Champions of Change Blog

  • Managing the "Sea of Goodwill" of Veteran Resources

    Erica Borggren

    Erica Borggren is being honored as a Women Veteran Leaders Champion of Change.

    In 2011, I was appointed by Governor Pat Quinn to lead the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs (IDVA), a 1,300-person state agency with a $122 million operating budget. I was 30 years old, new to veterans work, and had never led an organization larger than the 160-soldier company that I commanded in Korea years earlier. To say I was outside of my comfort zone would be an understatement.

    I quickly discovered what so many veterans do: my military experience had prepared me well. For years, in a variety of Army assignments on three different continents, I had learned to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I had studied leadership, practiced leadership, and worked closely with some of the best military leaders of our generation. And I had been part of huge military organizations taking on near-impossible missions. So I was heartened to feel, within months of taking the helm at IDVA, that I was translating my military experience into impact for Illinois veterans. With a fantastic IDVA staff team, we were quickly moving the ball forward for women veterans, veteran entrepreneurs, and the veterans we served in IDVA’s four Veterans Homes and 80 field offices.

    One challenge, however, stood out as most daunting. Approached by non-profit leader after non-profit leader within my first few months at IDVA, I slowly transitioned from feeling amazed at and grateful for all the veteran support organizations in Illinois, to feeling totally overwhelmed. It was a feeling that I discovered fellow veterans and veteran leaders shared. We were all overwhelmed by a “Sea of Goodwill” for those who have serveda sea which, in its very size and scope, proved very difficult to navigate. For most veterans, the single biggest challenge is not a lack of resources, but the difficulty of finding the right one. Similarly, the problem for many veteran support organizations is finding and connecting with the veterans they seek to serve.

    This shared sense of being overwhelmed was the seed of what would grow into Illinois Joining Forces (IJF), a public-private network of nearly 200 military-and veteran-serving organizations working together to create a “no wrong door” system of support for Illinois service members, veterans, and their families. IJF member organizations work together in two important ways, both of which involve creating “connective tissue” within the support community.

    First, through ten IJF Working Groups, scores of previously unconnected organizations are building relationships and working together. With all the experts around the table, they are identifying gaps in support and partnering to bridge those gaps. Our Education Working Group, for example, brought together the state VA, state education boards, veteran-friendly community colleges, and several non-profit organizations; together, they concluded that not enough was being done to make military training count for credit on campus, so they launched a pilot Credit Articulation Project. 

    Second, IJF members are collaborating online at, where they post updated services information, publicize their events, and refer veteran clients to one another. As a result, Illinois service members, veterans, and their families have a one-stop shop, a searchable directory of networked resources from nearly 200 organizationswith the ability to connect directly with the right one or ask for help if they can’t find what they need.  

    The power of IJF lies in its unique public-private model.  Working with the Illinois National Guard, we at IDVA sought to use the convening power of the statedrawing hundreds of public and non-profit organizations to the tablewhile giving significant decision-making reins to our member organizations. The result has been a collaborative energy and productivity that is quickly translating into progress for the Illinois military and veteran communities. Thanks to the relationships IJF is building and the “One Stop Shop” website that our member organizations support, navigating the Sea of Goodwill is much easier for Illinois veterans. 

    That’s good news for all of us on the home front. When we make it easier for our veterans to access what they need, we equip them for a smoother transition, setting them on a path to discover that they have a tremendous value to offer our communities as a result of their military experience. 

    A Rhodes Scholar and Iraq veteran, Erica Borggren is the Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, where she helped found Illinois Joining Forces.

  • White House Champions of Change for Solar Deployment

    Since President Obama took office, the United States has deployed over 12 GW of solar powerenough solar to power 1.4 million homeswith half of that in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. Solar energy is the most abundant energy resource on earth173,000 terawatts of solar energy strike the Earth continuously, which equals more than 10,000 times the world's total energy use.

    As the President highlighted in his State of the Union address, the pace of solar deployment has picked up. Last year, every four minutes, another American home or business went solar. And spurred by the falling price of panels, since 2008, solar installations have multiplied tenfoldprices are down, demand is up.

    President Obama is committed to continuing the momentum. In June 2012, the President launched a comprehensive Climate Action Plan to cut carbon pollution and advance the clean energy economy. As part of that effort, the President set a goal to double wind, solar, and geothermal electricity generation by 2020 and to more than triple the onsite renewable energy production in federally assisted residential buildings. We already achieved our goal of doubling output from these renewables during the first term, so achieving this new goal would imply a four-fold increase in power generation from these clean sources in just 11 years.

    As the President said, “every panel is pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced.” These jobs are being created by “Champions of Change,” local leaders across the country who are taking action to accelerate the deployment of solar in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors.

    As prices continue to fall, solar is increasingly becoming an economical energy choice for consumers; still, the biggest hurdles to deployment remain the soft costslike financing, permitting, and zoning. The Administration is working hard to drive down these soft costs through efforts like the Energy Department's SunShot Initiative, and we also want to honor the Champions that are leading the charge across the country.

    The White House Champions of Change program regularly highlights ordinary Americans from across the country who are doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. To celebrate the breadth of individuals who are taking action on solar deployment, we will honor “Champions of Change” to lift up entrepreneurs, innovators, legislators, affordable housing owners, community leaders, and others who are accelerating deployment. 

    We are asking you to help us identify standout local leaders and businesses by nominating a Champion of Change for Deployment of Solar in the Residential, Commercial, and Industrial Sectors by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, April 4. These champions can include:  

    • Community leaders working to bolster solar adoption; including participants in DOE’s “Rooftop Solar Challenge,” through which 22 teams are working to advance deployment;
    • Business leaders promoting solar procurement (building supply chains and smaller organizations that provide information about the benefits of solar);
    • Companies and non-profits training veterans for solar jobs;
    • Multifamily housing owners, home builders/associations and organizers promoting onsite solar generation on our rooftops, and organizations providing innovative financing mechanisms to developers and homeowners;
    • Utility leaders seizing solar energy’s potential by supporting and facilitating solar deployment, including through community solar; and
    • Organizations working to help consumers navigate the regulations and paperwork necessary to install solar in their communities.

    Click on the link below to submit your nomination (be sure to choose ‘Solar Deployment’ in the “Theme of Service” field of the nomination form).

    Nominate a Solar Deployment Champion of Change

    We look forward to hosting this event to highlight the great work taking place in communities to advance solar deployment.

    Dan Utech is the Special Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, White House Domestic Policy Council.

  • The Power of Education to Create the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders

    Stephen H. Lockhart

    Stephen H. Lockhart is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.

    Why must we create the next generation of Conservation Leaders?  A sustainable future for our planet requires that our young people both know and love the natural world. A connection with nature, if created early, will endure and deepen over a lifetime. Certainly this was my experience. 

    Introduced to nature as a Boy Scout in a segregated troop in the Midwest, my time spent outdoors was invigorating, liberating, and educational. It instilled a sense of personal confidence as well as a responsibility to protect these amazing natural resources. These experiences created an abiding love and respect for the natural world and have inspired me to promote opportunities for the next generation to know, to learn and to steward the environment.  

    Education plays a key role in creating conservation leaders and ranks among our nation’s highest priorities. Public lands offer an opportunity to engage in place-based, lifelong learning that improves academic performance, promotes a more sustainable environment, enhances dialogue about the democratic principles at the core of our society, and encourages stewardship. It is provided by agencies like the National Park Service (NPS) and by partner organizations and volunteers.

    My passion is to foster environmental literacy to sustain our planet.  Coincidentally, this is the mission of NatureBridge, one of the largest educational partners of the NPS and why I serve on their Board. Over 42 years, NatureBridge has provided residential science programs in national parks to more than 1 million students and now educates 30,000 children and teens each year.

    My son was one of these students, and I witnessed the power of such programs to open the hearts and minds of young people to the wonder of science in nature. The benefit to society of developing leadership, stewardship, and a sense of personal responsibility for the environment cannot be overstated. Interestingly, four current park superintendents are alumni of NatureBridge programs who acknowledge that the seed of interest was planted at that early stage.

    E. O. Wilson suggests that, as humans, we need nature to fully realize our physical and emotional potential. I could not agree more. The potential physical and emotional health benefits of access to our public lands are undisputed, but regrettably the full impact has yet to be realized. By encouraging young people to access our public lands and engage in active learning, we help them maintain the health of the planet and themselves. This will do more than I and my physician colleagues ever could simply treating illness. 

    America is an increasingly diverse society that struggles to find a personal connection with the outdoors.  Considering the daily challenges that many families in underserved communities face involving economic stability, educational achievement and social justice, how can becoming a conservation leader possibly seem relevant? 

    I argue that it is not only relevant, but essential for every race and culture, for urban and rural inhabitants alike. President Obama, through his My Brother’s Keeper Program, recognizes the need to engage young black men in our society.  SF Achievers — a program focused on black male teens — provides mentorship, supports academic performance, and provides an environmental science experience with NatureBridge. Naje’e Brown, a participant, said: “I think the environment affects people’s mind-set. Yosemite is a really beautiful place, and once you go there, you’ll always have it in your heart.” 

    As someone who was once a young black male teen, I know exactly what he means.

    But so would every other young person, given the opportunity.

    Stephen H. Lockhart, M.D.,Ph.D. is a Vice President and Regional Chief Medical Officer of Sutter Health and a Board member of NatureBridge, the National Parks Conservation Association, and REI.

  • Challenges Give Rise to Opportunity

    Bill Hodge

    Bill Hodge is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.

    Change, or transformation if you will, does not come easy if it is real. The kind of change that can influence lives and shift generations only comes from great challenges. Champion of Change is an honor that I am thrilled to carry, and yet, a commitment for the work ahead. To be a true champion of a movement means to not achieve a goal, but to drive a shift in how we define goals.

    The challenge that sits at the core of my work today is to build a tribe from a new and ever more diverse community of young people, and to connect them to the magic of the protected public lands across their country, and in their backyards. But that challenge is not where my Wilderness journey began.

    From the first time my parents took me camping, I was hooked on public lands. We loaded up a used pop-up camper and took off for the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. One of the first hikes I can remember was in the Linville Gorge Wilderness. The idea of designated Wilderness was beyond my mind at the time, but I knew that the place was rugged and awe inspiring; special. I had no idea that Wilderness as a designation was only ten years old in practice, but decades in the making. I certainly did not know then that the Linville Gorge was only one of three areas in the east at the time, being protected in its natural state, ‘where man is but a visitor, and does not remain’.

    Throughout my life, public lands have been my refuge from an ever more chaotic pace. It was not until just five years ago, however, that the protection of public lands became my life’s vocation.

    In 2009 I began to volunteer with Tennessee Wild, a campaign to add 20,000 acres of Wilderness designation to the Cherokee National Forest near my home. Throughout my work, the concept of struggling stewardship efforts for our public lands and protected Wilderness kept creeping into the conversation. Trail systems had long fallen into the hands of volunteers as federal budgets for the land management agencies shrank. The volunteers serving our public lands are an amazing community, but their numbers have mainly been limited to those retired or those few that are willing to give of their weekends.

    The challenges of meeting the stewardship needs of our public lands met opportunity while attending a youth and diversity workshop held by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. There, I met some amazing young people from the urban youth engagement efforts of Groundwork USA. To hear and experience the disconnect that these kids had from their public lands; I knew that the mission was clear. Connect this generation back to public lands and public service through Wilderness stewardship, and future generations will follow. 

    Since 2010, the year of our launch, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) has been working to serve the designated Wilderness of the southeast while also connecting a new generation (our tribe) to public lands and public lands service. We have grown into a social enterprise through the creation of conservation jobs (23 in 2013), and a volunteer pipeline (over 8,000 volunteer hours in 2013). We partner to train volunteers and conservation leaders through a nationally recognized Wilderness Skills Institute, and provide numerous opportunities for continued growth of our conservation community.

    The need for public engagement in service to public lands is the challenge, and connecting a new generation to the natural world around them is the opportunity for a real win-win solution we gladly accept.

    Bill Hodge is the Director of Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS), a program of The Wilderness Society. Bill also serves on the board of the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance and is a recipient of the Bob Marshall Award as external champion of Wilderness from the United States Forest Service and the International Journal of Wilderness.  

  • Sharing a Vision, Working Together, Saving Lake Erie

    Carrie Vollmer-Sanders

    Carrie Vollmer-Sanders is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.

    On average, farmers have 40 chances in their lifetime to grow a crop. Each year we make small adjustments based on past years’ experiences, current weather conditions and new technology. Multi-generational farm families like mine pass along what we’ve learned. We work with our parents and sometimes parents’ parents to make sure that farming can be a livelihood for our children and our children’s children. When my dad makes a change to the equipment he uses, my husband and I make the same change, because we farm together. When we add technology to farm smarter, it also helps my dad farm smarter. We make these changes to our family farm business after discussions with our trusted consultants, like our soil, seed, chemical, and fertilizer advisers.

    Here in the Western Lake Erie Basin, harmful algal blooms is a water quality topic of immense concern. Farmers have taken a number of actions to reduce fertilizer runoff, but too much is still leaving our fields and entering streams and lakes. This lost fertilizer, mainly phosphorus, is one of the main contributors to these harmful algal blooms.

    When I began working for The Nature Conservancy over three years ago, we started by talking with farmers and their most trusted advisers about how we could make sure that fertilizer grows crops, not algae.

    When a small group of individuals — representing agri-business, research and The Nature Conservancy— began talking about solutions we were not bound by a plan, but we had the same basic end goal: grow enough food and have clean water to drink for the 9 billion people on the planet in 2050. With the teamwork of the agricultural, government, research and conservation communities in the Lake Erie basin, we think we have found some solutions that will achieve lasting conservation, because it is good business for farmers and for Lake Erie.

    The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program, developed by the 4R Advisory Committee and now managed by the Nutrient Stewardship Council, was created to be a consistent, recognized program highlighting agricultural retailers’ nutrient stewardship efforts. The program ensures that social, environmental and economic 4R nutrient management sustainability goals (applying the Right source of fertilizer at the Right rate at the Right time, in the Right amount) are adopted, which will lead to long term positive impacts on water quality in Lake Erie. This voluntary, private third party evaluation of the farmer’s fertilizer and crop advisers recognizes their efforts to improve water quality.

    This solution would not have happened without the shared vision of so many in agriculture and conservation working together with an open mind and determined heart. Being honored with the White House Champion of Change award is humbling, especially knowing that our progress is due to having a dedicated, solutions-oriented, and visionary team.

    Only when key stakeholders agree that water quality is a top priority for maintaining the local economy, culture, and biodiversity of the area, will we achieve lasting conservation for all life in Lake Erie. Visit to learn more about our work and partnerships to improve water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Like our work in this watershed, The Nature Conservancy works throughout the world to protect Earth’s fresh water for the future through, science-based, practical solutions.

    Carrie Vollmer-Sanders is the Western Lake Erie Basin Project Director for The Nature Conservancy and chairs the Nutrient Stewardship Council. She and her family grow grain in Northwest Ohio.

  • Connecting Veterans with Montana’s Wilderness Heritage

    Tristan Persico

    Tristan Persico is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.

    At an early age, my father started bringing me to wild places to learn and explore. Dad instilled in me a sense of adventure; I always wanted to know what was around that next bend in the trail or what was over that next ridge. This is where my lifelong love of the outdoors began.

    At age eighteen, I joined the United States Air Force and went through training to become an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician. Of the twenty Airmen who started the training with me, I was one of three to complete it. In 2009, I deployed to southern Afghanistan. While I was there, I constantly longed for the peace and beauty of Montana’s wilderness. Afghanistan was anything but peaceful and it was on a Saturday afternoon in September that tragedy struck. My closest friend was killed by an enemy attack.

    When I returned home to Montana I was lost and devastated and the only place I could find peace was in the wilderness. I received an honorable discharge in 2011 and began to work towards the next chapter of my life. I soon found myself pursuing a degree in Parks, Tourism, and Recreation Management at the University of Montana and became involved with the Montana Wilderness Association. 

    The Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) works with communities to protect Montana's wilderness heritage, quiet beauty and outdoor traditions, for present and future generations. Established in 1958, MWA is the nation’s oldest state-based grassroots wilderness advocacy organization and was instrumental to the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. The Montana Wilderness Association led the charge to create each of the 15 Wilderness areas in the state and secure Wild and Scenic designations for suitable stretches of the Flathead and Missouri rivers. Today, MWA continues to work tirelessly on behalf of Montana’s best places to hike, hunt, fish, and ride horseback by engaging new partners and communities to guarantee a wild future for iconic treasures like the Rocky Mountain Front, where the reefs and ramparts of the Continental Divide plunge down to meet the prairie.

    In the spring of 2013, I joined forces with Zack Porter, MWA’s NexGen Wilderness Leaders Program Director. Together, we created a Veteran Outreach Program, which provides Montana’s veteran community with positive wilderness experiences. Through backcountry trips, stewardship projects, and educational opportunities on current wilderness policies and affairs, we are helping veterans connect with each other and Montana’s wilderness heritage. 

    It is common knowledge that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder afflicts many veterans returning from service in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as veterans from previous wars. What many people do not realize is that one of the hardest parts of coping with PTSD for our service men and women once they leave the military is no longer being around people with the same history and experiences in a conflict zone. Wilderness is the perfect place for veterans to get together, tell stories around the campfire, and be around peers who understand what they have been through.

    In the same way that my dad and other mentors encouraged me to develop a sense of awe for wild country and learn the skills of backcountry travel, I am proud to work with Montana’s veterans to build a community of conservation champions for the 21st century. 

    Tristan Persico, Veterans Outreach Coordinator for the Montana Wilderness Association, lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife Lindsay and stepdaughters, Briger and Quincy. For more information about the Montana Wilderness Association Veteran Outreach Program, please contact Tristan Persico at  

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