Every year, the Alliance for the Great Lakes joins its partners in the Healing Our Waters coalition for Great Lakes Days in Washington D.C. These few days each spring are a chance for clean water advocates to meet with members of Congress and make the case for protecting the Great Lakes. This year, a major theme was connecting the dots between individual people, communities, land, and water—using people’s stories to drive advocacy.  

Protecting the Great Lakes can mean a lot of different things and affects a lot of different people. Bringing those diverse perspectives and voices together makes for a stronger movement. More than 50 groups came together in D.C. for Great Lakes Days last month, with delegations from all eight Great Lakes states.

Two new partners we worked with provided particularly important insight into how federal Great Lakes conservation programs offer benefits that reach far beyond the shoreline.  

Representatives from Friends of the Forest Preserves based in Cook County, Illinois and Junction Coalition, out of Toledo, OH highlighted how federal Great Lakes programs directly contributed to economic development and safer communities. Both groups offer green jobs training, organize community events, and run programs that care for the lakes and surrounding areas.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other federal Great Lakes programs provide crucial funding that makes their work possible. Leaders from each group met with D.C. lawmakers to advocate for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. They shared stories from their personal lives and from their communities, and it was powerful.

We caught up with them after the trip, here’s what they had to say.

Megan Powell, Environmental Specialist at Junction Coalition — Toledo, OH

It’s Megan Powell’s job to connect young people to green job opportunities, design programs to protect the environment, and promote equity in her community. It’s a challenge that she’s taking head on—and it’s paying off, thanks in part to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Junction Coalition’s Junior Inspectors program places young people in jobs that promote conservation and environmental and economic justice. These young people install rain gardens, care for green spaces and maintain bioswales. Junior Inspectors is one of several Junction Coalition programs that uses federal Great Lakes funding to improve their community on several levels.

From reducing costly flooding in people’s basements, to preventing violence, to building youth skills and career readiness—these green youth jobs are a positive force for the whole community.

“Jobs are important. When you have experience, it boosts your self-esteem and helps you believe big things are possible,” Megan said of the program. “This is how we build future environmental leadership and get young people of color plugged in while creating a more sustainable community.”

“Since the young people went to work on the bioswales, we’ve seen a 13% reduction in flooding across the 180 blocks we serve.”

It’s not just young people who have grown through the program. Megan was in the Navy for eight years before getting her degree in environmental sciences and joining Junction Coalition. And it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

She shared that the leadership experience at Junction Coalition has helped her grow and regain confidence as a civilian. Going to D.C. in particular was eye opening for Megan, and extremely empowering.

“When I was on my Navy ship, I was the oil queen—I could run refueling operations in my sleep and talk to any higher ups with confidence. I was an expert,” Megan said. “But when I entered the civilian world, I hit a block.”

“But in the meeting with Congresswoman Kaptur’s staff, everyone was human. We were talking about water. Everyone needs water, from the richest man on earth to the poorest.”

Megan is working on her masters in environmental policy while running the Junior Inspectors program and several other successful environmental efforts at Junction Coalition. She knows that building environmental leadership among young people is not only just, but it’s the only way to sustain the movement.

“It’s not just me, it’s everyone at Junction Coalition making sure we’re giving young people the opportunity they deserve,” she shared.

Here at the Alliance, we’re super excited to watch this program flourish. It’s heartening to see environmental stewardship programs support broader community improvements while creating opportunities for youth.

Brenda Elmore, Senior Crew Manager, Friends of the Forest Preserves — Cook County, IL

“Growing up on Chicago’s south side, I was not allowed to go out in the forest preserve,” Brenda Elmore said. “In my community, the woods were considered dangerous, the outdoors were no place for children to play.”

But later in life, Brenda found her way outside and into a career she loves thanks to programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

After years working with special needs adults and in a salon, she came across an opportunity to be part of Greencorps Chicago—a green industry job training program through the federally funded 21st Century Conservation Service Corps.   

After a rigorous, highly competitive selection process, Brenda was offered a job in the Calumet area where she grew up.

“I found a serene sense of calm in nature at a time I needed to get away,” Elmore said. “It was amazing to get out in the same community I grew up in.”

In D.C., Brenda met with lawmakers to support funding for conservation programs like this and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. She stood up as living proof of the program’s success, and advocated for continuing funding so future generations can have the same opportunity.

In her Conservation Corps role at Friends of the Forest Preserve, Brenda is excited to share her passion with young people of color.

“It’s important to get youth outside, show them there are environmental careers out there for people of color,” she said.

“We need to continue opening up these public spaces, it’s starting to pay off. When I started, there weren’t many people of color in this industry. But now I  see more people outside, at work, and in the environmental conferences that look like me.”

When Brenda met with Senator Tammy Duckworth during Great Lakes Days, the lawmaker was moved by her story. Brenda recalled the look on Senator Duckworth’s face when she heard about the profound impact her conservation program has had both in protecting the forest preserves and in Brenda’s personal life.

“It was eye opening to go to D.C. and meet people who share my values, to tell my story to the Senator,” Brenda recalled. She emphasized a sense of responsibility to share her passion with others.

“When you know better, it’s your job to do better. So that’s what we’re going to do.”