McKinney Climate Fellows reflect on summer of sustainability and climate action
Thursday, September 01, 2022
After a summer of climate action, McKinney Climate Fellows returned to their respective Indiana University campuses this fall for the start of the academic year. They bring with them new knowledge, new technical skills, and an expanded perspective on career opportunities in climate and the environment.
This year’s McKinney Climate Fellows included undergraduate and graduate students studying the natural sciences, law, environmental policy, and philosophy, among other areas of study. What united them was a desire to address climate change in the Midwest and contribute to the Hoosier State’s resilience against its impacts.
Part of the McKinney Midwest Climate Project, the McKinney Climate Fellows program is administered by the IU Environmental Resilience Institute and received support from the McKinney Family Foundation, IU Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Council, Honda, Interface, and individual supporters in 2022.
As fellows, the students were placed with private businesses, nonprofit organizations, and local governments seeking to develop and implement sustainability and climate resilience projects. This year’s program placed students at 20 nonprofits, 11 local governments, and 7 private corporations.
For Ava Hartman, a rising senior studying environmental sustainability and biology and environmental management, a summer spent developing a tree planting plan for the City of Terre Haute was an opportunity to learn directly about urban forestry and the role of natural infrastructure in fighting climate change.
Hartman was instrumental in helping Terre Haute identify priority areas for tree planting. The internship took place in conjunction with the city’s participation in ERI’s Resilience Cohort program, which included a module on urban green infrastructure and tree canopy health. Hartman also learned how to use ArcGIS software to map out the city’s priority areas.
“One of the big things that the program focused on was equity and community outreach in government work and creating a bridge of trust,” Hartman said.
“A majority of my summer included getting a feel for the community by talking with residents about what was important for them to have in the plan, including conducting an analysis of environmental and social factors, before helping map out priority areas of the city for planting.”
One lesson Hartman learned from her experience was the importance of engaging community members in climate policy and action.
“Having the practice of talking to community members and learning what was important to them and how this work connected their values and morals with climate action was a game changer for me.”
For Barbara Dale, a dual master’s student at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, a summer spent assisting the City of South Bend with climate action planning reaffirmed her career goals.
Dale was among six fellows who helped Indiana cities develop climate action plans in 2022. She also assisted South Bend in two other areas of work: telling local sustainability stories and exploring funding options for future work within the city.
“This summer has really helped solidify that this is the kind of work I am interested in and love to do,” Dale said. “Looking at a city as an ecosystem of people and learning how to move pieces around, build real relationships to make things happen, and see that tangible impact play out was a great experience.”
Dale’s work in South Bend not only honed the city’s plan for reducing local emissions, but also contributed to the way the city talks about climate change with residents in an effort to make climate and resilience initiatives more accessible.
“Even if they don’t call it climate action planning, if they’re planting trees or managing a community garden, these are people around the community that are working on climate resilience,” Dale said. “The impact of this work really came through when I had a local woman tell me she felt empowered to talk about climate change after reading our new communications material with more plain language.”
For Erin Depke, a junior studying computer science along with earth and atmospheric sciences, a fellowship with the Indiana Forest Alliance (IFR) was an opportunity to apply her computer and data science skills in the fight against climate change.
“There’s a spot for tech everywhere,” Depke said, “and it was cool to find that within the context of a nonprofit working to prepare communities for the impacts of climate change.”
Working remotely, Depke helped create and retool IFR’s internal systems and databases to help the organization better pursue its mission.
“This is really at the core of how the organization functions and having that information in a user-friendly format can help them raise more money for their projects in the future,” she said.
The professional connections Depke made while working with the statewide nonprofit also added value to her experience.
“You just need a lot of different people with various skills in this giant fight against climate change,” she said.
Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute brings together a broad coalition of government, business, nonprofit, and community leaders to help Indiana and the Midwest better prepare for the challenges of environmental change. By integrating research, education, and community, ERI is working to create a more sustainable, equitable, and prosperous future. Learn more at eri.iu.edu.