Spring 2023 marked the wrap-up of the second year of iSEE’s Environmental Leadership Program (ELP), the University of Illinois’ first and only developmental program centered on environmental policy and legislative advocacy. Just two years after its launch, ELP students have already achieved success within and beyond the program — contributing to state and local efforts to curb harmful waste, landing top internships in state government, and winning national recognition for their public service.
The ELP grants students a considerable amount of freedom in what types of policies they pursue throughout the entire process. They select environmental issues that spark both interest and passion, and they have the choice to advocate for environmental issues at the State Capitol in Springfield, develop and deliver presentations at Urbana and Champaign City Council meetings, or tackle policies at both the local and state levels.
The 2022 and ’23 cohorts focused on 10 different state bills and three local policy matters covering a wide variety of subjects. Students worked on topics ranging from environmental justice to nuclear construction, microfiber filtration, and housing rehabilitation, among others. Providing students with the opportunity to meet with legislators and initiate discussions on subjects that they deeply care about can spark tangible change at all levels.
Tyler Swanson, part of the 2022 ELP cohort, opted to work at the local level, advocating for the adoption of a plastic bag tax in the city of Urbana. Urbana City Council Member Grace Wilken, who collaborated with Swanson on that effort, said it is always “important to have constituents who reach out,” since public input is often the driving force behind conversations about policy change.
Swanson’s commitment to the cause, however, extended beyond his participation in the ELP. After completing the program, he continued to work with Wilken and Urbana’s Sustainability Officer Scott Tess to advance the project further. Swanson had the opportunity to collaborate and share resources with city officials and present their findings to the Urbana Sustainability Commission.
Urbana’s local government has continued conversations about this initiative. Wilken said the plastic bag tax has general support, but the city needs to find a way to work with the city of Champaign to implement it. “It’s a matter of how we can actually do it, not whether or not to do it.” Swanson feels both proud and optimistic about these efforts, adding that his group was “successful in getting an idea from being just policy on a factsheet to actually getting some strong conversation … at the municipal level.”
ELP students have also seen success with their advocacy efforts in Springfield during the past couple of state legislative sessions. One of the 2023 ELP groups focused its efforts on House Bill 2376 (EPA — Disposable Food Containers), which aimed to ban the use of polystyrene containers in restaurants. The bill successfully passed the Illinois House of Representatives just one week after the cohort’s visit to Springfield.
“It was rewarding to see that the representatives in the House saw (polystyrene production and overuse) as an important problem that needed to be addressed,” said group member Ayden Maza. While acknowledging that his group may have played only a small role in getting this legislation passed, Maza is grateful that he was “able to at least inform legislators about the bill and put it on their radar. Being able to say that a bill I worked on passed the Illinois House is amazing,” he said.
HB 2376 is currently stalled in the Senate until next session, but Senate Bill 58 (Degradable Plastic — Single Use), which requires state agencies and universities to reduce polystyrene use starting in 2025, passed both chambers and was signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in August 2023. The HB 2376 group found it exciting that a bill so similar to theirs was approved by the Governor. As Maza put it, “It’s a good feeling to know Illinois is taking a step in the right direction. Any win for sustainability is a win.”
The program has also been widely beneficial for students’ own professional and academic development. Cohort members have been able to hone their skills and utilize them in other aspects of their lives, finding success as a direct result of these experiences.
Recent Illinois graduate Lucy Nifong, who was part of the 2023 ELP cohort, worked on House Bill 1568 (Right to Recreate), which proposed an expansion of the definition of navigable waters to include water bodies supporting both commercial and recreational use. Nifong said the experience surpassed her expectations, and the skills she learned from the ELP have assisted both her academic and professional careers.
She is currently working as a Dunn Fellow at the Office of the Governor of Illinois, which gives recent college graduates a year of hands-on experience working for different state agencies and units within the Governor’s office. She felt prepared for this role because of the experience she gained during the ELP reviewing legislation, communicating with representatives, and understanding the nexus between state agencies and the General Assembly. Upon completion of her fellowship, Nifong hopes to study environmental law and pursue a legal career in government. Overall, she said, the ELP experience was “invaluable.”
Swanson, who focused on policy as an undergraduate in Agricultural and Consumer Economics, said the ELP gave him a “behind-the-scenes look” at how municipal policy is implemented. Now a master’s student in geography at the University of Arizona, he is still putting his ELP skills to use in his research on environmental policies and practices that can accelerate the transition to a more sustainable economy.
“Policy advocacy is for anybody. All it takes is a little bit of willingness to get out there and contact people,” Swanson said.
Other ELP alumni have been recognized nationally for their efforts. Andres Vazquez, who was part of the ELP in 2022, continues to work as an intern for the program. And in August 2023, Vazquez was named a recipient of the Obama-Chesky Voyager Scholarship for Public Service. Only 100 students nationwide receive this prestigious award, which strives to develop and empower future leaders to create meaningful change.
Vazquez attributes a significant portion of his career growth in public service to the Environmental Leadership Program. “The ELP allowed me to speak for an environmental justice community that has a similar history to my own neighborhood in Chicago. Being able to advocate for these neglected communities launches me further toward a career of helping others through public service,” he says. As a Voyager Scholar, he plans to continue working to help others, especially those who “face insurmountable obstacles toward environmental injustice.”
These success stories will likely multiply as the ELP expands its focus to include corporate sustainability and, eventually, federal policy. In Spring 2024, ELP students will have the opportunity to work with businesses in Chicago that are adopting sustainable practices. The goal is to “get students to engage with leaders in these areas and understand how to advocate and support environmental sustainability,” said Eric Green, iSEE’s Senior Academic Program Instructor/Advisor, who leads the ELP.
Giving students the tools to work on advocacy and the opportunity to do it is a powerful combination, Green said, allowing them to “take ownership of what their future is going to look like. They can understand that, honestly, it’s totally within their grasp to do that. The actual part where students recognize that they have power and can use that to make change is the thing that always excites me.”
— Article by iSEE Communications Intern Kratika Tandon