Charles is a rising 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 nonprofit 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.
This interview was conducted by Carly Schmidt on April 8, 2021.
How did you get started in the environmental movement?
My family moved around a lot but I have lived in an Alabama watershed since I was six. I studied political science with a minor in geography in college. As part of that minor, I took a geomorphology course taught by Dr. Lisa Davis that made me realize that environmental issues, particularly those surrounding climate change, were going to be the definitive political issues of my life. And I had always loved spending time outside. My uncle was a Park Service ranger and my grandfather was a farmer, so there has always been a familial connection to the natural world. And then, after this shift in 2013, I realized how important climate justice work was going to be for the world and I just said, “I have to do this.”
I worked for a land trust shortly after I graduated from undergrad, which was very much not in the advocacy world. That experience made me realize that non-advocacy work wasn’t for me. A few years later, I interned for a summer in the Government Relations department at American Rivers. Coincidentally, this was the same summer that a decision was handed down for the Coosa Relicensing Litigation. What I learned in those two months was more powerful than anything I had learned in college. I learned that this is how you make lasting change: through the law. I have always believed that if you want to address a large-scale problem, you’ve got to do it through policy. You can’t always count on the private sector to do the right thing. I decided that I would either go to law school or get a master’s of public administration and was accepted by my alma mater: the University of Alabama.
How did you prioritize policy and advocacy work outside of school and/or work?
I joined the junior board at the Alabama Rivers Alliance when I started working at the land trust because I had to do policy work in some capacity. What is great about volunteering at a small organization is that there is a lot of freedom in doing the work that needs to be done, and there is usually a shortage of capacity and people who are able to do it. The opportunity to work alongside those who are willing to share their knowledge and expertise was really empowering.
The junior board started as a panel of young people at ARA’s River Rally having a discussion about the future of the environmental movement in Alabama. We got eight people together who were under the age of 30 to do this panel and then we formally organized in 2017. It’s been a really great opportunity for us young people who want to do this work. We have mentors at the organization and are able to do something good for Alabama rivers and learn from these experiences.
From your perspective, what is the future of the environmental movement in Alabama?
What I am really focusing on right now is getting a water permitting plan in place, which is very basic but so important because Alabama is super vulnerable to litigation from other states like Florida and Georgia.
I worked at a homeless services agency in Birmingham between undergrad and graduate school, which really made me think about environmental justice and how we allocate resources. I read The Color of Law, which I think is really indispensable to anyone working on environmental justice issues. These spatial inequities that we see across the country are the result of targeted, intentional discrimination, often facilitated by government policies, that has resulted in widespread racial segregation. The city of Birmingham has been shaped by industry since the founding of the city. By the ’30s, Village Creek was so dirty and polluted, but people still used the water. It’s just a downward spiral because we have these legacy industries that created tons of pollution in their time and continue to pollute. Every day, I drive to school and see smoke from the coke plants. They’re very much alive and well.
In North Birmingham, there is a group called People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination (PANIC) that is fighting against this pollution at the neighborhood level. I think that is what environmental organizations need to be doing more of—supporting these community groups and incorporating the grievances and recommendations of frontline communities into all environmental justice work. Because I can bring reams of paper on particulate matter concentration, or non-point source pollution to a public meeting, but who cares? It certainly doesn’t make an impact on the voting public like a personal story.
You will be honored as the 2021 Emerging Leader at River Rally. What can the network expect from you in your award year?
I think one of the most important steps in addressing the climate crisis, our infrastructure deficit, and any other issue is providing people with the knowledge and tools they need in order to make informed, rational decisions about policy. Many people are simply unaware of the threats posed by the rollbacks we saw over the last four years, or they don’t understand the impacts that climate change will have on their communities if we don’t emphasize mitigation and resilience. Getting people invested in understanding how the river or creek in their backyard works is a great entry point to getting them engaged on policy issues or the advocacy work of any organization. Leveraging people’s inherent interest in their own communities and environment can help environmentalists grow our political and social power so that future generations inherit a habitable planet and swimmable, drinkable, and fishable water.
As a young person in your career, what advice would you give to another young person who is maybe struggling to find their way in this movement?
I think that a lot of young people in any kind of environmental career might find themselves in a role that does not necessarily reflect their values. I would tell that person to find a group that aligns with your values because, there, you will find meaningful work that you might actually be able to pursue. Apart from my first job at the land trust, I have never been paid to do environmental work. But I recognize that some of that has been luck. I have had the good fortune of knowing people (at Alabama Rivers Alliance and elsewhere) who have gone out on limbs for me. But if you can do some work that aligns with your personal mission, even if that is only one day a month, then I think it’s worth it because that work will renew you. And if you can’t find that group, maybe that means getting a group together and starting a new initiative in whatever capacity you can.
This interview took place on April 16, 2021. To learn more about Charles’ work, register for River Rally to attend the Young Professionals Happy Hour and the River Hero Awards Panel.