If ever there was a cause worth fighting for, it’s the one to protect the planet. In honor of Earth Day on April 22, we’re celebrating eco-warriors who are making a big impact in the non-profit environmental world. Whether they’re saving wildlife from wildfires or disadvantaged neighborhoods from the ravages of industrial pollution, these heroes mobilize every day to build a safer, cleaner, healthier world. Their passion and dedication to saving the environment should inspire us all.
Chief Scientist, World Wildlife Fund
Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist with the World Wildlife Fund, is leading a team to urgently address the dual crises of climate change and nature loss.
In 1989, while Shaw lived on a raft in the Amazon studying how seasonal flooding affected biodiversity, the Brazilian government began providing incentives for its citizens to turn the rainforest into agricultural land. Shaw watched as the tropical rainforest around her virtually disappeared in one year due to deforestation. “It was then that I dedicated myself to understanding the social and economic factors that make implementing conservation possible,” Shaw says.
Passionate but also strategic, Shaw has a clear vision of what a just, equitable and sustainable world could look like and how to get there. One way is by changing how and what we eat. “The way we produce, consume and waste food is the leading cause of climate change and biodiversity loss,” she says. By reducing our intake of animal proteins, especially red meat, and eating more fresh fruits, vegetables and fish, Shaw says we can secure a healthier planet and healthier people.
“Believe in your own creativity to create the kind of positive change you would like to see in the world,” Shaw says. “Start by eating right for your own health – and that of the planet’s.”
President and Co-founder, Wildlife Conservation Network
When Charles Knowles, a passionate philanthropist and driven entrepreneur, realized that very few of the resources available for wildlife conservation were making a real impact, he decided to do something about it.
Believing there was a better way to connect conservationists on the front lines with the resources they needed to succeed, Knowles founded the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN) 20 years ago. He has grown it into an organization full of smart, dedicated, mission-driven people who work to ensure that wildlife and people coexist and thrive.
WCN has raised and distributed more than $200 million to wildlife conservationists. “The work they do is deeply complex and often dangerous, yet absolutely critical for the health of our planet,” Knowles says. “But no one person or institution can save wildlife alone, so we emphasize collaboration. One hundred percent of our donors’ designated contributions goes to the work they care about.”
If you want to learn more about protecting endangered species, Knowles says WCN can help you find the most impactful programs to support. “Everyone can absolutely make a difference,” he says. “Environmental problems can feel daunting and overwhelming, but there is still a lot of hope.”
Vice President, US Water Alliance
Environmental justice advocate and attorney Sara Aminzadeh has dedicated her entire adult life to addressing environmental threats. She first became determined to tackle climate change as a teenager living in Houston where the air quality was often unhealthy, but her resolve was strengthened in 2020 by the wildfires that burned more than four million acres across CA. She recalls having to drive her infant son to a place where he could breathe air that was cleaner and less hazardous for his developing lungs. “The wildfire smoke was so thick that the sky was orange and dark all day,” she says. “It broke my heart.”
Aminzadeh has helped implement many important environmental reforms over the last 20 years through her work with the US Water Alliance, Pisces Foundation and more. In 2017, she became the youngest person ever appointed to the California Coastal Commission. Keeping pace with the scale and speed of wildfires like the one in 2020 is one of the biggest challenges the Coastal Commission faces in protecting the environment, but there are also rising sea levels, flooding, erosion and other climate change threats that must be addressed.
“Everyone must ask their local, state and federal representative, neighbor, employer and family member what they are doing to act on climate change, and how they can help,” Aminzadeh says. “We need everyone working together to transform our culture and decarbonize our economy before we hit a point of no return.”
Manager, Disaster Response & Risk Reduction, IFAW
Jennifer Gardner is no stranger to disasters. In her role at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), she takes part in challenging operations to rescue animals in the wake of environmental tragedies, including the North Complex fire in Northern California in 2020 and in the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian in 2019. Because animals are often abandoned or forgotten when disaster strikes, Gardner works with communities in vulnerable areas to help ensure that the safety of animals and wildlife is an integral part of disaster planning.
“I’ve been really motivated to think about the role of climate change in disasters and how disadvantaged communities are so often disproportionally affected,” Gardner says. “These are often communities in remote areas that don’t have easy access to resources in the first place. These are places we must focus on; no community can do it alone.”
Gardner brings a quiet energy and sense of calm to stressful and intense events, staying optimistic and patient even when progress seems impossible. She recommends that everyone have an emergency plan for their own families and animals, and she suggests getting to know the wildlife where you live. “Consider how they might be affected by disasters and reach out to local authorities to find out what steps you can take to help them,” Gardner says. “Volunteering, planning and driving awareness for animal safety – these are all critical ways to help.”
NRDC Midwest Outreach Manager
Gina Ramirez, board president of the Southeast Environmental Task Force and Midwest outreach manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), advocates for environmental justice in her Southeast Chicago neighborhood. The area was once heavily industrial, and residents are now fighting industrial pollution that has surfaced after the factories have shut down.
Ramirez has been a leader in this fight since 2014, when she noticed tall black piles of what looked like soot towering several stories high along the banks of the Calumet River. Nine months pregnant at the time, she learned that the piles were petroleum coke, a waste product of the oil-refining process that can have hazardous health effects as the dust wafts from the piles and particles are inhaled.
“The more I learned about pollution in my backyard, the more determined I grew to intervene,” she says. “I have had to become an investigator and zoning policy expert and to learn about the health impacts of various toxic chemicals being released near my neighborhood.”
Ramirez’s on-the-ground, passionate advocacy is not only helping clean up the industrial pollution in the neighborhood but also reforming Chicago’s longstanding land-use policies and industrial permitting process. Because of her work, a permit for an iron factory on the Southeast Side was denied. Ramirez says it’s one of her proudest accomplishments, and one that will change the future of the neighborhood for generations to come.
Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll, Sr.
CEO of Green The Church
Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll, CEO of Green The Church, is a cultural and spiritual leader working to expand the role of Black churches as centers for environmental and economic resilience.
Carroll was inspired to become a catalyst for the environmental movement after reading the book The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones. “Having attended Morehouse School of Religion like my father before me, I had been steeped in the Civil Rights tradition and often contemplated what would be the big tent social issue of our day that my generation would fight for,” Carroll says. “In reading this book, I really felt that I had found the answer. The environmental fight for health and survival of both planet and people is the issue for my generation and those to follow.”
Carroll founded Green The Church in 2009 in Oakland, CA. The organization works with church leaders nationwide to commit to an environmental theology that promotes sustainable practices and helps build economic and political change.
“There is not much that any of us can do individually to hold back the tide of disaster that will come with continued neglect,” says Carroll. “Actions taken by the whole, the collective, the community are ultimately more impactful. It is collectively—and only collectively—that we can make a difference and be used by what is divine. It is a togetherness larger than ourselves that can save humanity’s trek upon this crusted earth.”
Karen Murchie, PhD
Director of Freshwater Research at the Shedd Aquarium
Here are two interesting things to know about Karen Murchie, Director of Freshwater Research at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago: She is happiest when she is in the water, and she believes that all fish species, no matter what they look like or where they live, are fascinating and deserve our appreciation.
In her role at the Shedd, Murchie researches fish migrations in the Great Lakes, exploring how human activities can influence fish behavior and bringing attention to the importance of freshwater fish and their habitats. She was one of more than 570 experts from 97 countries who signed a letter to the UN in 2021 urging greater protections for freshwater ecosystems to prevent a catastrophic loss of biodiversity.
With more than 51% of all the world’s known fish species living in freshwater, Murchie says it’s imperative that we give lakes, rivers, and wetlands the same attention we give the ocean. “You can’t advocate for animals without advocating for their environments,” she says. “I love sharing my passion for the aquatic world with diverse audiences and am very appreciative of learning from others. It is through this connection that I believe we can really make an impact in conservation.”
Northern and Central CA Regional Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation
When she’s not charging 20-foot waves on the California coast, Delia Bense-Kang can be found leading efforts to designate proposed marine sanctuaries, stopping attempts at offshore oil drilling or hosting Surfrider’s weekly “Protect and Enjoy” podcast.
A self-described surf addict who cares deeply about the ocean, the coast and her coastal community, Bense-Kang was first inspired to take action when she learned that the water she surfed in growing up was clean only because of efforts made by the Surfrider Foundation. The organization, which harnesses a powerful activist network to fight for protection of the world’s oceans and beaches, had won a lawsuit against a pulp mill that had been discharging toxic wastewater offshore.
“The case happened before my time, but its legacy inspired me to become a coastal steward at a young age,” she says. “I believe adapting to climate change along the coasts is one of the biggest challenges we face. It’s not going to be easy, but we can save our special coastal places if we act proactively.”
Bense-Kang encourages everyone to join your local Surfrider chapter, follow Surfrider on social media, as they are always sharing “action alerts” that make it easy to make your voice heard, and – most importantly – get in the water. “You’ll always leave the ocean feeling better than when you went in,” she says.
Chief Development Officer, Rainforest Alliance
Growing up in India, Aparajita Bhalla says her favorite time of year was summer, when she escaped to the foothills of the Himalayas. The quiet towns, with their fresh mountain air, long winding trails, great food and bustling markets, felt like heaven on Earth.
Bhalla wishes she could share that experience with her children, but those towns are now buckling under an economic system that puts profit ahead of nature and industry over people. “They look nothing like they did in my childhood,” Bhalla says. “I cannot accept that as the legacy I leave for my children, and that’s what prompted me to join the Rainforest Alliance. It’s an organization that acts with urgency and puts communities at the heart of its work.”
An activist and tireless dreamer, Bhalla says Rainforest Alliance is working to enable a new social and economic construct for the world, once in which people and nature thrive in harmony. As the organization’s Chief Development Officer, she is advancing the concept of shared responsibility in global agricultural value chains. “The job is far from done, but we have made strong beginnings,” she says. “Facilitating a shared vision and roadmap across corporations, donors, governments and communities is critical for addressing the environmental and social challenges the world is grappling with today.”
According to Bhalla, one of the biggest challenges that Rainforest Alliance faces is changing the status quo among businesses, institutions and individuals. “We are always striving to make tangible the somewhat distant consequences of choices made in the here and now,” she says. “Despite daunting challenges, I still believe that if we all commit and work together, change is possible – we can turn this around.”
Dr. Sylvia Earle
World-renowned marine biologist, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, conservationist and author
At 86 years old, world-renowned marine biologist, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, conservationist and author Dr. Sylvia Earle continues to be one of our most inspiring advocates for the protection of the world’s oceans. Named the first-ever Time magazine “Hero for the Planet,” and called “Her Deepness” by the New York Times and the New Yorker, Earle is also former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, founder of SEAlliance, and president and chairman of Mission Blue.
Having spent more than 7,000 hours underwater, led more than 100 expeditions, and authored countless publications, she knows all too well the threats our oceans face — but, she believes there is still room for optimism, and she’s on a mission to spread the message that while time is running out to save our oceans, it hasn’t yet.
Read our Q&A with Dr. Earle here.
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Carrie Ruehlman is a former magazine editor and communications professional turned freelance writer and editor. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her two daughters and husband, Michael. She also serves on the board of The Tiny Miracles Foundation.