Emerging Leader Award

In 2019, River Network established the Emerging Leader Award, inspired by former River Network board member Leslie Lowe, whose generous spirit and encouragement of emerging leaders provided a vision for how River Network’s efforts could better include young professionals and extend into a wider array of communities. There are two primary purposes of the Emerging Leader award. The first is to provide early-career recognition and acknowledgment to a burgeoning water protector working at the juncture of water and justice, knowing that this can help them expand their aspirations, gain confidence, and widen their network. The second is to expand the larger network of water protectors, recognizing that there is strength in collective action. 

The Emerging Leader brings people together and seeks to expand our collective understanding of the value and social context of water in their communities. They strive to build knowledge and capacity in their communities through various methods (e.g., events, social media, community groups or collectives, partnerships with individuals and/or organizations, etc.). Above all, the Emerging Leader is someone who shows tremendous promise in the world of water protection and empowers others to make change. 

Each year, the Emerging Leader awardee receives a $1,500 honorarium from River Network. The awardee receives a full scholarship to attend River Rally and is celebrated at the annual River Hero Celebration, kicking off their award year. The awardee then works with a designated team at River Network to define how they will use the Emerging Leader platform to highlight the most pressing water issues and develop their scope of work to inspire change and build capacity amongst the larger community. This work often includes but is not limited to blogs, online workshops (independent or co-facilitated), social media engagement, and involvement in River Rally. The award year concludes at the following River Rally. 


The Emerging Leader award recognizes an individual who is doing important and meaningful work at the intersection of water, equity, and justice. Nominees must be less than 35 years old and have less than 10 years’ professional experience. Nominees who have previously received national recognition for the same work will not be considered. Any individual who meets these requirements is eligible to self-nominate for the Emerging Leader award.


Emerging Leader nominees are evaluated by a team of River Network staff and board based on the following criteria: 

  • How does the nominee’s work (professional or otherwise) address issues related to water equity, justice, and any of River Network’s key issues?
  • How does the nominee employ new and innovative approaches to addressing the issues and priorities described in the above response?  
  • How does the nominee bring people together, deepen connection in their community, and use their talents to advance solutions that center community voices?  
  • How would the nominee benefit from the Emerging Leader platform provided by River Network and how would they use it to advance their work?


The Emerging Leader self-nomination process takes place within the River Rally registration form, opening on February 1, 2022. Be sure to check “Yes” in response to the question, “Do you want to self-nominate for the Emerging Leader award?” on the second page of River Rally registration. 

The self-nomination section within registration requires that you submit responses to the five (5) short-answer questions stated above in the award criteria. Each response is limited to 1,500 characters (approximately 200-300 words) in length. We recommend composing these responses in a word processor before initiating the registration form. The form will not accept responses longer than 1,500 characters for each question. 

Nominees who are not selected for recognition will be automatically considered for a River Rally scholarship, with no additional application needed. 


February 1, 2022: River Rally registration and Emerging Leader self-nomination opens. 

March 15, 2022: Deadline for Emerging Leader self-nominations. 

April 8, 2022: Emerging Leader notified of their award. 


The Emerging Leader is selected by a team of River Network staff and board. Nominees are evaluated based on how well they meet the award criteria. Nominees who do not meet the eligibility requirements will not be considered for recognition. Emerging Leader nominees who are not selected for recognition on any given year will be considered for recognition the following year. Familiarity with and/or previous engagement with River Network’s programmatic work does provide an advantage to any nominee.  

Any member of the internal Emerging Leader evaluation team who has a personal or professional relationship with a nominee will not submit an independent evaluation of said nominee. Furthermore, River Network staff and board are not eligible to be nominated for the Emerging Leader award. 


Leslie Lowe served on River Network’s Board of Directors from 2009 until 2017. Her calm demeanor and bold encouragement pushed River Network to look deeper into specific geographies and issues where inequality persists, to shine a light on what we find, and bring attention to issues that others ignored. A champion of emerging leaders and always generous, Leslie’s contributions and spirit of determination left a lasting mark. Her professional contributions focused on corporate and governmental accountability and environmental law and policy. She worked as a Program Officer for Institutional Accountability & Individual Liberty at the Rockefeller Foundation, was the founder and Managing Director of UCI Environmental Accountability, directed the Energy & Environment Program at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), and also served as Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Leslie received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Bennington College, a Master’s of Science from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and did post-graduate research in economic and social history at the University of Paris. She also served on the board of the Highlander Research and Education Center and is a past Chair of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation’s Board of Directors. Leslie was a second-generation New Yorker who had adopted New Orleans as her home.

2022 Emerging Leader

Headshot of Mariah Davis, with trees in the background

Mariah Davis, Senior Policy & Campaigns Manager at Choose Clean Water Coalition (Annapolis, MD).

As Senior Policy & Campaigns Manager of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, Mariah manages outreach, grassroots advocacy, and civic engagement efforts to support the Coalition’s policy priorities. Mariah coordinates conservation organizations efforts in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. This includes working with conservation organizations at the local, state and regional level to enact sound state policies to ensure progress in the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.

Mariah is an active member in the Chesapeake community. She is deeply committed to efforts that foster diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and played an active role in the formation of Virginia’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice established under Governor McAuliffe. She served as a founding board member of Annapolis Pride and chaired the city’s first Pride Parade and Festival.

Mariah is a graduate of the Congressional Black Caucus Institute’s Political Leadership Program. In 2020, she earned her master’s degree in Public Management from the University of Maryland. In 2013, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies, with a minor in Chemistry from Virginia Commonwealth University.

2021 Emerging Leader

Charles Miller, Law Student & Junior Board Member at the Alabama Rivers Alliance (Birmingham, AL). Charles is a third-year law student at the University of Alabama School of Law and a board member at the Alabama Rivers Alliance. He has a strong interest in water law and democracy, with a focus on how this essential resource can be managed for the public good and with meaningful public input in the face of climate change. He has worked for One Roof, a non-profit dedicated to ending homelessness in Central Alabama, and at a local land trust. He has also interned at American Rivers in their Government Relations office and the Southern Environmental Law Center. Growing up on Green Mountain in northern Alabama, he gained an appreciation for the importance of wildlands and open space, especially in urban and suburban areas. Charles enjoys traveling, flatwater kayaking, and photography.

2020 Emerging Leader

Megan Nguyen, Bay Area Hub Coordinator at Sunrise Movement (San Francisco, CA). At her previous role at California Trout, Megan managed both educational content for social media and programming for outreach events. She believes that uplifting diverse voices in conservation will inspire the next generation of science communicators. Megan is an energetic advocate using her voice to inspire people to turn their passion into action. Her energy and creativity as a musician and organizer shines bright in her activism work with the Sunrise Movement, a national movement of young people fighting for policies that address climate change. She has led strikes, sit-ins, and trainings for Sunrise, and through this work, Megan hopes to empower young leaders to challenge injustice in their communities. Meet Megan.

Watch “Finding My Voice” and read Megan’s blog “Advancing Racial Justice”.

2019 Emerging Leader

Kevin Jeffery, Graduate Student at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture (Austin, TX). A student of landscape architecture, Jeffery is the creator of the Blue Index project and a burgeoning force in the water world. Blue Index, a participatory research project, strives to measure emotional responses to water in the community and will be used to inform Planet Texas 2050 Bridging Barriers Initiative. Before returning to school, Jeffery worked in water management in Washington D.C. for public, private and commercial entities. He plans to return to the public sector upon graduation. Meet Kevin.