Reflections on Healing Our Waters Coalition’s Great Lakes Conference in Detroit

Earlier in May, I attended the Healing our Waters (HOW) Coalition’s annual Great Lakes Conference. It was the coalition’s 14th (and my 4th) iteration of this conference, and this year showed a palpable shift in how things are done, who is invited to the podium and what content is highlighted. The conference booklet describes a shift in their priorities:

“Increasingly, the Healing Our Water–Great Lakes Coalition has been working to ensure that ecological restoration of the Great Lakes means that all of the region’s people can have access to affordable, clean, safe drinking water; to eat fish that are safe and not toxic; to live healthy lives that are not undermined by toxic pollutants and legacy contaminants. We know that healthy lakes and healthy lives go hand-in-hand.”

To put action behind this commitment, the coalition formed its Equity Advisory and Action Committee in 2017. The efforts of the committee and the support behind it were visible as Great Lakes advocates gathered for two days of connection, inspiration and collaboration.

A meaningful demonstration of the coalition’s commitment to equity was shown when HOW leaders decided to postpone the conference from its original dates in October due to an active strike by the workers at the hotel where the conference was to be held. In an act of solidarity with the protesting workers, HOW announced it would not be asking conference attendees to cross the picket line and would be postponing the conference to the spring. A representative from the hotel workers union came to the podium during the conference to speak about the impact of this decision and express their appreciation for this support of their efforts for better treatment and higher wages for hotel workers. While I can in no way take credit for deciding to postpone the conference, I felt proud to be part of a coalition that chose to put aside the cost and inconvenience of changing the dates in order to put action behind their stated values.

The conference took place in Detroit, Michigan and I welcomed the opportunity to return to my home state and the city that has experienced so much struggle, injustice, heartbreak, rebirth, and renewal, and has shown the world its strength and resilience. 

Detroit Statue.jpgI had the privilege of participating in a biking tour that showcased parts of the city that I hadn’t seen since my high school senior trip to Detroit, and other parts that I had never seen before – parts that have experienced dramatic changes over time and are now reawakening with vibrancy thanks to the tireless efforts and inspired vision of local leaders and organized residents. Groups like the Eastern Market Corporation are creating a future where Detroit thrives as a regional food hub with urban farms, food processing centers and markets all within one neighborhood. Community members are working together to create a city that is a desirable place to live and work with affordable housing and active transit, thriving local businesses and economic growth that benefits residents and attracts visitors.

Many of the city’s features serve to highlight the beauty of the natural and human environment, such as the riverwalk that provides access to the city’s waterfront and the murals that express the creativity of local artists and power of the community.

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When I wasn’t pedaling through city blocks or along the two-mile greenway converted from rail to trail, I was connecting with other Great Lakes advocates from around the region like a young man from Cleveland who’s building robots to solve environmental problems and a woman from Flint who’s working to protect Michigan residents against harmful PFAs in their water. I was soaking in the wisdom of speakers like Mustafa Santiago Ali, Monica Lewis Patrick and Carla Walker who spoke on issues of water affordability, organizing for water liberation and environmental justice, and told stories about what happens when community members take action into their own hands when the government fails them. I was basking in the beauty of Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty’s poetry and songs by Detroit’s own Aretha Franklin. This infusion of art and creativity brought a new energy to the experience that I now firmly believe should be welcomed into every stuffy conference room or sterile hotel ballroom.

The conference’s breakout sessions — while always hard to choose between — provided a deeper dive on some of the issues, systems and projects affecting the Great Lakes region. I expanded my toolbox of actionable strategies for proactive, inclusive community engagement with the Delta Institute, learned how non-profit organizations can thrive by mimicking nature’s structures, and was inspired by stories of Detroit residents creating their own solar-powered light when the streetlights were removed from their neighborhood.


Gloria Rivera of Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit speaks about biomimicry for social innovation.




If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the HOW’s annual Great Lakes Conference, it’s that the reception is not to be missed. This year was no different, with a trip to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant where original Model T’s from the 1900s are preserved to showcase Detroit’s automotive heritage and spirit of innovation. While we browsed the antique vehicles, we were entertained by live music from members of the Gathering Orchestra, a program of the Carr Center, and snacked on delicious hor d’oeuvres from local caterers. I tried to soak in this experience and push away the “What the heck did I do to deserve this A-list treatment?” thought lurking in the back of my mind. I remembered the words on biomimicry from Gloria Rivera and thought, “does nature deny the beauty of its flowers or refuse the abundance of its harvests because it’s ‘not deserving’?”…and then grabbed another tiny cup of chocolate mousse and enjoyed the music.

The last session I attended on the second day of the conference featured Kimathi Boothe, Environmental and Climate Justice Co-Chair for the Northern Oakland County Branch of the NAACP. He spoke about various water injustices experienced by residents of Oakland County and the ongoing efforts to mobilize, equip and build capacity, resiliency and resistance in frontline communities to create water warriors and achieve water liberation.

As environmentalists, clean water advocates and justice warriors we are up against big challenges, but there is overwhelming power revealed when passionate people come together around a common vision. I left Detroit feeling reaffirmed that a future of clean water, healthy families and empowered communities is already being realized through our efforts. I’m so grateful to be part of this movement, working alongside great hearts and minds for the future of our Great Lakes.


You can help rebuild community and empower Flint residents by supporting the Flint Community Water Lab



Partnering for Clean Water for All

Last week, we celebrated World Water Day by engaging with partners to address the global theme of leaving no one behind when it comes to accessing clean water. The UN holds the goal of access to clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. But today, billions around the globe still don’t have access to safe, clean water. Marginalized groups – including women, children, refugees, indigenous peoples, disabled people and many others – are often overlooked, and sometimes face discrimination, as they try to access and manage the safe water they need. In order to address the reasons why so many people are being left behind, we must work together with a variety of stakeholders and stand in solidarity for the issues that intersect with clean water and the environment. The importance of local and state level action to invest in the future of our water can’t be understated.


Illinois Sierra Club Director Jack Darin joins partners and Senator Villivalam at press conference introducing legislation for clean water jobs.

Ensuring clean water for all will require smart investments in upgrading and repairing the infrastructure that treats, manages, captures, delivers and protects our water. Recognizing the need for a skilled clean water workforce, State Senator Ram Villivalam introduced SB 2146, which would create a workforce pipeline program that would provide grants and other financial assistance to prepare people for careers in water infrastructure. The program would be used to train more people to tackle critical infrastructure projects for urban and rural communities in Illinois, such as replacing lead pipes and upgrading wastewater treatment facilities. Through equitable job training and hiring, we can empower Illinois’ most impacted communities to address the state’s infrastructure needs with good-paying jobs and long-term investments for future cost savings. Last week the bill passed out of Senate committee and gained two new co-sponsors. Tell your state legislators to join them by co-sponsoring the bill and supporting capital investments in clean water infrastructure.


Senator Villivalam and Illinois Sierra Club Deputy Director Kady McFadden testify in support of the bill.

To be strong stewards of our water, we must feel connected to it. For decades, Chicago has largely neglected its three rivers and prioritized their use as canals to transport the city’s waste downstream. In recent years, more attention has been given to the rivers as potential assets and attractions, pathways through the city and economic drivers bringing investments and development to once ignored riverside locations. This is evidenced by the recent investments in riverside parks, habitat and open space in places like Horner Park on Chicago’s North Side, which has undergone a $5.6 million restoration project that began in April 2014. Improvements include a more natural riverbank, invasive plant species removal, native tree and shrub plantings to combat erosion, a wood chip trail along the water to complement the nature trail at the top of the new bank, a new canoe and kayak landing, and the addition of two acres of riverbank, all through funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.


Youth leaders and students walk along the recently restored riverbank at Horner Park.

On Saturday, volunteers on our Chicago Water Team gathered near the river at Horner Park with our Chicago Inspiring Connections Outdoors program, student groups from two local high schools and Native youth leaders from the Chi Youth Nations Council. Chicago Water Team volunteers engaged the students in hands-on water sampling in the North Branch Chicago River, testing parameters including temperature, pH and levels of dissolved oxygen, phosphate and conductivity in the water. The team regularly monitors the water quality of the Chicago River in various locations throughout the city and will soon be expanding their sampling efforts to the Calumet River. The Chi Youth Nations Council shared the resolution they worked to get passed by Chicago’s City Council which recognizes Chicago as Native land, explained the history of Chicago’s relationship to its waterways and talked about water as an autonomous being deserving its own rights and protection.

The students reflected on the experience as being eye opening, allowing them to put their understanding of Chicago as Native land into more meaningful context, and deepening their learning on testing water quality beyond what could be achieved in the classroom or by reading a textbook. Some of the students who are interested in pursuing a career in environmental studies shared that the experience gave them an opportunity to exercise that interest in that field, and others said that the experience inspired them to think about the importance of clean, accessible water for all. One student shared that she didn’t realize the river was right there, near where she lives, until she saw it up close in Horner Park.

While new connections between people and water are stark along Chicago’s rivers, more suburban and rural areas are also showing promise as community members take it upon themselves to be watchdogs and stewards of their local waterways. On Saturday morning, another group of Sierra Club volunteers came together in North Aurora around their shared commitment to restoring the Fox River. The Valley of the Fox Water Sentinels have been working for decades to protect the watershed and engage other community members in stewardship of the Fox and its tributaries. Saturday’s meeting was used to train volunteers on the Sierra Club’s “Runoff Rangers” program, where local residents monitor ongoing construction projects to make sure they’re following best practices for preventing runoff pollution.

The day before, the 7th annual Fox River Summit brought together a diverse group of stakeholders in Burlington, WI to discuss ongoing efforts to protect and restore the Fox River watershed, which extends through both Wisconsin and Illinois.  There farmers, environmental advocates and wastewater treatment facility operators agreed on the importance of green infrastructure practices and nature-based solutions for reducing nutrient pollution in the Fox watershed, from both agricultural and urban lands. Deputy Director Todd Ambs of the Wisconsin DNR reported on the investments that Wisconsin is making in its clean water infrastructure, mirroring the call Sierra Club and our partners are making for similar clean water investments in the Illinois capital plan currently being discussed by the Illinois General Assembly.

Throughout the state, we’re working with partners to build a strong movement for clean water for all — and we invite you to join us! Join a local Sierra Club water team, find an upcoming clean-up or outing near you, and join us in Springfield on April 10 for Water Lobby Day to advocate for critical legislation to ensure clean water for all. 



Sierra Club Statement on Introduction of the Clean Energy Jobs Act

Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition introduces new legislation to put Illinois on track to achieve 100% clean energy, expand workforce development, and responsibly transition away from fossil fuels

In response, Jack Darin, Director of Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, released the following statement:

“The introduction of the Clean Energy Jobs Act SB2132 (CASTRO) / HB3624 (WILLIAMS) today marks another historic moment for Illinois to lead the response to federal inaction on climate change. This bill was shaped by thousands of Illinois residents who participated in the Clean Jobs Coalition’s “Listen, Lead, Share” campaign, which hosted dozens of community listening sessions across the state in 2018. Sierra Club volunteers across the state worked with coalition partners to convene these sessions, and we heard loud and clear that Illinois is ready for a 100% clean energy future that includes everyone and lifts up those that need it most.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act sets our state on a track to reduce dangerous pollution from fossil fuels, create more quality careers in every corner of the state, and power our state with a strong and equitable 100% clean energy economy by 2050. Sierra Club is proud to join with our partners in the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition and build on the immense success of the Future Energy Jobs Act which is already driving new job creation and training programs in disadvantaged communities and new clean energy investments particularly in downstate Illinois.”

Governor Pritzker Issues Executive Order Signing Illinois onto the U.S. Climate Alliance

Springfield, January 23, 2019 – This morning Governor JB Pritzker signed an executive order making Illinois the 18th state to join the U.S. Climate Alliance.

In response, Jack Darin, Director of Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, released the following statement:

“By joining the US Climate Alliance as one of his first acts in office, Governor Pritzker is showing the world that, even though Donald Trump wants out of the clean energy economy, Illinois is all in. We can and must reach these climate goals, and we know we need to do so in a way that puts our workers and disadvantaged communities first. We know Governor Pritzker shares these values and can unite Illinois in planning for the 100% clean energy future we all want, and that starts today.”


Election Day 2018 brought some big wins for the environment here in Illinois. Below is a summary of Sierra Club Illinois’ work this year. Thanks for all you did to make it such a success!


Sierra Club made a total of 114 endorsements for the general election, and 81% of them won, which is particularly exciting given the larger than number of challengers and open seat contestants we supported.

Endorsed winning candidates included:

All candidates endorsed for statewide office:  J.B Pritzker for Governor, Juliana Stratton for Lt. Governor, Kwame Raoul for Attorney General, and Mike Frerichs for Treasurer

12 out of 14 candidates endorsed for U.S. Congress

16 out of 22 candidates endorsed for Illinois Senate

45 out of 54 candidates endorsed for Illinois House

19 out of 24 candidates endorsed for county offices

We elected 17 new climate and clean energy champions, including:

New State Senators Ram Villivalam (Chicago) Ann Gillespie (Palatine) Rachelle Aud Crowe (Edwardsville) Chris Belt (East St. Louis), New State Representatives Delia Ramirez (Chicago), Lamont Robinson (Chicago), Jennifer Gong Gershowitz (Niles) Celina Villanueva (Chicago), Curtis Tarver (Chicago), Terra Costa Howard (Lombard), Mark Walker (Mt. Prospect), Bob Morgan (Highland Park), Dan Dedich (Buffalo Grove), Joyce Mason (Winthrop Harbor), Anna Stava Murray (Downers Grove), and Maurice West (Rockford), and Karina Villa (St. Charles) – see Karina here  Congrats to all!!!

We beat incumbent climate deniers, coal boosters, and clean energy opponents, including, Bruce Rauner, who boasted of his coal, oil, and fracking priorities, climate deniers Peter Roskam and Randy Hultgren, State Senators Tom Rooney, Michael Connelly,  and State Representative Sheri Jesiel, who opposed the Future Energy Jobs Act, and State Senator Ira Silverstein, who supported 30 year ratepayer subsidies for the proposed Tenaska coal plant, and also opposed FEJA.

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From Resistance to Results

In the early days of 2017, Sierra Club was welcoming thousands of new members seeking to put their shock and outrage at Trump and his agenda to work.  We quickly decided to begin preparing for the 2018 campaign far earlier than ever before, and started recruiting for and training Political Field Teams in each of our 15 local Groups across Illinois to lead our political field work in 2018.  We held 16 of these trainings and kickoff meetings that were attended by 423 people.

Each of these teams filled leadership roles of Recruitment Captain and Data Director, and members were trained in canvassing, phone banking, recruitment, storytelling, social media and the VAN database.  As a result, we had skilled, cohesive local teams in place across the state, in most cases way before we even knew which candidates we would be supporting. This built enthusiasm for a bold agenda and response to Trump, more than any individual candidate in most cases, that proved to be very effective and flexible in directing power wherever it would be needed most as opportunities arose.

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Setting a Bold Agenda

As the destructive scope of the Trump agenda became shockingly clear early in 2017, we aimed high to move Illinois in entirely the opposite direction.  Beginning with listening to our members and allies, for the first time we published a bold agenda for Illinois, 100% In For the Environment, before we even began any consideration of endorsements.  As a result, we set the bar for what it meant to move Illinois forward and resist the Trump administration when it comes to energy and the environment, and candidates responded, embracing and expanding on these ideas in races for local, state, and federal office. Check out our video highlighting the agenda!

Our Biggest Volunteer Effort Ever

Our teams held over 75 volunteer events for candidates (phonebanks, canvases, etc.) in the final two months leading up to election day – more than one event per day for our endorsed candidates! We knocked on 28,697 doors for endorsed candidates, and had 6,013 Voter to voter phone conversations about endorsed candidates.

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JB Pritzker Ran and Won On the Boldest Environmental Platform In Illinois History

JB Pritzker prepares to take over the Governor’s office after a campaign proposing to set a goal of 100% clean energy for Illinois, to replace all lead service lines, rebuild the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and our state’s commitment to conservation, act on climate change, and beef up environmental enforcement. Needless to say accomplishing these will take broad coalitions and significant financial investments, making Pritzker’s honesty about the need for a fair tax and strong support from organized labor potentially keys to building the support and resources to accomplish this bold agenda.

Clean Energy Is A Winning Issue in ALL of Illinois

From north to south, we saw clean energy win on Election Day.

Historically it was not unusual to see statewide candidates talk up clean energy and clean air in northeastern Illinois, and then pledge support for coal in central and southern Illinois.  In 2018 Democratic candidates ran on clean energy and action on climate change everywhere, including southernmost Illinois, central Illinois, and the Metro East. We are thrilled to work with new dowstate leaders like State Senators Rachelle Aud Crowe (District 56) and Chris Belt (District 57) to promote environmental justice and bring the clean energy economy to these communities.

In one of the marquee congressional races in the country, we backed Sean Casten as he was the first significant Illinois candidate to run first and foremost on climate change solutions.  While conventional wisdom suggested Casten run on health care and other important top of mind issues, he always stressed his long commitment to carbon reductions and inspired new levels of activism from our leaders and members in Chicago’s suburbs.

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Candidates Paid a Price For Anti-Environment Positions

Bruce Rauner’s coziness with big coal, his appointment of former polluter lobbyist Alec Messina, Illinois EPA’s poor enforcement record, and his association with a DuPage County company (Sterigenics) that was found to be emitting carcinogens in a residential area all reinforced a core narrative that he was a failed governor. Inexplicably, he was unable or unwilling to benefit from his role in the Future Energy Jobs Act (even though he essentially opposed the bill until he signed it) in a year when clean energy resonated across the state. We’re not aware that he ever uttered the words “renewable” or “clean” energy, but he did rally with several of the same coal barons conspiring with the Trump team to dismantle EPA and many safeguards.

Erika Harold said little about the environment, other than to criticize Kwame Raoul for sponsoring legislation ensuring access to justice for people harmed by pollution, and current AG Lisa Madigan for suing the Trump administration over environmental rollbacks, calling such actions “political”.  The latter gave Raoul a talking point he used frequently to paint Harold as extreme and allied with Trump.

We’re All In This Together:  Building a Bigger Movement to Move Forward Illinois

Sierra Club is committed to building a bigger environmental movement, and join others in advocating for social, racial, economic, and environmental justice.  This fall we joined with progressive allies to put forward a bold, progressive agenda for Illinois, and together we released a poll that shows that over two thirds of Illinois voters support an agenda that includes equality for all, immigration and criminal justice reform, quality health care, gun violence prevention, access to reproductive health care, and 100% clean energy future for Illinois.  We recognize that the future of our environment is inherently linked to the future of workers, civil rights and equality for all, and a more fair and balanced economy. We’re uniting to demonstrate the power of these issues to move voters, and to lay the groundwork for collaboration in 2019 and beyond to enact this bold agenda.

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2,000 Monarch Roadside Habitat License Plate Decal Applications Sent In!

kKu3iMv4T+e9Z1WhIbm6UQWe did it!

More than 2,000 Sierra Club, Illinois Environmental Council, and NRDC supporters came together to apply for the new Specialty Monarch License Plate Decal, raising over $20,000 for roadside monarch habitat and ensuring the decal will be commissioned!

Thank you for your support!

If you’re interested in joining the Illinois Chapter’s efforts to conserve Monarch butterflies and our other important pollinator species, please fill out this form.

Illinois Chapter Sierra Club pollinator web page.

Join the Illinois Chapter Monarch Campaign Facebook Group.


Just $10 to Help Monarch Butterflies!

Get your Monarch license plate decal before the end of September!

Monarch butterflies are critical pollinators that help support biodiversity by carrying important pollens long distances across their migration route. Sadly, monarch butterfly populations have been rapidly declining in North America since 1997. During that time, the Midwestern United States has seen an 88% decline in the number of monarchs, and a 64% decrease in the amount of available milkweed, which serves as the monarchs only egg-laying habitat and food source for monarch caterpillars.

Monarch team image

Fortunately, there is now a fun and easy way that you can help protect monarchs in Illinois through the Secretary of State’s specialty license plate program. For just $10 you may sign up for a monarch specialty license plate decal. Whether or not you choose to purchase a specialty license plate, the funds from the decal sales will go to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to support roadside monarch habitat throughout Illinois!

We need just 76 more people to express interest to get the decal commissioned by the Secretary of State. 1,924 requests have been submitted but we need 2,000 total by the end of September. Once the monarch decal is commissioned, you will receive a letter from the Sec. of State with an opportunity to purchase a universal speciality plate with the monarch decal. You can choose whether or not to do so then. Either way, your $10 will go to help monarchs!

It’s easy!

Download and fill out the form at

  • Write in ‘Monarch Roadside Habitat’ for Name of Specialty Plate Being Requested
  • Write in ‘$10” for Amount Enclosed
  • Write a check to ‘Illinois Secretary of State” for $10
  • Mail to the address listed on the form
  • SHARE the form with friends, family and colleagues.

Together we can make this happen!
Apply for your monarch license plate decal by September 30th! 

Illinois Chapter Sierra Club Monarch Team

**Interested in joining the Team? Please fill out this form.**

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