Change Makers: Earth Day Heroes Reflect on Successful Advocacy – Relationships, Persistence and Hope

Bringing about cleaner air, water, land and health is not a simple task. Sometimes it is a long fight with uncertain results until the very end. We asked several of Michigan’s foremost environmental change makers to give us their thoughts. We asked them about the keys to successfully advocating for the environment. And what advice do they have for young people who may be discouraged by slow or no progress.

Christy McGillivray

is Political and Legislative Director for the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club. Along with overseeing the Chapter Legislative and Political programs, Christy’s areas of policy expertise center on Great Lakes water quality issues–including PFAS and other toxics, agricultural policy, and water affordability and access. Christy and her family spend time during the summer in Baraga, Michigan, and she thinks the Presque Isle Falls trail in the Porkies is a far better hike than the trail up to the Lake of the Clouds. 

“How do we define success? I currently define success as bringing as many people as possible with me into the work. Our work is about re-

Christy McGillivray

balancing the out-of-whack power structures that created the climate crisis, and all the other manifestations of environmental degradation.”

“This is work that will never be done, and there is never a ‘win’ or end point. This is a calling for everyone in this generation and for all the generations to come. Along with bringing people into the work, success is rebalancing the power structures that distance people from the consequences of their choices. Those who have the most at stake, those who have the most to lose, are never the ones who have control over the myriad of corporate interests that have created the problem. The win is creating a team of volunteers and fellow citizens who have the shared experience of rebalancing that power dynamic.”

“So if success is bringing people into the work of rebalancing power and connection – then I would say that the best way to do that is to prioritize relationships.” 

“For anyone that becomes discouraged I have two pieces of advice: Grow something, anything. A garden, a potted plant, a relationship with an elder in the community that is lonely, etc. Remembering that our connection to our world and each other is always there waiting for us, we just have to reach for it when we need it.”

“It is incredibly important to know that you are worthy of respect, regardless of whether or not it is given. Hold tight to that – and it’ll help you keep your eye on real success and keep going when the work gets hard.”

Anne Woiwode

Anne Woiwode

is one of Michigan’s most renowned environmental advocates, having given her energies to the cause since 1980. One of her major achievements was organizing the successful campaign to win Congressional approval of wilderness protection for 90,000 acres of national forest lands in Michigan.

“Virtually every environmental fight is a long term challenge. There are almost always vested interests who support the pollution, impairment or destruction of the environment to meet their particular interests. As a result, successful fights require persistence, vigilance and a commitment to the indefinite long haul. Even what comes across as victories too often are just a corporate campaign contribution or aggressive industry lobbying and PR campaign away from becoming undone. Keeping focus on what the actual, on the ground outcome is that we are seeking is also critical. Interim victories that move you toward the ultimate goal need to be celebrated. But if the goal has not been achieved then work needs to continue.”

“Successful campaigns usually require a suite of activities to be pursued in several different forums over time. Education and organizing are critical for both short and long term success. For BIPOC communities in particular there is a critical need to allow the community to lead. This ensures that they do not become pawns in a campaign brought by outsiders. And lastly and most importantly campaigners need to be training and recruiting volunteers and staff who can take on these tasks and keep the pressure on indefinitely. It is rare that an environmental fight is entirely over. Too often it simply becomes dormant until the next vested interest finds a new technology or demand that opens it up again.”

John Hartig

John Hartig

served for 14 years as manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. He now chairs the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan’s Great Lakes Way Advisory Committee, as well as the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan’s Great Lakes Way Advisory Committee.

“Environmental and natural resource problems are people problems,” Hartig says. “It is all about establishing and sustaining effective relationships with people to be able to solve problems. In advocacy, you need to share your passion for the issue and you must communicate a vision for change that can be carried in the hearts and minds of people.”

“To deal with inevitable discouragement, it’s helpful to break down big problems into smaller discrete projects that can be completed and celebrated. Adding these all up can build a record of success that will sustain momentum.”

Tony Spaniola


Tony Spaniola

learned in 2016 that his cottage in Oscoda is impacted by toxic PFAS contamination from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, the first PFAS site in Michigan and the first U.S. military PFAS site in the world.  In response, Tony has worked to catalyze action on the local, state, and federal levels to address these harmful “forever chemicals.” Among his projects, Tony co-founded the Need Our Water (NOW) community action group in Oscoda; he co-founded and co-chairs the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network; and he serves on the Leadership Team of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition. His efforts and those of a broad coalition have led to action by the US EPA and Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to set safety standards for PFAS in drinking water and to begin taking action to control the sources of PFAS.

“The key to success is perseverance.”

“The key to success is perseverance. That’s the case in most any endeavor, but it’s especially so in the world of public advocacy.  Traits like honesty, credibility, creativity, a willingness to ask tough questions, to speak truth to power, and to build strong partnerships — are all important.  But none of those traits matter if you do not persist in the face of opposition, difficulties and perceived failures.  It’s a challenge for sure, but it’s one that I’ve found to be most worthwhile.”

“We are all in a fight for our lives, for our planet and for future generations.  We are in this position because my generation and its predecessors have failed.  While it’s easy to get discouraged–and I certainly feel that way at times, we don’t have the luxury to continue to let things slide.  There are people all around our country and the world who are committed to bring change.  They inspire me and remind me that we should never underestimate our own power.  So, my advice is simple:  turn your feelings of discouragement into action — and persevere.”

Kira Davis

Kira Davis

is the Great Lakes Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, the only independent, nonpartisan membership organization advocating for national park sites, with over 1.6 million members and supporters. She received the 2018 River Heroes Award from the Rivers Network. Kira is a Michigan native living in Leelanau County with her two sons, husband, and beloved dog.

“You must believe in what you are advocating for and have passion for the cause. In doing so, you can help inspire others to connect to the issue you’re passionate about. And have them join you in your efforts. You must also know who the decision makers are. Then take a look at the bigger picture of who your advocacy campaign might impact. Collectively, look at where intersections and commonalities lie. Then you can align your efforts and make your advocacy that much more powerful. Becoming a part of National Parks Conservation Association and advocating for national park sites, where land, water, wildlife, and our nation’s cultural history are protected in perpetuity has been fulfilling for me as these places of splendor are shared with all.”

“Anything worth doing takes time and you must be patient.”

“I would ask advocates to look back at history. Note that change happens when we come together and speak up for what we believe in. We must participate in our communities and society as a whole if we want change for the good of all of us. You are a part of the solution and hard work doesn’t come easy. Environmental issues take years to solve so please don’t become discouraged. I would recommend they read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, one of the most influential books creating public awareness on the impacts of using DDT, a human-made chemical, as a management tool in agriculture. The book is an inspiration to advocacy in its use of sound science, language and creating action and change.”

Royce Ragland

Royce Ragland

is a founder of Green Elk Rapids, which has brought numerous successful environmental initiatives to her village northeast of Traverse City  She is a former board member of FLOW.

“I believe the challenge is better understanding of other perspectives, plus the ability to convey what’s at stake in today’s choices. There are trade-offs to be made, and it’s not always a fair trade. Most important is to have the best messenger!”

“What I hope younger environmental advocates will continue to do is  Show up, Speak up, Act up.  But don’t give up. Use your voice and your talent in whatever way you can, wherever you are.”

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