultural boundaries and bureaucratic red tape to protect and conserve the environment.
Brian and Sawnie will tell you: it’s all about the art. From Brian’s initial move to Taos, to his creation of Amigos Bravos, to his own art, his life reflects the beauty he sees and wants desperately to preserve. He insists his work will continue for this group, and I for one intend to follow the progress.