2020: A year of growth and change

A letter from President & CEO Mark Redsten

Mark Redsten, President & CEO.

Like people and organizations everywhere, in 2020 Clean Wisconsin is addressing huge issues simultaneously. Clean Wisconsin started the year excited about new opportunities to address climate change and water pollution in Wisconsin, to return science to decision-making and bring Wisconsin back as a leader on environmental protection. As I write this, March 2020 seems like a century ago; and, as we continue to work on our core mission, we’re dealing with a pandemic, economic uncertainty, and racial injustice.  It’s a lot of priorities to manage, to say the least.

Fortunately, our 50-year history gives us perspective and helps provide context as we prepare for the long road and hard work ahead. 

When I told our staff in March that we would begin working from our homes, I had no idea the pandemic would last this long. I naively thought we’d return to the office in a few weeks with the benefit of learning how to successfully work remotely. Well, weeks turned into many months, and we’re still Zooming with each other and conducting our work in a very different way than ever before. But working remotely has been a mixed blessing: Zoom and phone calls are efficient, and we’re able to do more in one day; but most meetings and gatherings, and especially summer internships, are much more meaningful in-person. While working remotely has not prevented us from doing any of our work—we’re continuing to develop policies, to pursue legal challenges, and to meet with legislators, allies, agency staff and Clean Wisconsin donors to advance the mission of Clean Wisconsin—but it has heightened anxiety, created new work, and isolated us from each other.

The pandemic also brought economic disruption, which we’re also closely managing. Like many other organizations, Clean Wisconsin lost significant revenue from delayed or cancelled contract work and from cancelled fundraising events. Clean Wisconsin’s largest fundraiser, Epicurean Evening, for example, which is held every year in October for 500 people, is cancelled this year.  Clean Wisconsin applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Program loan to help us manage through the economic turbulence; and our foundation partners also helped us by immediately making our grants more flexible. I am so happy to report that despite the economic uncertainty, we have been able to retain all our employees, and even add three new staff.

The latest challenge to arise in 2020 is perhaps our biggest opportunity. As we all know, pervasive racism exists in Wisconsin, and, unwittingly within nonprofits like Clean Wisconsin. Systems and organizations clearly need to change to address this problem. Clean Wisconsin has intersected with racial justice issues throughout our 50 years. Through the work of our staff, we have been champions of people who didn’t have a voice in policy development inside the Capitol and state agencies; at DNR, we challenged permits to pollute, including air and water permits, that disproportionately impact people of color; and at the PSC, we have represented the public, including low income customers and marginalized communities, in electric rate and construction cases, like proceedings to build or close fossil fuel plants. For a few years, our Board and staff have made internal investments in resources to address this concern. Among other things, we worked with the YWCA to help review and improve our organizational culture, like addressing our hiring practices, training staff and helping build skills, and developing better systems for relationship and conflict resolution. Further, in many board and staff meetings we have discussed ways to become more diverse and inclusive as organization, and how we might support the work of our partners in social justice movements like Black Lives Matter.

Despite our internal efforts to address racism, we need to do much more internally and externally to elevate voices and to advocate for more and deeper change in order to bring an end to systemic racism.  I am proud the staff and board’s collective commitment to this cause and look forward to doubling down on our words and actions and financial resources, and using this critical moment in time to spark real change within the environmental community. 

In all future issues of the Defender, rest assured you’ll see more stories on how our organization is addressing the issues of public health, economic uncertainty, and racial justice.  You’ll see stories about how each of these challenges are opportunities to advance the environmental movement and the mission of Clean Wisconsin.