Q & A with Meleesa Johnson, Executive Director
WI Green Fire, January 14, 2024
Getting to know our new Executive Director
by Ruth Oppedahl
Recently, Ruth Oppedahl spoke with the new Executive Director of Wisconsin’s Green Fire (WGF), Meleesa Johnson. Meleesa took on this role at the end of October 2023, enthusiastically steering the organization with continued leadership in science-based conservation of natural resources. With this quick 10-point Question and Answer conversation, we invite you to get to know Meleesa and her vision for Wisconsin’s Green Fire!
1. Why did you choose to apply for this position as Executive Director of WGF?
I applied because this position is full of everything I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can think. My degree is from the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay in Environmental Policy and Planning. My first love is public policy. Weaving together the science that feeds into the policy: that’s what Wisconsin’s Green Fire does. This is what I want to do. Let’s rediscover our state’s conservation roots when Wisconsin was the pinnacle and source of environmental thought. We can light that green fire again.
2. What do you think makes WGF different from other conservation organizations? What’s the biggest strength of WGF?
I know many folks at other statewide organizations. There is division between some, but Wisconsin’s Green Fire is deeper into the policies and science than others. We really rely on Wisconsin’s Green Fire to get the science right. But we need a conversation about advancing science and at least connecting with other groups while doing our own advocacy and search for the truth.
The risk is that the brain trust (WGF’s expert Work Group members) could go away if we are not careful. We need to regenerate that knowledge with younger people. They are passionate and still searching for the truth. They are always in that endless search—that’s what keeps them going. We have to evaluate new things that come in and not be afraid.
WGF’s biggest strength is the members. The work Wisconsin’s Green Fire does is unimaginable. We are a family of folks who may not always agree, but that’s the process.
3. What’s your vision for Wisconsin’s Green Fire?
I’ve been on the WGF Science Council and the Contaminants of Emerging Concern Work Group for several years. We are building that next generation of leaders/scientists as we matriculate out. If we look 20 years from now, we need to be building capacity for the next group of leaders in research, policy, and education now. We need to be welcoming to medical professionals, attorneys and others who do the work of preserving our natural heritage. We need to keep Wisconsin’s Green Fire young, fresh, and vibrant.
When I began college, I was 20 years older than most students. I learned so much from my younger peers. When I ran for mayor of Stevens Point all my volunteers were under the age of 28: the digital director, campaign manager, etc. I’d like to build opportunities to engage young people like them in Wisconsin’s Green Fire.
4. What do you think is/will be WGF’s biggest challenge?
Our biggest challenge is maintaining this brain trust. Let’s face it, donors give to programs and want to give to the future. We need to build an opportunity for the future and #1 is welcoming young leaders. Let’s make sure we ask for their opinion, value their ideas even if we don’t agree. There is a strong chance their ideas will lead us forward.
5. If WGF was given $1 Million dollars, what would you do with it?
- Create an endowment for scholarships to help support the next generation of leaders.
- Carve out some dollars to engage students on campuses like University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Oshkosh, Stevens Point to get more students involved in WGF and the future.
- Hire a Science Coordinator. WGF is doing good work, but we could use someone to coordinate all our work.
- Use donations to leverage more donations or grants. There’s money out there and WGF could use a skilled grant writer.
6. What according to you makes a great team?
That we trust one another. My three core values are respect, helpfulness, and honesty. Everyone has to feel they are safe in this place. We may not always agree, but these values equal a great team. There is never a bad idea if we are honest, open, and welcoming to conversation underscored with empathy. If we listen to understand, not just respond.
7. How did you get to this point in your career?
I raised my kids in poverty. The only thing that was always right and true was when I looked at them. I couldn’t give up. Nothing is more important to me than my child and grandchild. I was not giving up. I wanted something better for them. People told me I wasn’t smart enough, know my place, blah, blah… I am here today because even in the worst of times, I had my kids and we moved forward.
When I had the chance to go to college as a non-traditional student at age 40, I made the most of it, and it changed our lives.
8. What book(s) have you read recently?
A friend gave me the book Smart Brevity. It is an easy read. I like words! I enjoy spy novels.
9. What’s your favorite hobby or pastime?
My hobby is building capacity in my community. I’ve focused on homelessness and criminal justice reform. I co-founded Friends of Emerson Park. I enjoy riding my bike on the Green Circle in Stevens Point. I enjoy flower and herb gardening.
10. What is something you’d like us to know about you?
I enjoy being with family and friends. Celebrate life!