Committed to cutting kilowatts, and heck on wheels

BERKELEY —  Weekdays at UC Berkeley, Erin Fenley is all about helping the campus reduce its carbon footprint by saving kilowatts.

After hours, she’s all about burning energy – her own – in an intense roller derby scrimmage.

To understand the former Fenley, it helps to appreciate her roots. Berkeley’s energy-management communication specialist grew up in southern Appalachia, where coal is king. Both her grandfathers were coal miners and both died before she was born.

What coal mining “did to them,” as she puts it, and what it continues to do to the land –  via mountaintop-removal and strip technologies – grieves this “proud hillbilly.”

“Every time I go back home there’s a new mountain that’s gone, razed, demolished,” says Fenley, a hint of Tennessee in her voice. “You turn a corner and you don’t see it.”

First-hand knowledge of the carbon economy’s dark side fuels Fenley’s passion for conservation and clean energy, and inspired her to go to Savannah College of Art and Design to study design for sustainability, which applies sustainability principles and materials to design projects of all descriptions. All of which she draws on to oversee the energy office’s myPower website and to coordinate the efforts of conservation-minded students and staff.

From campus to court

Once the Campanile strikes five, Fenley the athlete dons “a lot of yellow” bicycle-safety gear to pedal home – then onward, at least three nights a week, to a ramshackle West Oakland warehouse.

Erin Fenley in roller derby bout

Erin Fenley sporting the blue of the Little City Roller Girls, the team she cofounded in Johnson City, Tenn.  (Louis Keiner photo)

There, she and her team spend several intense and exhilarating hours circling the hard floor in quad speed skates and protective gear – helmets, mouth guards and knee, elbow and wrist pads – and the signature tie-dye Ts of the Berkeley Resistance.

Pivot, blocker, jammer – Fenley has played each position in the game.

“Everyone’s rolling,” she says, “and you have to keep moving forward… mentally breaking them down, physically breaking them down” in order to get your point-scoring jammer through the pack. “I don’t like to do a light workout. I like to exercise to the point where I have nothing left to give,” she says.

A tomboy as a kid, Fenley yearned to play organized team sports, she says, when she first heard about women’s roller derby, in her late 20s, back in Johnson City, Tenn.

“I’m not even 100 percent sure what it is,” she recalls thinking, “but I know that that this is something I need in my life…. Look at this band of wild women getting together and doing something fun.”

Full contact

Soon she had co-founded the Little City Roller Girls and was getting up to speed with the sport’s basics, such as how to hit the ground. “You learn to fall directly – boom – in the most efficient way, so you can pop back up,” she says. “Roller derby is an intense, full-contact experience. You have to throw your entire self into it; you can’t do it timidly. It’s not croquet.”

East Bay roller-derby bout

fenley100The Berkeley Resistance will do battle with the Oakland Outlaws the evening of Saturday, April 27, at the Oakland Convention Center. For details, check the Bay Area Derby Girls league website.

But neither is it the “elbows-to-the-face, ridiculous fake wrestling” of the banked-track, 1970s-era roller derby. The sport has gone through many changes since its Depression-era skating-marathon beginnings. The current craze, dominated by all-female amateur leagues, is a straight-up form of athleticism, with 65 pages of rules and lots of officials at competitive bouts, Fenley notes. “It’s not acceptable to fight or to scream and yell at the referees. Everyone is treated very respectfully.”

“A community, a physical activity, a strange sorority of women from all over the world, a social network that’s self-sustaining, vibrant, like-minded” – roller derby, for Fenley, is many things in one.

Luckily, at 34, she still has some years to pursue her bliss on wheels and reap the rewards 24/7. Roller derby “tunes up my own confidence and the way I approach each day” on campus – “going in full force to everything I do,” she says.

It works the other way as well – bringing enviro-awareness to the sport.

Her sustainability advice for roller derbyists? “Clean your bearings, re-groove your wheels.”


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