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First person: 'A forever-transformed tree hugger,' McKinney seeks equity through sustainability

Winter 2016 | By Mia McKinney (B.S. ES ‘11)


There used to be a time when I vehemently professed that I was not a tree hugger. For all practical purposes, that’s what I understood sustainability to mean: recycle, save water, plant trees and turn the lights off when not in use. I came from the inner city of Racine, Wisconsin, and was fairly unaware of sustainable initiatives.

"I was well aware that I
think in a very systematic
way and I still appreciate
analytical approaches to
problem-solving, but I also
knew that I wasn’t going
to arrive at the solution
in a lab or behind a
computer screen. But how?"

My dream, upon acceptance to the University of Wisconsin-Madison via the Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) program, was to become an industrial engineer. I was going to be the innovator who would create the technology to decrease instances of breast cancer in young African American women who were being diagnosed before the age of 50 (the generally accepted age when insurance companies are required to pay for mammograms) and at later stages of cancerous development, often preventing successful treatment.

I spent three years in the College of Engineering, only to discover that I wanted an opportunity to enhance the overall system. That is, I wanted to better understand the disparity among other races of women and the disconnect between African American women and the political and medicinal systems that failed them.

I was well aware that I think in a very systematic way and I still appreciate analytical approaches to problem-solving, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to arrive at the solution in a lab or behind a computer screen.

Nelson Institute alumna Mia McKinney
Mia McKinney

But how?

Well, I would become a lawyer, of course! Which meant I would study political science. And I did that – well, not the lawyer part – but I did pick up an additional major while studying in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Somehow I found my way back to that tree I refused to hug!

The Nelson Institute’s Community Environmental Scholars Program changed my entire outlook on the meaning of sustainability. Unbeknownst to me, it was far more than bees and trees! I realized that sustainability truly is equity among people, animals, places and the environment in which we all dwell together.

I discovered the barrier I continued to hit as a developing engineer was the inability to incorporate the equity component into the system I was trying to create. Still, it took me four more years, after graduating with a double major in political science and environmental studies, to figure out the “how.”

On a wing and a prayer, I relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, in the middle of the Great Recession. I knew my passion, and I maintained an impeccable work ethic, but I had very limited resources and no direction on where to go. Until one day, when I went to a Nelson alumni event in Atlanta and forged relationships with people I met there. These new connections led me to yet another full scholarship – this time, to the Georgia Institute of Technology Master of City and Regional Planning program.

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I’m currently studying as a city/urban planner with emphases in community, housing and economic development. Essentially, I figured out the best way to address disparities among people is to first address their access to basic life services. My “how” is to identify tangible ways to mitigate inequities in access to these services through sustainable approaches to real estate development. With two semesters remaining, I look forward to pushing the industry forward in creating equity in place.

I thank a host of faculty and mentors – including Katherine Cramer, George Johnson, Fiona McTavish, Thomas Browne, Will Clifton, Robert Beattie, Carmela Diosana, Molly Schwebach, Tia Nelson, Ann Swenson, Monica White and Tristin Marotz – who, in their own way, have helped me to figure out my interests, my talents and my opportunities for improvement. They have challenged me and supported me in times when I couldn’t find my way.

They were my tree with many extended branches, connecting me to my purpose in life. I am a forever-transformed tree hugger.


To learn more about the Nelson Institute’s Community Environmental Scholars Program, which recently celebrated five years of student and civic impact, visit

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