Inside the ELP: Student Takes Part
in iSEE’s Immersive Experience
iSEE Communications Intern Lucy Nifong is a member of the 2023 Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) cohort.
Here, she chronicles her environmental leadership journey through a series of posts highlighting the ELP immersive experience.
She offers highlights from ELP class sessions, insights from various visiting experts, the team projects the students have taken on, the travel experience to local and state government sites, and other events and lessons she and her cohort encountered throughout the first half of the Spring 2023 semester.
FINAL POST: March. 20, 2023
Visiting Urbana City Council
On Monday, March 13, the ELP students spent the day with our respective teams finalizing our advocacy message to Illinois representatives. To summarize the background, benefits, and potential challenges of each bill, we created one-page fact sheets to hand out. Check out my group’s fact sheet — we emphasized a 2022 Illinois Supreme Court case in which a Justice called for the modernization of Illinois’ water law.
Later that evening, we headed to Urbana City Council to support our cohort members Claire Sullivan and Stefan Iliev, who focused on policies to reduce local food insecurity. They proposed numerous solutions, including changing local bus routes to increase accessibility to grocery stores, and were met with many questions and comments from the council members.
On Tuesday, each team met with Jennifer Walling, Director of the Illinois Environmental Council (IEC), to create a game plan for meeting with representatives at the Capitol. We discussed the most crucial part of our advocacy message and tips for effective communication. My group also met with legislative liaisons for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to discuss why they oppose our chosen bill, HB 1568. I found that understanding why people oppose a policy is just as important as understanding why people support a policy.
Visiting the Capitol
Shortly after arriving in Springfield on Wednesday morning, we walked to the IEC office to eat lunch with Jennifer Walling and her team. They escorted us to the capitol and explained that representatives would be in session until 2 p.m. and committee meetings begin immediately afterward, so our scheduled meetings with representatives would likely be moved or canceled. This turned out to be the case, but luckily the IEC team managed to call representatives from session to briefly meet with our teams.
IEC’s State Programs Director, Eliot Clay, who previously advised our group on legal challenges to HB 1568, called the bill sponsor, Rep. Janet Yang-Rohr, from the House floor to meet with us. Although HB 1568 is unlikely to succeed this year, she was excited that we were spreading awareness of the policy for future sessions. For the next hour, we caught representatives walking through the hall and gave quick pitches on our bill.
After the legislative session ended, we took a tunnel from the Capitol to the Stratton Building to deliver our fact sheet to various representatives’ offices. Our group had an impromptu meeting with the Chief of Staff for Rep. Mike Coffey to discuss why increasing the accessibility of outdoor recreation and supporting the local recreation industry is vital. Over the course of the day, we spoke to a roughly equal number of Republicans and Democrats, which ultimately made us better advocates for our policy.
Visiting Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA)
After our whirlwind of meetings at the Capitol, we had the chance to relax and learn about policy implementation throughout Illinois. On Thursday, we met with IDNR in the morning and learned about each division within the agency. IDNR offices include Water Resources, Mines and Minerals, Law Enforcement, Land Management, and many more. Agency leaders highlighted their unique backgrounds and the opposing goals of rural economic development and environmental protection.
At IEPA, we spoke with Director John Kim and the Bureau of Land Sustainable Materials Management and Compliance Manger James Jennings about the scope and authority of the agency. We learned about IEPA’s relationship to advocacy groups like the Illinois Environmental Council and the Illinois Manufactures Association, and discussed how the agency considers policy feasibility more directly than other groups.
Kim invited the ELP teams to shout out our bill numbers so he could briefly describe IEPA’s stance on each piece of legislation. This exercise was super insightful because we learned about the agency’s day-to-day legislative work through specific scenarios that we had spent weeks researching. He emphasized how IEPA and other state agencies are great places to enter the workforce after graduating because you receive meaningful work right away. Students interested in working at state agencies should consider the Graduate Public Service Internship at U of I Springfield!
I highly recommend the Environmental Leadership Program to any student interested in environmental sustainability and protection, even if you dislike public policy, politics, or law. Policy impacts everyone — whether you work as an engineer or an artist — so people should strive to learn as much as they can, good and bad, about the legislative process.
POST 4: Feb. 28, 2023
On Friday, Feb. 17, the ELP cohort met Jeff Hamilton, the Communications Manager of the City of Champaign Mayor’s Office, who revealed the surprising complexity and diversity of local governments. He compared the two primary forms of local government found in the United States: council-manager form and mayor-council form.
Champaign follows the council-manager form, meaning the day-to-day operations of city government are run by the city manager, an individual professionally trained in government administration. The city council elects the city manager, while the mayor of Champaign serves as one of the nine council members.
Urbana follows the mayor-council form of government, sometimes referred to as strong-mayor form. In this structure, the mayor effectively serves as the city manager and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city. This style closely resembles the three-branch structure of government: the mayor is the executive branch, and the city council is the legislative branch.
On Feb. 24, the ELP cohort met Marissa Brewer, the Director of Advocacy for the University of Illinois Office of External Relations and Communications. She provided us with excellent tips for political advocacy, echoing the messages of previous ELP guests like Jennifer Walling and Alicia Beck. Brewer says the most effective part of advocacy is your personal story: How are you connected to this legislation?
Brewer also highlighted the Student Advocacy Coalition, which like ELP, allows students to learn about the legislative process in-depth and advocate at all levels of government. This organization extends across the University of Illinois system and promotes policies that positively impact university students.
With the advice of our expert speakers in mind, the ELP cohort is revving up to visit the city council and the state capitol. My team met with a staffer for Democratic Rep. Janet Yang Rohr of the 41st District (and our bill’s sponsor) and a lobbyist from the Illinois Environmental Council to examine the nitty gritty details of the bill. We hope to finalize our fact sheet this week and schedule meetings with our local representatives and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
POST 3: Feb. 15, 2023
On Feb. 3, the ELP cohort welcomed Madison Rudolph, the Sustainability Manager at Motorola Solutions in Chicago. She outlined the complicated environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) frameworks that companies use to monitor internal progress toward ethical, transparency, and sustainability goals and report their performance to the public.
Rudolph is responsible for Motorola Solution’s annual ESG reporting. Public companies like Motorola Solutions voluntarily select and rank their most important goals (ex. reducing emissions, creating diversity in the company board, regulatory compliance, and countless others) and publish metrics that reveal their progress toward the prioritized goals. Although many ESG reporting frameworks exist, Rudolph focused on the popular Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), which specifically accounts for materiality: how does ESG information affect investors’ judgement of the company? Companies’ environmental and social behaviors may harm or bolster their reputation, which has tangible financial impacts, so SASB accounts for material information that is not incorporated into normal financial accounting.
Public demand for comprehensive ESG reporting is growing, and most public companies participate in this voluntary practice. Investors, policy makers, agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other firms consider ESG data when interacting with a company. Individuals rely on ESG data to act as informed and conscientious consumers, or in other words, to vote with their dollar.
The following Friday, ELP teams began to research their selected local or state policies and determine who to contact to begin the advocacy process. My group, “Right to Recreate,” will contact our bill’s sponsor to voice our support, discuss the potential impacts of the bill, and learn why some groups may be opposed to it. Next, each group member will individually reach out to the state representative from our own district to advocate for the Right to Recreate legislation. After all, politics is all about making personal connections.
POST 2: Jan. 31, 2023
The Environmental Leadership Program is in full swing! On Friday, Jan. 20, the cohort met at the National Soybean Research Lab for our first of eight weekly meetings. This initial session was perhaps our most important of the semester: We determined the policies we will advocate for over spring break.
The process took longer than anticipated because almost every student was attached to multiple policies, even though we can only join one policy team. We really struggled to let some of them go. In fact, a few pity votes were strategically given to keep policies from getting cut from the final list. I guess environmentalists are sentimental.
If anything, the difficulty of choosing a single policy focus speaks to the vast room for improvement in our state and local environmental regulations. There’s always more work to be done! After multiple rounds of re-reading the policies, debating, and voting, the list of policies we plan to tackle was finalized. From now until spring break, teams of two to four students will research their policy in-depth and develop a fact sheet in support of or against the proposed action.
My group will be advocating for “Right to Recreate” legislation, a bill that would ensure public access to all navigable waterways in Illinois. This legislation would prevent private landowners from restricting access to bodies of water (lakes, rivers, streams) that are capable of supporting commercial or recreational watercraft. I’m excited to support the Right to Recreate bill because it advances both human rights and environmental justice.
Last Friday, Jan. 27, guest speaker Eban Goodstein, Director of the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College, discussed the skills and techniques for successful environmental communication. He emphasized the power of storytelling and the importance of practice, practice, practice. These communication tips will be especially handy when we meet legislators and city council members in March.
POST 1: Jan. 17, 2023
A year after the launch of iSEE’s Environmental Leadership Program, a new cohort kicked off the second year of the program on campus. Students from a variety of majors and backgrounds met for two full days Jan. 12-13 to learn about the policy-making process from local and state leaders. And this year, students were able to gather in person rather than online.
During the two-day intensive, we explored the specific legislative process each bill must go through in the Illinois General Assembly before it becomes law. The intensive focused on strengthening our advocacy and negotiation skills and preparing the cohort to read and track bills during the spring legislative session.
Guest speakers discussed their unique responsibilities as political staffers, lobbyists, legal advisors, and city council members. They highlighted the educational backgrounds and work experience that led them to those positions, giving us insight into different public policy career paths. Hearing their stories was eye-opening and inspiring, and ELP students were eager to ask questions and learn more.
In the coming weeks, the cohort will split into teams to advocate for a specific local or state policy. The policy may be an existing bill or a bill the students design themselves.
Speakers during the two-day intensive included Harriet Hentges, President and CEO, Hentges Associates; Grace Wilkin, Ward 6 representative on the Urbana City Council and member of the Urbana Sustainability Advisory Committee; Andrea Porter, Chief of Staff for state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, and Madam Secretary of AALSCC; Jennifer Walling, Executive Director, Illinois Environmental Council; Mary Hanahan, Deputy Chief Legal Counsel, Office of Illinois Senate President Don Harmon; and Alicia Beck, a member of the Champaign City Council.
A look back at the year before …
In Spring 2022, iSEE Communications Intern Kratika Tandon was a member of the inaugural ELP cohort at iSEE.
Here are her posts about the experience.
Our cohort of 21 students spent Spring Break at the ever-popular vacation destination of Springfield, Ill., for what was easily the most gratifying professional experience I’ve ever had. Allow me to start at the beginning of the week.
As I had mentioned in previous posts, my group was working on HB4093, which is known as the EPA Environmental Justice Bill. However, the bill actually got passed by the House of Representatives just a few days before our trip to Springfield. This meant it would move on to the Senate. But unfortunately for us, the Senate would not be in session while we were in Springfield. We realized that the only thing we could do was find a new bill and somehow manage to get three months’ worth of work completed in less than 48 hours — so that’s exactly what we did.
My group adopted SB3073, referred to as the EPA Great Lakes CCR Protection Bill, which has been a contentious piece of legislation. This bill amends the state Environmental Protection Act such that all coal combustion residuals (CCRs) generated by the electric industry bordering Lake Michigan shall be removed from the site. This bill is referring to the NRG coal plant located in Waukegan, which has been polluting the area since the 1920s. We did extensive research about this bill so we could develop a solid elevator pitch and ensure that we were well-informed. My group also reached out to more than 30 House members from both parties to schedule conversations about this piece of legislation.
Two of the groups in our cohort had local bills, so they delivered their presentations to the Urbana and Champaign city councils on Monday and Tuesday evenings. It was interesting to observe what the legislative decision-making process looks like close to home.
For me, however, the excitement came once we reached Springfield. Being at the Capitol and getting to speak with the people in power, knowing we could make an actual difference, was a crazy feeling. We got to meet with four Republican representatives and four Democratic representatives, including our bill’s chief sponsor: Rep. Rita Mayfield. We had different experiences and conversations with each one of these legislators, but they were all incredibly receptive to everything we had to say. Please view the accompanying video to see how things went with Rep. Marcus Evans.
In addition to being at the Capitol, our cohort also was able to meet with the Illinois Environmental Council (IEC), the Department of Natural Resources, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. I personally found it so cool that we got to speak directly with IEPA Director John Kim.
Something else that I am so grateful for is how close the cohort was able to become after our time together this week. After our first day of lobbying, we went out for dinner and did a couple of bonding exercises, and everyone’s energy and excitement was just infectious. I really enjoyed spending time with my group as well, and I think that we worked very seamlessly together as a team.
Of course, this program would be nowhere without our instructors Eric Green and Paul Gharzouzi, and our resident media specialist Mark Herman, who always did their absolute best to ensure that everything ran smoothly. And all of us students are all grateful to the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund for sponsoring the ELP trip to Springfield.
I would also like to shout out IEC Executive Director Jen Walling, who helped organize all of the meetings and guided us around the Capitol. This was truly an unforgettable experience, and I am beyond grateful that I got to be a part of the very first program.
It’s the last week of the Environmental Leadership Program, and our trip to the Urbana and Champaign City Councils and the State Capitol in Springfield will kick off in a few days. The past couple of weeks kept us very busy: Our groups have put the final touches on our policy proposals. The bill that my group is working on is known as HB4093, or the EPA-Environmental Justice Bill. This legislation was passed by the Illinois House of Representatives after a series of readings and is now making its way through the Senate. In Springfield, we will meet with legislators to discuss supporting the bill.
We’ve also been busy meeting new speakers as well. This past Friday, we heard from Marissa Brewer, Director of Advocacy at the University of Illinois’ Office of Governmental Relations. Her presentation was especially insightful because she gave advice on what to expect when we have our short meetings with our legislators. Brewer gave us basic tips on how to speak with them and what we need to have prepared.
Overall, it’s been a great few weeks — and we look forward to wrapping up this experience. Thursday, March 17, will be our final day of presentations, and we plan to conclude the program with a banquet for students and staff to celebrate the launch of the very first version of the ELP.
Stay tuned for a final post within the next week or so!
We’ve just completed Week 5 of the Environmental Leadership Program! Groups have been working diligently to formulate their policy proposals. As previously mentioned, my group is working on an EPA Environmental Justice bill and the main thing on our agenda is completing our research. We also plan to reach out to political leaders at Springfield ahead of our visit to the Capitol in hopes of getting more professional advice as we continue with our progress.
These past couple weeks, students also had the opportunity to meet with two individuals from local governments who have taught us a lot about how the policymaking process works at this level. Last week, Scott Tess, the Sustainability Manager & Resilience Officer for the City of Urbana and also a member of the Resilience SWATeam made up of campus and community members, came in to work with the groups that are working on local policy proposals. Tess helped them gain a basic understanding of what goes on behind the scenes and answered any questions that they may have had.
The following week, we heard from Jeff Hamilton, the Communications Manager in the Champaign City Manager’s office. Hamilton discussed mayor-council dynamics at local government levels and provided us real-time examples from the city of Champaign. Needless to say, we’ve had a busy couple of weeks!
We are now in Week 3 of our meetings for the Environmental Leadership Program. So far, the students have been meeting in smaller groups to organize ideas for our policy proposals. We have also had the opportunity to hear from more guest speakers from different professional backgrounds.
During our first weekly meeting, we heard from the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Brandon Derman, who discussed the struggles for climate justice and how uneven geographies and the politics of connection play a big role. Last week, we heard from Eban Goodstein, Director of the Center of Environmental Policy and the MBA in Sustainability at Bard College. He gave us insights on solutions to environmental issues from communications and economic standpoints. Both of these presentations were incredibly insightful and beneficial to us as we continue with our policy work.
The general objective of this program is for students to select a piece of legislation on the local or state level that we wish to pursue. After our bill is determined, we spend the rest of our time conducting extensive research and formulating a short presentation. Once we head to the government buildings in Urbana-Champaign and Springfield, we will be able to present our proposals to local and state government decision-makers.
The group I’m in is working on a state-level EPA Environmental Justice bill that focuses on defining environmental justice communities and providing these groups with the ability to access resources. That’s all I can disclose so far — to hear more about what we’ve been working on, don’t forget to check back in for my next posts on this blog!
The Environmental Leadership Program has just begun, and it’s off to a great start! At the end of winter break, our class met over Zoom to get to know each other and discuss potential policy proposal ideas.
During these first two days of intensive training, we received a crash-course on the basics of environmental advocacy and a comprehensive explanation of what is expected from this program.
We also had the opportunity to hear from guest speakers from a variety of legal, political, and advocacy-based backgrounds at local, state, and even international levels.
The presentation by Illinois Environmental Council Executive Director Jennifer Walling was especially insightful. She explained her duties of administering the strategic direction and management of the council. The organization works to draft, lobby, and pass bills that focus on implementing environmentally responsible legislation within the state. Her real-life experience was particularly interesting because Walling is involved in policy advocacy in Springfield, which is exactly what we will be working on this semester.
Other speakers during our two-day intensive: Grace Wilkin, Ward 6 Representative on the Urbana City Council; Andrea Porter, Legislative Assistant for state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana; Clara Feng, Senior Fellow at Citizens’ Climate International; and Ashley Stead and Mary Hanahan, Senior Legal Counsels at the Office of Illinois Senate President Don Harmon.
Stay tuned for more posts documenting the ELP experience first-hand!