The global pandemic may have temporarily drawn public attention away from the perils of climate change, but across the nation environmental activists, scientists, entrepreneurs and educators have stayed focused on the global warming that scientists consider to be the most pressing long term threat to humanity. Over the past year, these leaders in both the nonprofit and private sector have continued to address our most complex ecological problems. From a policy and product watchdog, to a beauty industry disruptor; from an ocean steward, to a clean energy specialist; from an organic fast-food trailblazer, to a food scrap hauling expert — here we feature the work of 16 inspirational eco-warriors.
“Our role is to set the goalpost for a clean, healthy environment,” says Ken Cook, president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group (EWG), an organization widely recognized as one of the environmental community’s most influential critics of industrial agriculture, U.S. food and farm policy and the nation’s broken approach to protecting families and children from toxic substances. Under Cook’s leadership, EWG has pioneered the use of digital technologies to expose the harms done by misconceived crop subsidies, crop insurance and runaway agricultural pollution. EWG has also empowered American families with easy-to-use, data-driven tools to help reduce their exposure to potentially harmful ingredients in foods, drinking water, cosmetics and other household products. Cook and EWG have been in the forefront of national and state campaigns to require the labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients. Cook testifies regularly before House and Senate committees and for the past 20 years has briefed top White House officials and every U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and EPA Administrator on EWG’s research and policy positions.
Amy’s Kitchen, a Petaluma, California based organic frozen and convenience food company, offers a paradigm for environmental entrepreneurship. “It is not enough for us to just be better than the bad actors,” says co-owner Amy Berliner Ricafrente. “The goal is to be a truly sustainable and regenerative business in all areas.” Amy’s Kitchen was founded in 1987 by Ricafrente’s parents, Rachel and Andy Berliner, who were looking for ready made organic vegetarian meals for their baby daughter (yep, that was Amy herself). Over the past 34 years the company has grown to 2600 employees with four kitchens across the country and three drive throughs, serving approximately 1 million meals each day. All meals are plant-based and 90% of ingredients are organic. With its namesake at the helm of the Sustainability team, the company employs water, energy and greenhouse gas reduction and landfill diversion initiatives. Amy’s Kitchen prioritizes climate change amelioration and a shift to renewable energy, and has led the charge in packaging innovations in the food industry.
Dr. Rebecca Albright is a Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Her research focuses on understanding the ability of coral reefs to cope with changing environmental conditions, in particular ocean acidification. Given the current plight of corals around the world, Dr. Albright is particularly interested in how changing global conditions will influence coral reproduction, and what this might mean for the next generation. At the Academy, Dr. Albright is pioneering a solutions-focused research program that tries to understand the most critical barriers to successful reproduction and potential solutions.
Environmentalist Jonathan Foley, PhD is a renowned scientist and author who directs Project Drawdown, an organization with a mission to “help the world reach ‘Drawdown’ — the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline, thereby stopping catastrophic climate change — as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible.” Dr. Foley focuses on understanding our changing planet, and finding new solutions to sustain the climate, ecosystems, and natural resources.
Lil Milagro Henriquez is the founder and Executive Director of Mycelium Youth Network, an organization dedicated to preparing and empowering frontline youth for climate change. She’s a veteran of social justice organizing with 18+ years of experience working on a myriad of issues, including access to higher education for low-income people and communities of color, food sovereignty, environmental racism, union democracy and labor organizing, among others. Henriquez founded Mycelium Youth Network in 2017 to prepare youth to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. She is the 2020 recipient of the Women’s Earth Alliance fellowship and the 2021 recipient of the Partners Advancing Climate Equity fellowship.
In 2010, Erlene Howard had this idea: if composting were easy, more people would do it. She applied the skills that she’d used in supporting other people’s businesses to a field that was completely new to her: the waste hauling industry. Howard is founder and owner of Collective Resource Compost (CRC), a food scrap hauling company based in Evanston, Illinois that supports sustainability through commercial composting and zero waste consulting. Pre-pandemic, CRC was diverting 38 tons from the landfill each week and with the contributions of thousands of customers, has been able to divert 7,235 tons to-date. Howard also serves on the board of Illinois Food Scrap Coalition, a not-for-profit organization that brings together stakeholders from all aspects of the commercial composting industry in Illinois.
Bill Kurtis and Donna LaPietra
Fans of the popular NPR radio game show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me will recognize Bill Kurtis as the show’s official judge and scorekeeper. Kurtis, a Chicago-based news anchor is also the co-founder, along with his wife Donna LaPietra, a longtime television news producer, of a documentary film production company, Kurtis Productions. The couple are deeply committed to protecting the environment. They have transformed their home, the 65-acre Mettawa Manor, into an ecological and agricultural model. “On much of the land we steward in Illinois, we have focused on restoring deep-rooted native prairie plants with their ability to capture and store carbon as a major tool in drawing down the amount of carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere” says LaPietra. “If the grasslands of the world were properly managed, we could reduce carbon dioxide by a third.” Kurtis and LaPietra sit on the Boards of the Chicago Botanic Garden, Field Museum, Millennium Park and support prairie tours and lectures through their Kurtis Conservation Foundation.
Forest Preserves of Cook County, Stewardship Program
Raquel García-Álvarez believes her life’s purpose is “to connect with nature and to show others the beauty and biodiversity it holds.” This perspective was nurtured by her parents as García-Álvarez grew up spending lots of time afuera (outside), visiting local parks and exploring the cerros (hills) in her parent’s homeland of Guanajuato, Mexico. Today García-Álvarez is the Stewardship Program Coordinator and a steward at the Forest Preserves of Cook County. She co-leads Latinx stewardship days to connect the local community to public lands and aims to move forward racial equity operations within the Forest Preserves. She also founded the Environmentalists of Color (EOC), the network holds a safe space to amplify, connect and support members to be leaders and thrive in various environmental fields.
Environmental Law and Policy Center
Howard Learner is a public interest environmental, civil rights and energy litigation attorney serving as Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Midwest-based non-profit environmental advocacy group. Learner is responsible for directing ELPC’s work to accelerate clean energy development solutions to climate change challenges, advance innovative transportation policies, protect the Great Lakes, and preserve the Midwest’s natural resources and heritage. According to Learner, one of ELPC’s core premises is that environmental progress and economic development can be achieved together.
As the Senior Director of Government Affairs and Conservation Policy at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Andrea Densham and her colleagues tackle some of the most egregious threats to our blue planet—from climate change and access to clean drinking water, to invasive species and pollution—by leveraging innovative, long-term solutions to environmental harms while prioritizing the health and safety of front-line communities—those impacted first and worst. Densham works with Great Lakes and ocean champions to secure all-of-government action, such as ensuring federal agencies protect freshwater habitat, encouraging Congress to pass climate legislation and supporting international agreements to protect coral. One example is the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, co-sponsored by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. This science-driven legislation will incentivize sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic, reducing carbon-heavy pollution from the factory door to our lakes and ocean.
Ace of Air
The idea that recycling is working in the beauty industry “is a myth,” says industry disruptor Stephanie Stahl. According to Stahl, only 7-9% of plastic waste actually gets recycled. Using her expertise as a brand builder with experience in the beauty, fashion, and health & wellness industries, Stahl and activist Petra Nemcova co-founded Ace of Air, a fully circular beauty and wellness brand. Ace of Air customers “rent” the primary packaging for a non-refundable $2 per product. Products are shipped in a special box that can be used up to 100 times and includes a return label so customers can return the shipping package to Ace of Air through UPS. Ace of Air promises that they will be “100% responsible for the entire lifecycle of the packaging,” as they pursue their mission to change the way consumers think about the purchase and packaging of beauty products.
Thirteen-year-old Michigan resident Mari Copeny (Aka “Little Miss Flint”) first gained national attention in 2016, when at the age of 8, the LA Times published a letter she wrote to President Obama challenging him to visit Flint, Michigan. The letter sparked an urgent dialogue around the clean water crisis and environmental racism that was impossible to ignore, ultimately leading to meetings with Presidents Obama and Clinton, and Senator Bernie Sanders. Recently, Copeny partnered with water filter company Hydroviv to donate and distribute high-capacity lead removal filters to families and child-centric organizations in Flint.
In 1984 a group of Malibu, California surfers were concerned about the protection of the ocean, waves and beaches and formed a nonprofit activist network they called Surfrider. Today, Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of Surfrider Foundation, is responsible for the strategic guidance of environmental campaigns and stewardship programs at local, regional and national levels, overseeing more than 170 chapters and student clubs, 50 staff, and a number of programs that include volunteer water quality monitoring, Ocean Friendly Gardens, Ocean Friendly Restaurants, surfonomics, education and outreach programs. Dr. Nelson also serves as the Board President for Save the Waves, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the coastal environment. He also serves as a director at The Coastal Society, an international society that addresses issues that relate to coastal areas.
In 2014 Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen, married marine biologists and renowned award-winning wildlife photographers for National Geographic and numerous other publications, founded SeaLegacy, a “global network of storytellers” who use their art and expertise in media and communications to fuel a world-wide community focused on restoring the ocean’s health and abundance. In 2020, on the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, Mittermeier and Nicklen announced their flagship project: Only One, a web-based platform showcasing original content, driving people to take action and change their habits for the benefit of the ocean. SeaLegacy expeditions and work educate their couple’s significant international following about key conservation tipping points across the planet.
How to help:
Consider supporting one of these local nonprofits that urgently need support during the pandemic.
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Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.com.