1. Evolution at its Best: Expanding what it Means to be an Environmentalist

    June 20, 2019

    By Rebeca Villegas.

    Alliance for the Great Lakes at the IBM Corporate Service Corps Program kick-off, welcoming the consultants that will be joining the organization to develop a long-term green infrastructure maintenance model and supply chain analysis to advance local work force development in Southeast Chicago Left to right: Kimberly Cham, IBM Consultant; Katrina Jucaban, IBM Consultant; Rebeca Villegas, Clean Water Access Affiliate at Alliance for the Great Lakes; Angela Larsen, Community Planning Director, Alliance for the Great Lakes; Gomathi Rajan, IBM Consultant; Kelem Jordão, IBM Consultant.


    As a young professional of color and environmentalist, I have had both the privilege to witness and burden to be involved in the ongoing evolution of the environmental field.

    But before we begin, it’s important to recognize that the plea for expanding what it means to be an environmentalist has been ongoing for several decades with multiple battle wounds as frontline communities fought to preserve their existence and lives from environmental injustices. Fights that are still taking place today. And as these battles continue, traditionally conservative organizations are realizing the importance in taking steps to expand their missions to meet the needs of their constituencies.

    The field is recognizing the need to safeguard people because without the support of communities, environmental advocacy efforts and initiatives are difficult to move forward or implement. As more intentional and collaborative efforts take place, the field is confronting a history of systematic oppression prevalent in the United States that has most impacted communities of color and low socioeconomic communities. Wicked problems that don’t necessarily have easy solutions and challenge organizations to work and think outside of the box. Such wicked problems that can be observed in situations like the Flint Water Crisis and other communities across the nation that are facing drinking water issues due to political decisions and inadequate infrastructure repairs. An intersectional problem that is connected to exclusionary zoning and residential segregation, white flight, disinvestment, market dynamics, and local government structures.

    Whether the evolution of the environmental field is taking place out of moral obligation or strategy as our nation’s demographics shift to minority-majority, one thing is constant–evolution is happening whether we’re ready for it or not.

    Throughout my small, but significant time working in the environmental field, I’ve had the opportunity to encounter multiple organizations that are currently in a variety of stages within their journey to become more inclusive and diverse. And the most common question I’ve encountered from organizations is how do I begin?

    The following recommendations are what I’ve garnered through my experiences that could potentially jumpstart environmental organizations in reaching their goals.

    1. Recognize your power and privilege
      • Whether it be a development team that is helping bring in funds or a communications team that helps elevate issues, every organization has valuable resources. Being able to leverage existing partners are also a key asset.
    2. Do your homework
      • History plays an important role in both approaching communities in a respectful manner and when strategically planning how you could potentially leverage your resources for the benefit of frontline communities.
    3. Expand your mind
      • Understanding globalization and its impacts on local economies, systematic oppression and its direct and indirect effects, unconscious biases and prejudice, etc. all come into play when dissecting problems and finding optimal solutions.
    4. Where there is a will, there is a way
      • Moving away from we don’t do that, to how can we do that is an important mindset. Organizations are often times hesitant to move forward without a set plan, but trial-and-error is okay. There is no one solution to an issue and it’s important to be flexible.
    5. Trust takes a long time
      • It’s important to respect the historical atrocities communities faced and continue to face. Long-term relationships take time and intentionality, but will be extremely fruitful if we want to continue pushing forward environmental and conservation initiatives.

    All of these important factors are possible and can be observed in the Calumet Connect, a cross-collaborative effort among communities groups, municipal departments, academic institutions, and environmental organizations such as the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Calumet Connect seeks to improve business development, outdoor recreation, and public health in addition to promoting local arts and culture in Southeast Chicago. The objective of the collaboration is to ensure community voices are developed so they can shape the City of Chicago’s streetscape design for Commercial Avenue and planning process for the Calumet River industrial corridor. All important factors that help our ecosystems, but will simultaneously provide an opportunity for wins along the way that positively impact the surrounding communities.

    Throughout my time at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, I have witnessed what intentional planning, leveraging of resources, and willingness to shift gears for the benefit of people can potentially achieve. As Calumet Connect embarks on their first year, I look forward to hearing about all the great things that evolve throughout this groundbreaking and long-term effort.

    Rebeca Villegas is a dual degree student pursuing a Master of Science and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan. She is passionate about environmental justice and planning efforts that have the ability to build resiliency among frontline communities in the midst of climate change. Through the Environmental Fellows Program, Rebeca served as the Clean Water Access Affiliate at Alliance for the Great Lakes in Chicago, Illinois thanks to the generous support of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

    LinkedIn Profile