August Ball on Wisconsin’s most pressing environmental justice issues

Jun 7, 2023 | River:30

In 2016, August M. Ball, a (mixed race, multi-lingual) Black woman, founded Cream City Conservation to employ young adults from Milwaukee’s marginalized and underrepresented communities to restore and create resilient environments in underfunded public lands.

She has served as an appointee to Governor Evers’ Task Force on Climate Change , the Milwaukee City & County Climate & Economic Equity Taskforce, and the US Water Alliance’s Water Equity Taskforce, representing Milwaukee as a delegate.

As the facilitator of Cream City Conservation and Consulting, Ball leads cohorts of environmentalists – including River Alliance of Wisconsin – through deep Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion workshops. Over 1000 C4 participants have graduated from the 4-month program all over the globe. 

We spoke with August about how she got into conservation work, Wisconsin’s most pressing environmental justice issues, and where she sees progress in diversity and inclusion in the environmental movement.


How did you get into conservation work?

I tell people I got into it by accident. Life hasn’t been linear. I grew up on a farm in the Philippines, though I’m not Filipino by ethnicity. For me, conservation was a way of life and being sustainable and reducing waste was a requirement for existing in the Philippines. When I went back to the United States and finished college, I took a job in an Americorps program. It was the beginning of my exposure to the community education component of environmentalism. I got to work on an eco-justice farm in Burlington, WI which was run by Dominican nuns. I remember a nun was doing an activity with the summer program about biodiversity and the interdependence of all things. She put language to a way of being that I didn’t have the language for. 

Fast forward to post-college, I saw a job description for a program manager for the Student Conservation Association. It sounded amazing. You got to hire your own team and be outdoors with teens. I had experience working with youth, but I didn’t think I was qualified for it. My background was in sociology. And this was well before I learned so much from people like Brian Russert from Milwaukee Parks and John Lunz who leads conservation efforts in Milwaukee. But I thought, heck I’ll throw my name in. To my surprise I got hired. 

After I got hired I asked my boss why. She said they had had a lot of folks who came through their doors with ecological knowledge, but really didn’t like working with teens! They needed to find someone who liked working with teens and community building because the SCA could teach the ecology.

I use that same mindset when I hire my team now. It’s great to find people who went to the University of Stevens Point and have a background in forestry or trails, but some of the best leaders are young adults who are learning something new for the first time. It’s fresh in their mind. They have a student mindset and aren’t as susceptible to information blind spots. They are excited about it. Crew leaders who have some youth development backgrounds make good leaders because they are mindful of the needs of young people in a new environment, learning a new skill.

What do you see as Wisconsin’s most pressing environmental justice issue and why?

That’s complicated. It’s really three-fold: climate resiliency, workforce representation, and climate migration are Wisconsin’s top issues we should focus on. 

Climate change: It’s here, it’s happening. We screwed up and we’re feeling the impacts of it. We’re going to continue to see migration for folks who are leaving their homes of origin and moving to the midwest. At the same time in Wisconsin, Milwaukee is seeing an exodus of professionals of color, especially Black professionals who are feeling the impacts of the fact that Milwaukee has earned the dishonor of being the worst place in the country to raise Black children and the worst place in America to be Black. 

In terms of solving the problem with innovative ideas for climate resilience, we need to revamp who is at the decision-making table. I do believe that this is happening, especially with Governor Evers’ and former Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes’ investment in planning and the administration’s commitment to climate resilience and pulling a plethora of ideas and stakeholders together. It’s the only way we can come up with solutions that work for all. 

As far as workforce diversity as it relates to conservation, we continue to fail to cultivate a workforce that is representative of our state. I’m hopeful, though, as more and more nonprofits take heed of the fact that we can’t solely rely on volunteers – especially seniors – to keep mission-driven, nonprofit work going. We need to work intergenerationally and interculturally so all people see themselves as conservationists, as belonging to the land, so they can protect it for generations to come. 

What changes are you seeing in the conservation movement that inspire you, or show you how efforts are becoming more diverse and inclusive? Any groups in your cohorts that are showing progress?

I have to give a shout out to the Urban Ecology Center and Milwaukee Water Commons. Both are doing an amazing job of connecting communities to the land and water respectively. Nearby Nature is doing great work. Program Director Steve Hunter put two of his children through our conservation program years ago. We can look to the Neighborhood House and Nearby Nature to see how people are creating a village-like experience with a lot of co-learning when we come together. I can also point to our partnership with Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s Fresh Coast Ambassadors program that is fostering the next generation of water reclamation professionals.

I got a first-hand look at the Milwaukee County Parks Department when I worked for them as a community engagement officer, just to see what they do with so little. The average resident in Milwaukee County may not know how significantly underfunded they are. I tip my hat to Guy Smith and his team there. 

Cream City Conservation Corps programs train people in green infrastructure to understand water reclamation. These are careers a lot of us didn’t hear about in high school. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to spread awareness about a career field in conservation, whether it’s direct services on the land, or policy work, wastewater, working in architecture. There is a place for all of us in this movement. If you’re a creator, or you’re in marketing, you can help communicate the importance of these issues. 

What gives me hope is seeing how others recognize that environmental conservation and environmental justice are one and the same. It’s the same body. It’s about communication. If you don’t have one, you don’t have the other because we need those who are impacted first and impacted the worst at the table where decisions are made. 

What would you say to clean water protection groups that are struggling with attracting supporters or who haven’t taken steps toward embracing justice and diversity?

I compare it to when a health practitioner tells us about stress management, they encourage mindfulness and breathing techniques over unhealthy coping mechanisms and yet we say “I’m so busy, I don’t have time to do the things that work!”

Groups are invited to consider that the only way they are going to lighten the load is to attract more helpers. If they are not going to prioritize receiving information about diversity, or building up an arsenal of awareness about communities beyond their own front door, their work will become obsolete and their mission will not be served. 

If young people aren’t involved with your organization, you’re missing out! Innovative people don’t want to work with clones of themselves either. If we want something different for our organizations, we have to try different things. It’s lazy logic to say ‘if people aren’t showing up, they aren’t interested.’ We need to ask ‘what have we done to make our organizations accessible to communities who’ve historically been shown they are not welcome?”

This sort of reflection requires a lot of humility and tolerance for discomfort. You need a willingness to acknowledge we’ve been missing the mark somewhere along the route without interpreting that mistake as us as human beings being wrong. People will say ‘I’ll do the work.” but what they really mean – and show by their actions – is that they will do the work as long as they don’t have to be uncomfortable and only if they get accolades for doing the bare minimum. This sort of performative work only feeds distrust and consequently the social divide.

At some point we need to recognize the difference between pain and discomfort. We think discomfort is pain, but we’re really just using a muscle we haven’t used before. We have to question what we think is true. We have to question ourselves, which can be hardest of all. I think what we allocate time to is what we value. 

This is heartbreaking, but I have lost track of the number of stories of former Corps members who were excited about their experience in the outdoors, but went to work for a predominately white organization and experienced problems with microaggressions so much that they left the industry. Compared to the tech industry, we in the conservation field are failing. We can’t afford to fail.

I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t believe we had capacity to build better environments for people to come together and have differences understood as a value add rather than an obstacle to be overcome.

– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director


This message is made possible by generous donors who believe people have the power to protect and restore water.

Help River Alliance of Wisconsin celebrate our 30th anniversary! Support our work with your contribution today or take the River:30 pledge to spend more time with Wisconsin’s rivers this year.