Allies in Environmental Justice

Nelson Institute alumna & staff working to support the next generation of environmental leaders

July 31, 2018

Ashley Lee B.S. Sociology, Environmental Studies Certificate (ESC) 2011, Nelson Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison 

The Nelson Institute strives to be an inclusive community of scholars who share a passion for enhancing the quality of life and the environment in Wisconsin. From professors and students to partners and alumni, the Nelson Institute community includes a diverse group of people working to create real change, something Nelson Institute alumna Ashley Lee is proud to contribute to through her work with Public Allies of Milwaukee.

An alumna of the Nelson Institute Undergraduate Environmental Studies Certificate and the Nelson Institute Community Environmental Scholars Program (CESP), Lee is currently serving as the Director of Public Allies of Milwaukee, part of a national movement committed to advancing social justice and equity by engaging and activating the leadership capacities of young people. In particular, the organization is intentional about recruiting young leaders from diverse backgrounds, whose promise and potential may be overlooked due to hardships or challenges. In her role as Director of Public Allies of Milwaukee, Lee has had the opportunity to put the lessons she learned as a student at the Nelson Institute to work as she supports Public Allies members in their efforts to improve environmental justice.

“When I started school, I didn’t have the language to discuss environmental injustice and food injustice,” said Lee. “But Nelson was an integral part of that change, helping me to act on and communicate about my passion.”

For Lee, the Nelson curriculum and specifically CESP, which is a three-semester program designed for students who want to link their passion for the environment with a commitment to the community, were key in her exploration of environmental justice and her eventual decision to join Public Allies. In fact, as a part of the programming, all CESP students are expected to engage in a service-learning project with a community-based environmental organization. Working with program leaders Dr. Cathy Middlecamp, Dr. Robert Beattie, each student selects an organization that can help them to learn more about environmental justice, food scarcity and policy, wildlife conservation,  transportation equity or another related topic. For Lee, contributing to the larger sustainability efforts on campus and expanding the community of environmental practitioners were key to her mission, so her project focused on founding the Greenhouse Learning Community located in Leopold Residence Hall, on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Now open to 86 students, the learning community serves as a residence for scholars interested in sustainability and sustainable living. Student residents participate in seminars, field trips, shared meals, volunteering opportunities, and have access to a 1,000 square foot greenhouse.  Lee says that the development of this program taught her lessons that she continues to apply today in her role at Public Allies. Among the most important, is the benefit of a diverse community that shares a common goal, which is why Lee is continuously seeking out ways to connect Public Allies with the resources on campus and the programing at Nelson Institute.

In fact, Lee said she generally tries to bring a Public Allies member along when she attends Nelson Institute alumni events to facilitate networking between the two groups who share similar goals in terms of environmental justice. This past year, new connections were made when Lee brought Public Allies member Darrin Madison to a Nelson Institute alumni event. Having attended another university as a freshman, Madison was working with the Public Allies of Milwaukee, while exploring alternative educational institutions. Lee and Madison agreed that exploring CESP and other Nelson Institute programs would be ideal as Madison was looking for a supportive campus atmosphere and programing that would allow him to enter into a green career.

“When Ashley became Director I realized that we shared an affinity for the environment and a green career,” Madison said. “We talked about my future and her time at Nelson. Later, we attended a Nelson alumni event in Milwaukee and Ashley introduced me to alumni and faculty and the different opportunities to get support and be involved on the UW-Madison campus.”

During this event, Madison and Lee also connected with Emily Reynolds, Assistant Director of Community Engagement and Alumni Relations at the Nelson Institute, who invited Lee, Madison and a few other Public Allies members to attend the 12th Annual Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference in Madison on April 23, 2018.  Titled, Up for the Challenge: Innovation for People, Places and the Planet, Lee felt this event was a great opportunity for her group to learn from and create connections with innovators and educators working with the Nelson Institute.

“We were overjoyed with the opportunity to attend the Nelson Institute Earth Day event and connect with leaders all over the world,” said Madison. “We wanted to see how people were using innovation to protect our green space.”

Lee continued, “The food justice panel led by [Nelson Institute Assistant Professor of Environmental Justice] Monica White generated a great deal of discussion about communities. Afterward, Allies talked as a unit about what to do in Milwaukee, starting with simple and sustainable living and what that would look like. We were also interested in the mayoral panel, particularly the fact that the Mayor of Flint was present to discuss what communities need to receive to be successful. Overall, we had a very intentional discussion about the day.”

In addition to a great learning opportunity, Madison found that the Earth Day event was a perfect opportunity to share his project ideas with experts and receive feedback. He also said he made connections that will assist him as he moves forward with the college and career selection process.

Director Paul Robbins spoke with me and shared more about Nelson,” Madison said. “I talked to him about my interest to transfer to UW-Madison and the Nelson Institute and he was very open to discussing opportunities around the world and the green career pipeline.”

For Lee and the other Public Allies members in attendance, the event was also a success as the connections that were made solidified their interest in working with Nelson Institute staff on future projects and outreach activities.  In fact, Lee is already in discussions with Nelson Institute staff regarding future opportunities for collaboration as both groups are interested in growing the diverse community of scholars who share a passion for enhancing the quality of life and the environment in Wisconsin. In particular, they are looking to create more opportunities for Public Allies members to contribute to important discussions like those that took place at the Earth Day event. Additionally, they are exploring new opportunities for Public Allies members to learn about the Nelson Institute and potentially become inspired to attend UW-Madison and join the Nelson Institute community.

“We have a very diverse group of folks who have been thinking about environmental justice and I would love to find opportunities like Earth Day where we can participate and push the boundaries of our knowledge,” Lee said. “There are so many great opportunities for collaboration.” 

 

Photo Credit: Ingrid Laas