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Inspiring Environmental Leaders

Inspiring Environmental Leaders

On behalf of our partners on this project U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Learning Farm, and each participating youth; we thank you for visiting this installment of Inspiring Environmental Leaders! A special thanks to ICG volunteer Simone Balog-Way, who helped us create the text on the banners.

Please take some time to read through these outstanding reports, written by youth in our community, to learn more about the lives and passions of the leaders we’ve featured on each banner. May these leaders serve as an inspiration in your environmental pursuits! 

If you have any questions or comments, please email our Communications Coordinator.

Learn more about Will Allen

Report by Rossi Livingston, 5th Grade, Belle Sherman Elementary School

Will Allen was born on February 8, 1949 and is currently 71 years old. He has three children Erika, Jason and Adrianna Allen. He is 6´7 and wrote a book: The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities. Will has an education from: University of Miami, Richard Montgomery High School, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Will used to be a professional basketball player but he retired in 1977 when he was 28 years old. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Will Allen is the founder and CEO of Growing Power, Inc., a farm and community food center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is widely considered the leading authority in the expanding field of urban agriculture. He grew up on a small farm where his parents had moved after sharecropping in South Carolina.


The 1990s in urban Milwaukee was very unkind to its young Black men. In this period of time there were four times as many African Americans arrested annually for drug-related offenses as white men.

In 1993, Allen bought the city’s last remaining farm at 5500 Silver Springs on Milwaukee’s north side. Will Allen, a son of sharecroppers who grew up on a farm in Maryland. Growing Power’s expansion can be attributed, in part, to the MacArthur Genius Award Allen received in 2008, and the half-million-dollar prize that came with it. It also garnered high-level attention from the media, the food world, and former President Clinton.

Where most people see vacant lots, Allen saw vegetables. Growing Power built over 100 hoop houses, each one spread with more than 100 yards of compost over asphalt and concrete. “You have to assume every vacant lot has contaminants in the soil,” he said. “So that’s why I started this practice of composting at scale.”

In the early 2000s the local food movement was no longer localized.

There were more hoop houses, greenhouses, more kitchens and training gardens, fish, chickens, turkeys, goats, and bees. Most of what was raised on the farm was also packed, distributed, and promoted by the organization. By all accounts, Growing Power was doing exactly what they had wanted out to do.

Educational programs spread throughout the region. There were leadership programs, job training for underserved youth, internships, and hands-on workshops. The funds also supported a Chicago chapter of Growing Power, led by Erika Allen, Will’s daughter.

If you want to read more about Will Allen I leave the links right here 🙂

Visit Civil Eats

Buy The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Community from Buffalo Street Books

Learn more about Alvaro Ugalde

Report by Paxon Núñez, 3rd Grade, Belle Sherman Elementary School

Alvaro Ugalde helped people understand that water was scarce. He created a culture of thinking about water. He wanted people to learn about the Earth and ecosystem. Alvaro retired from public service, and he stayed active to help Costa Rica’s 26 national parks, and he saved 45 years of his life to work in Costa Rica as the founder of Nectandra.

Alvaro grew up in a village inside of Costa Rican volcanic mountain range. His father was a road engineer who talked about the importance of environmental preservation with him. His upbringing and his years in school made him passionate. And the respect for all nature and for the different people, learning much love for nature at a young age. He was driven into a school to learn some biology, and soon got a masters degree in natural resource management of the school in Michigan.

He also valued the importance of work in manual jobs. In Georgia the jobs helped him learn really good English, a good skill that helped him, that pushed him through many problems during his life as well as given him the chance to explain nature projects to conservation groups and major donors alike.

Alvaro continued to advocate for more work to suggest the preservation of the parks, and the end of his life even as his development pressure and golden planners put the park systems in the danger of extinction- a total of 166 protected areas both public and not, now protect Costa Rica’s national parks and resources.

One of the most important phrases he has said is “Thank you.” he did not think about saying it as a response to a small thing or big ones, something important or trivial, Alvaro did not hold back from showing his feelings. This helped him to endear so many things.

Then in 2012 Alvaro was happy and amazed the park grew a giant Ajo tree for him at Piro, at the edge of the Corcovado national park. He too made clear his wishes to have some of his ashes placed in the roots of the tree, when his time came. When Ann, his wife, died in 2014, he asked if some of her ashes could be placed in the roots of his Ajo tree so that him and Ann could join hands in time under his Ajo tree.

Nobody knew that Alvaro’s tragic death was to happen so soon, now both of them rest in the parts of the giant Ajo roots. Alvaro’s home is a Costa Rican home it was built by his father to take care of four children in the Zapote place of San Jose when it was still coffee plantations which did bad things to the Earth.

Alvaro Ugalde died of a really bad heart attack in his home really close to San Jose one day before his 69th birthday. As a nature leader who founded the Costa Rican national park system now covers 25% of his country’s land service. He devoted half of his time as a good volunteer. Alvaro was a pioneer in the yard of conservation. And fascinating to people who knew him.

The OSA Conservation with hope from the Blue Moon Fund, have made two funds to support the memory of Alvaro and to continue his work. The fund provided scholarships to young people from Costa Rica and around the world. Alvaro Ugalde’s work helped the Earth and I hope that lots of people still remember him.

Additional Reading

Learn more about Andrea Chu

Report by multiple youth: CCE 4-H Urban Outreach Northside Teen Program

Andrea Chu is interested in environmental justice as it impacts Asian American communities. She is working to include Asian voices and values in the Environmental Justice Movement where there is little to no representation of Asian Americans. Because Asian voices are often not included in the environmental justice movement, stereotypes of Asian people, countries and values are defined by other people.

Andrea Chu formed Chicago Asian Americans for Environmental Justice (CAAEJ) that educates and empowers Asian American residents on environmental justice issues in their communities.

The group offers soil tests and educates people about the environment, food and water safety. Her work is important because the lack of representation leaves Asian Americans without a voice and no way to advocate for a healthy environment to grow food for their families.

She is a role model because there are so few Asian American environmentalists and activists even though many Asian American families garden and grow food for their families.

Andrea Chu is inspiring because she is working to build coalitions that educate and include Asian American values and perspectives in the Environmental Justice Movement to ensure clean air and soil for everyone.

Andrea “Chuey” Chu is the Chicago and Midwest Regional Organizer at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago, where she coordinates the A Just Chi program and supports organizations across the Midwest on building power in Asian American communities.

Chuey was previously a Midwest regional organizer with Food & Water Action fighting for clean air and water. She founded Chicago Asian Americans for Environmental Justice and is the Editor-in-Chief of Chrysanthemum: Voices of the Taiwanese Diaspora, an anthology of stories, essays, poetry, and art by creators of Taiwanese heritage.

Additional Reading

Learn more about Christa Núñez

Report by the Grrrls of ICG’s Gaia Circle

Christa is a woman, farmer, educator, and a passionate advocate for food and social justice who lives right here in Ithaca! She is the co-owner and founder of The Learning Farm and founder of Khuba International, Quarter Acre for the People, a project of Khuba, and CAN Cooperative Media. While each are local organizations, the first three provide access to nature and produce to Black Indigenous People of Color especially.

Christa grew up in Michigan, in a college town similar to this one, which drew people from many walks of life. Growing up she had lots of friends in her melting pot of a city that exposed her to many different experiences and cultures. The idea for The Learning Farm began while she and her husband were living in California. They did not have their own land, but would nurture partnerships with local farms and farmers in order to allow their students to learn how to grow their own food and feel comfortable being on the land.

Christa and her young family moved to Ithaca, New York after finding the perfect piece of land to advance their work. At The Learning Farm, they grow diverse foods that are faithful to what the land is accustomed to growing, and encourage children to find their place in the natural world by understanding the processes of nature, how food is grown, how animals and land are cared for, and how the seasons impact growing, in addition to many other valuable teachings

Christa believes in creating an equitable and sustainable world for children, so they can do the same for the generations to come. She encourages each of us to reach out to our neighbors, to make friendships and connections that build a stronger community.

Learn more about George Washington Carver

Report by Frida Jefferis, 6th Grade, DeWitt Middle School

George Washington Carver was a scientist, inventor, agriculturalist, teacher, mentor, and without him life would be different. He discovered methods of soil improvement and taught them to poor southern farmers, helping plants to grow and life to flourish.

George Washington Carver is inspiring to me because he helped kids who were malnourished by teaching people how to plant their own food and how to help them grow faster.

George Washington Carver was born a slave near the end of the Civil War, around 1865. His father died in an accident before he was born, and his mother was kidnapped by one of the many bands of bushwhackers that were in Missouri at the time. A neighbor of the slave owner was hired to find him and his mom, but only succeeded in recovering George.

He was taken in by Moses and Susan Carver, where he learned how to cook, mend, do laundry, and embroider. As a result he also developed an interest in plants. At eleven years old, he traveled eight miles away to attend a school for people of color.

Carver eventually entered Simpson College, a small Methodist school in Indianola, Iowa. While at the College, he studied grammar, arithmetic, etymology, voice, and piano. He decided to stay on as a graduate student. He worked with L.H. Pammel, a mycologist, Carver honed his talent at identifying and treating plant diseases. Carver got a Master of Agriculture degree in 1896 and instantly got a lot of offers to teach at schools. He accepted a request to teach at Tuskegee Institute.

Carver fervently believed that his training as an agricultural scientist had prepared him for Tuskegee. But in reality Carver was not prepared for Tuskegee. He came from the North to teach “scientific agriculture” to southern farmers who believed they already knew how to farm.

Many on the faculty resented Carver’s exorbitant salary of $1,000 a year plus virtually all expenses for a man who did not have a family. At the time, the average salary for a Tuskegee faculty member was less than $400 a year.

Carver expected that as director of the newly created Agricultural Experimental Station he would devote most of his time to research. Booker T. Washington who had request him to teach there, was not hostile to research, but he also expected Carver to manage the school’s two farms, teach a full schedule of classes, serve on numerous committees (a chore Carver particularly disliked), and sit on the institute’s executive council as well as insure that the schools water closets and other sanitary facilities functioned properly.

He complained regularly about the classes but Washington did not give in. Washington’s successor, Robert Russa Moton, who took over in 1915, was more accommodating, relieving Carver of all teaching except summer school.

George Washington Carver believed he had a mission to use his training as an agricultural chemist to help improve the lot of poor black and white Southern farmers. He did this by teaching farmers about fertilization and crop rotation and by developing hundreds of new products from common agricultural products.

Later in his life Carver became very interested in chemurgy (“chem” from chemistry; “urgy”, Greek for work) movement. The term was used to describe scientists, agriculturalists, and industrialists who were determined to put chemistry to work to find nonfood uses for agricultural surpluses. Carver dedicated his entire scientific work to the goals later advocated by the chemurgy movement.

Carver’s laboratory at Tuskegee, almost from the beginning of his stay at the Institute, developed hundreds of new uses for agricultural products. The need for this resulted in part from Carver’s initial success in increasing agricultural productivity on the cotton-depleted, tired, old soils of the South. On the ten-acre experimental station at Tuskegee Carver was able, by using good farming practices and rotating soil-enriching plants like cowpeas and beans, to increase dramatically soil productivity.

Carver’s successes with planting legumes of course led to his encouraging Southern farmers to turn to these crops. This became even more urgent with the devastation in the early 20th century of the cotton crop due to the boll weevil. But if Southern farmers were to be convinced to grow crops other than cotton (or other traditional staples such as tobacco and rice), there had to be a market for peas, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and the like.

This need pushed Carver into the laboratory to work on finding alternative uses for these products. From sweet potatoes, for example, came a raft of new products: flours, starches, sugar, a faux coconut, vinegar, synthetic ginger, chocolate and such non-foods as stains, dyes, paints, writing ink, etc.

But it was the peanut which made Carver famous. The peanut attracted his attention because it is easy to grow, it enriches the soil, and it is a ready source of protein, an especially important consideration since poor black farmers could not afford meat. From the peanut Carver developed a host of new products: most notably milk, but also butter, meal, Worcestershire sauce, various punches, cooking oils, salad oil, milk and medicines as well as cosmetics such as hand lotions, face creams, and powder. All together, he discovered more than 300 food, industrial, and commercial products from the peanut.

Booker T. Washington, who was frequently at odds with Carver, never wavered in his belief that Carver’s “great forte is in teaching and lecturing. There are few people anywhere who have greater ability to inspire and instruct as a teacher…” Carver was not a great speaker. He had in fact a rather high-pitched voice. But he was a showman who frequently used dramatic examples and humor to make his points. Most importantly, his success as a teacher stemmed from his obvious enthusiasm for his subject, which was an appreciation of the wonders of nature. It did not matter whether the formal topic was chemistry, botany, or agriculture, for all of these subjects meant studying how to use nature for the benefit of man.

Carver died on January 5, 1943, at Tuskegee Institute after falling down the stairs of his home. He was 78 years old. Carver was buried next to Booker T. Washington on the Tuskegee Institute grounds.

Soon after, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed legislation for Carver to receive his own monument, an honor previously only granted to presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The George Washington Carver National Monument now stands in Diamond, Missouri. Carver was also posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. I believe that without George Washington Carver we would live in a very different world.

Additional Reading

Learn more about Katsi Cook

Report by Miranda Mangaraj and Raquel McGarry

Sherrill Elizabeth Tekatsitsiakwa (Katsi) Cook is a Mohawk midwife from Akwesasne. She has spent her life advocating for and practicing traditional Indigenous birthing methods, and educating about the environment through the lens of women’s health. She is well known for the Mother’s Milk project, a study of Akwesasne women’s breastmilk in relation to PCBs and other pollutants. Her work and beliefs focus on the similarities and connections between women and the earth, systematically, environmentally, and spiritually.

In an environmental movement that is so often co-opted by elite white institutions and people, her use of ancient Indigenous knowledge and awareness of the intersectionality between women’s rights and environmental rights solidifies her activism as inspiring, and a vital force in the fight for land sovereignty and climate justice.

Sherrill Elizabeth Tekatsitsiakwa (Katsi) Cook was born on January 4th, 1952. She grew up in Akwesasne, an indigenous community located on the U.S. Canada border at the St. Lawrence River. She attended a Catholic high school and went to Skidmore College and Dartmouth. She ended up dropping out, and focusing on acquiring Indigenous knowledge. She began her life’s work as a midwife in 1977.

Katsi Cook is an advocate for the restoration of Indigenous birth practices and using Indigenous knowledge in relation to women’s health. Her work highlights the intersection between women and the earth; she believes that women and the Earth are closely tied together, as both are givers of life, and both are systematically mistreated.

In the early 80s, Cook launched The Mother’s Milk project, after a mother at Akwesasne asked her if it was safe to breastfeed. Canada has stated that out of 63 Indigenous communities, Akwesasne is the most contaminated in regards to PCBs and pollutants. Her knowledge of midwifery and the environment through Indigenous knowledge and practices were showcased in this study, as she illustrated the connections between women’s breastmilk and the contaminants in the water. This was the first study at a Superfund site that researched human health.

She has also worked alongside the Inuit of Kavungnatuk, among other Indigenous peoples, to restore the practice of Midwives in their community. Cook currently serves as program director for First Environment Collaborative at Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a program that helps Indigenous people meet immediate survival needs. She also serves as the director of the Spirit Aligned Leadership Program, a program designed to empower and elevate the lives of Indigenous elder women.

Additional Reading

Learn more about Makaśa Looking Horse

Report by Chloe Núñez, 6th Grade, DeWitt Middle School

Makaśa Looking Horse is noteworthy because she led a protest meant to stop Nestle’ from taking water from Six Nations, the Indigenous tribe known as the Haudenosaunee. She is a water activist.

Water activists are people who protect different water ways. Makaśa Looking Horse is a young water activist along with many other amazing water activists.

Did you know that World Water Day is March 22. Some places do not have clean water to drink such as Flint, Michigan and some water activists are trying and fighting to stop this. Sometimes there are protests for water to stop bad companies from taking water from the Six Nations. The Global rate of evaporation is increasing because of climate change.

Some water activists are trying to stop this. Water is used for many things that help us live clean and healthy lives. Water can help us clean ourselves, stay hydrated, stay healthy, and have fun. This is why some water activists are trying to save water.

We can help them by going to protests that raise money to protect water. We can also ride bikes, walk, or get electric cars to stop climate change. The Lakota are focused on protecting water as well as their language.
Did you know that she:kon in Mohawk means “greetings” or “hello”. Makaśa got to speak at both the 2018 and 2019 McMaster Indigenous Health Conferences.

Makaśa is inspiring to me because she is a teen activist and there are not many teen activists. Many young women are fighting to stop companies from taking water from bodies of water. Indigenous people think that water is life, I agree because water sustains us and helps us grow. Makaśa is the daughter of Chief Arvol Looking Horse the 19th.

Makaśa Looking Horse is a student at McMaster University. Her first name means Red Earth. She is Mohawk Wolf clan and Lakota. The Lakota are an Indigenous tribe who’s chiefs fought for the freedom and rights of their people.

The Lakota are located in North and South Dakota. They are one of the first original Indigenous tribes who inhabited North America before the arrival of Europeans. They are also called Teton Sioux. There are also tribes called the Dakota in Minnesota and Nebraska. There is also a tribe called the Nakota in North and South Dakota and Montana. The Lakota lived in Teepees when they followed the buffalo. In the middle of the 1600 and 1700 the Ojibwa forced the Lakota to move west.

Soon the Europeans started fights with the Indigenous people and the Indigenous people started breaking treaties with the other tribes. In the 1700 they got horses and flourished in hunting buffalo in the plains of Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas. In present day the Lakota help to fight for water.

Mni is a Lakota word for water. The Lakota have been a big part of protecting water. The Lakota have also fought to stop pipeline construction within their land. This is why Makaśa is an amazing person who has fought for water and her people.

Additional Reading

Learn more about Rue Mapp

Report by Stella Sapp-Dietrich, 8th grade, LACS
Social Justice Initiative at Youth Farm Project

Rue Mapp is the Founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro. Outdoor Afro was founded to connect more people within the Black community to the outdoors, as well as the benefits of being outdoors.

Rue was born in Oakland, but her parents had a ranch in Lake County. It made her feel like she lived in two different worlds, giving her a very unique childhood.

Rue created Outdoor Afro in the hopes to redefine Blackness in the wilderness. Her company connects more than 130,000 BIPOC people to the outdoors everyday. Her and the company she has created continue to fight to protect the outdoors and redefine Blackness in the outdoors.

Learn more about Mari Copeny

Report by youth of CCE 4-H Urban Outreach West Village Program

We were so delighted when Mari Copeny was chosen as a featured environmental leader. Her story resonates so much with young people, because Mari herself is very young, showing youth worldwide that your voice and story can make an impact at any age. We reached out to Mari’s team to ask them for permission to create a banner featuring her image and because we did not hear back, we decided to err with safety in mind and not create one, or feature an image on our website.

We still wanted to honor the effort and hard work of the young folks at 4H, and have added their essay in full.

Mari Copeny wrote a letter to President Obama in 2016, when she was only 8 years old, telling him about the water crisis in her hometown of Flint, Michigan. Her letter got the President to visit her and pledge money to help Flint solve their water issues. Now she is 13 and she has created her own water filter and bottled water distribution to continue to help her community and expand to helping other communities with water crises across our country.

Mari Copeny knew she wanted to be an activist when she was 4 or 5 and did not wait to set her dream into motion. She uses her voice to speak out for the problems she cares about like environmental justice, youth engagement, and being anti-bullying. And at age 13 she’s already been a youth ambassador to the Women’s March on Washington and the National Climate March. Plus she is part of the Flint Youth Justice League and the MDE Anti-Racism Student Advisory Council.

Mari Copeny is inspiring because she shows us we have the power to speak out and follow our dreams even at our young age and that we can use our voices to make a difference where we see wrong, like she does with environmental justice.

Mari Copeny, “Little Miss Flint,” is a 13 year old environmental, youth, and racial justice activist. She is growing up in Flint, Michigan and when the water crisis hit and her family was getting rashes in 2016, she wrote a letter to President Obama to say there was something wrong and her community needed help. Since then she has become a public figure, inspiring changes and bringing attention to drinking water problems across the nation.
Mari Copeny also has her own website and is very vocal on social media, standing up for the issues she cares about.

She partnered with a company to create her own water filter to cut down on bottled water consumption and save the environment. And Mari already plans to run for President in 2044, a discussion which prompted a youth at 4H to say he wants to run for Vice President with her.