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Exploring the E-Suite with Joel Brammeier, President and CEO, Alliance for the Great Lakes
The Alliance drives the local, state and federal policy reforms and implementation necessary to create a healthy Great Lakes for all people and wildlife, forever. We do this by communicating our thought leadership on issues, building powerful networks of influencers, and educating and activating tens of thousands of volunteers, advocates and donors each year who bring their voices to our priorities.
As President and CEO of the Alliance, I concentrate on three principal responsibilities. The first is making sure that the Alliance is focused on the most significant issues affecting clean water in the Great Lakes. That involves a lot of listening, reading, and prioritizing our work. Second, I focus on the financial viability of the Alliance. Fundraising is is my time to listen to what is important to our supporters and communicate to them how their investment in clean water is impacting the Great Lakes. Finally, I work to support the core components of the Alliance—our staff, our volunteers, and the Board of Directors. Everyone needs to be fully engaged, informed, and moving forward to advance the Alliance’s mission.
After undergrad at Valparaiso University and grad school at University of Michigan, I moved to Chicago in the late 1990s to follow the person who eventually became my spouse. At that time, I began volunteering with a number of NGOs in the Chicago area in order to build my network of relationships and assess how I could become professionally involved. I carried a deep values commitment to non-profit service, mostly due to observing the work of my parents as a teacher and member of the clergy. I had decided on focusing on environmental work in high school after a variety of positive outdoor experiences with my family. After about a year volunteering in various capacities in Chicago, an entry-level position opened up with a group called the Lake Michigan Federation. The combination of my personal value for the Great Lakes that was imprinted on me in childhood, along with my expertise from my education and volunteering, was enough to get me the job. Since that time, I have advanced through the growth and expansion of the organization to become the president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
It is still all about clean water, but in a much more inclusive and equitable way than is traditional for the mainstream environmental movement. The greatest emerging challenge is how to ensure Great Lakes water is protected and restored in a way that matters personally to all the people of the Great Lakes. For example, drinking water protection is commonly a top reason the public cites as a reason to protect the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Water Resources Compact & Agreement is a monumental agreement among the states and provinces to ensure water is not diverted to far-flung locations, and that the natural hydrology of the lakes is protected. But this policy doesn’t ensure people can actually access safe, clean and affordable drinking water. It is not credible to say a large natural source of drinking water is truly protected if millions of people who rely on that water cannot safely or reliably use it. And this is today’s unfortunate reality, from manure contamination in northeast Wisconsin, to toxic algae in Lake Erie, to lead and PFAS contamination across the region. Often those harms are falling on people who are already suffering an outsize burden in other parts of their lives.
On specific issues, I think the greatest challenges are 1) changing how we grow food so the agricultural economy does not pollute our water 2) restoring the vital water infrastructure that is the basis of people’s health and the Great Lakes regional economy and 3) preventing the continued influx of invasive species that threaten to torpedo our way of life. Solving these challenges depends on a broad and engaged public that is motivated to action to protect the Great Lakes.
The people I work with, the ability to protect something that is personally important to me and the fact that clean water for all people and wildlife is a hard cause to argue against.
Environmental advocacy works on big problems with many deeply embedded interests and motivations. Changing that system takes time and can be frustrating. The flip side of that is when you are successful, you are changing a system in a lasting way and you know it will benefit people now and well into the future.
I’m not the kind of person who needs or wants to be in the spotlight taking credit, I just want to work smart and get the result I’m looking for. I’ve relied on so many people because this work is by nature collaborative and I would miss many if I named names. But I will mention one. Cameron Davis, who is now a commissioner at Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, gave me my first real shot at being an environmental professional. I’m sure I screwed up plenty while working for him, but he still let me follow him around and listen to him for years. This was fundamental to me learning how environmental policy change happens. I’m truly thankful for that time. I’ve had five Board of Directors chairs in my time leading the Alliance, without whom I never would have been able to figure out how to run an organization. School does not train you for that and board leadership is vital. The Alliance is fortunate to have a large and diverse base of financial supporters, and I reflect constantly on my obligation to them to make sure our work is addressing their desire for clean and safe water.
I’ve done some transformative work in invasive species prevention where I can look back at policies and decisions by elected officials and know that I was one of the people at the center of making those things happen. If you get to be part of one thing like that in a lifetime, it’s pretty great. I’ve been a core part of, though definitely not the leader, of a successful movement to make the Great Lakes a national priority in the United States. I’m also quite proud of dramatically expanding the reach of my organization and becoming a leader in engaging people in advocacy, as public support is critical for success.
Looking back, I realize today that I received a privileged opportunity when I joined the Lake Michigan Federation. It was a relatively small group rebounding from a tough time in the right way, and I was fortunate to get that job. Today, the green & blue movement is pervasive in our economy and culture in a way that just did not exist twenty years ago. Young professionals can and should seek out careers with environmental organizations, but also remember that there are opportunities to shape systems change throughout the private sector. They should ask their future bosses to communicate their personal vision for change. Look for somewhere in your work where you can take the lead on at least one thing that is important to you and your career. Listen to understand how environmental choices affect the daily lives of people and build your work around that knowledge. And consider spending some time in politics early on – understanding what motivates our decision makers is absolutely critical to devising strategies to make sure the right decisions are made.