This Q&A series highlights McKinney Climate Fellows alumni and their professional journeys within Indiana and beyond. The McKinney Climate Fellows program, administered by Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute and Integrated Program in the Environment, connects IU undergraduate and graduate students interested in climate, sustainability, and community resilience with career experiences.
In 2018, Chaise Cope graduated from the IUPUI O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs with an MPA in environmental policy and sustainability. A native of Bremen, Ind., she immediately found an opportunity to apply her training as a McKinney Climate Fellow with the City of Columbus, working in the municipality’s community development office. The experience helped kickstart her career in local government and sustainability.
ERI caught up with Cope in late 2022 as she was preparing to transition from her position with the City of Elkhart to a new role with the City of South Bend. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What major project did you work on during your McKinney Climate Fellows placement with the City of Columbus in 2018?
I knew I wanted to be in municipal government, and this was the first position that allowed me to work with a city on sustainability. It was also the first position where I was housed in a department working on sustainability projects specifically.
Working with Columbus was the first time I got to work with several city departments directly, talk with them about what they do in their daily operations, and write simple sustainability objectives for them. I created a sustainability plan for the city that encouraged them to consider energy independence and how they could tackle sustainability in each of their departments.
One example of this work was with the fire department where firefighters were regularly mowing grass as they were coming off a 12-hour shift. I encouraged them to consider alternatives to turfgrass, such as native vegetation, that required less maintenance and less use of gas-powered lawn mowers.
What is your current position and what responsibilities does your job include?
Currently, I am the assistant director of redevelopment for the City of Elkhart. I manage the city’s redevelopment commission on property, which is essentially our land bank. Within that land bank, we have many large industrial parcels that are contaminated. I’ve been working to get those sites turned into housing because we have a housing crisis.
This is quite a lengthy process. It involves working with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and Indiana Brownfields to get those sites tested and cleaned to meet residential standards. A lot of this work includes working with the Michiana Area Council of Governments; they’ve applied for two Environmental Protection Agency assessment grants and one of them is for a four-county region that they support.
What do you like about your current job?
The City of Elkhart is a legacy manufacturing city that is heavily industrial. It is in one of the most industrialized counties in the state, which is why we have so many brownfield sites in our area. Restoring and remediating brownfields into usable community sites has been very fulfilling. In addition to brownfields, I also worked on a Federal Emergency Management Agency flood mitigation grant for one of our areas that is very prone to flooding.
Flooding is a major environmental concern in Elkhart. I’ve enjoyed working on these brownfields, which are part of the history of unsustainable development, while also focusing on climate and how certain areas in the city may keep flooding. We’ve been buying out these properties, demolishing them, and turning them into parks.
For my new role at the City of South Bend, I will be doing more design work and setting the comprehensive plan and neighborhood plans for the next 20 to 30 years. These plans are important for climate resilience and for answering questions about what we do with our water, what growth our utilities will see, and how we manage urban density in South Bend.
What advice would you give to current students who are interested in the McKinney Climate Fellows program?
I would encourage students to think about what problem they want to solve in the world and consider whether they want to be in the public, nonprofit, or private sector. Target the positions that align with those goals. Don’t be worried if you don’t find a position that isn’t labeled as sustainability. In my career, neither of my positions have been categorized as sustainability, but I deal with land use, floodway properties, and brownfields on a daily basis.
In my new role, I will be tasked with planning, but that is completely wrapped up with sustainable development. These roles will change the city forever, and you can build sustainability into any position you take while focusing on the environment and doing the best for the public that you can.
Looking forward, what do you think young professionals interested in climate careers should know as they enter the workforce?
Do what you’re passionate about. Change does not happen overnight, but it is possible. You can make a difference in people’s lives if you are in government because the government decides many things. In sustainability, it regulates resources and decides how much electricity you get, how much water is used, and how much land is used. Municipalities also decide how wide roads are or whether to invest in public transit. You might not think of this work as environmental, but it all comes back to sustainability.
About the Environmental Resilience Institute
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.
About the Integrated Program in the Environment
Bringing together faculty, students and staff across 10 Indiana University schools, the Integrated Program in the Environment is a hub for academics, research, and activities focused on the environment. Administered by the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, the School of Public Health, and College of Arts and Sciences, IPE is preparing the next generation of environmental and sustainability leaders. Learn more at environment.indiana.edu.