For the last thirteen years Jesse Kharbanda has served as the executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC), an organization leading Indiana in environmental advocacy and education. Kharbanda possesses an elegant and all-encompassing vision for a Hoosier future that is healthy, sustainable, and green. Kharbanda rises above current political divisiveness, and shows us how to be eminently accessible and effective as activists. If there is someone who can discern the place where big agriculture, clean water, healthy citizens, and a good economy can find common ground, it’s Kharbanda.
BEN VALENTINE: I find that many people who fight to protect the environment had a seminal moment when they began to see the value of nature when so many don’t. Was there a specific experience that brought you to this work?
JESSE KHARBANDA: It’s hard to point to a seminal experience; I’ve always cared for people and for animals, and, thankfully, you can help both in the field of environmental protection. Growing up, my family’s many travels to nature areas both in the U.S and abroad (e.g., Europe, India, and South America), which my mother really encouraged, no doubt deepened my love for our forests, rivers, lakes, and other ecosystems. I will also never forget the images of seeing very poor children in the developing world selling wares and seeking donations in the midst of unrelenting diesel pollution and frequent open burning; poverty and environmental damage are often intertwined, not only in the developing world but here in the U.S., and those images have made me long mindful of our deep obligation to address environmental injustice.
VALENTINE: You’ve served as the executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) for thirteen years now. Looking back, what makes you the most proud?
KHARBANDA: I’m grateful that HEC has become an organization that is versatile in how we achieve our goals: Statehouse-based advocacy; legal action; highly targeted grassroots organizing; thought leadership; strategic technical assistance, and more. This makes HEC remarkably agile in pursuing high-impact opportunities, especially important in the always-tough political terrain of Indiana. We can look back at legislative victories (e.g., stopping bills that would have stripped local governments of their ability to protect different parts of our environment), landmark legal wins, and notable grassroots successes (where HEC provided a crucial assist) as the legacy of our versatility — and the legacy of our talented team, volunteers, and allies.
VALENTINE: For those readers who aren’t familiar with all the good work you all are doing, what is HEC’s vision for Indiana, and what do you do to achieve that goal?
KHARBANDA: We aspire for Indiana to be a state where every Hoosier can breathe clean air and drink clean water and where countless Hoosiers are employed in sustainable agriculture, energy, & transportation and in green infrastructure. We dream of a state with a far greater commitment to preserving endangered natural areas, for the good of wildlife and people. I’ve described the methods that we use to achieve our vision in my prior answer and here I’ll note that we complement those methods with a unique culture — one that is collaborative and friendly, research-driven, that is ever-striving to build meaningful, positive relationships with non traditional allies (e.g., health professionals, faith communities, and stewardship-minded conservatives), and that is not hesitant to be assertive in the courts of law or to square off with big special economic interests to protect the people’s health.
VALENTINE: What are the biggest obstacles to achieving that vision, and what is the best way for interested readers to help?
KHARBANDA: Big special economic interests exert undue influence on our elected officials. In the Indiana General Assembly, Indiana’s investor-owned electrical utilities pushed lawmakers to dismantle a program that was helping to reduce Hoosier energy bills and another program that was helping to make rooftop solar more affordable for our homes, businesses, and places of worship. Big economic interests convinced lawmakers to weaken protections for Indiana’s state-protected wetlands, which are 90% less than they used to be. Agribusiness has blocked any meaningful policy reform to protect rural Hoosiers from the air toxins coming out of factory farm waste pits. Another layer of obstacle is many of our current lawmakers make decisions based on ideology rather than on credible research. The more research-grounded Hoosiers run for office and win, the more prosperous and healthy Indiana will be. Our long-term hope, from a civic activism perspective, is simply that more and more Hoosiers will speak out to their lawmakers — in town hall (“Third House”) meetings, in one-to-one meetings (or Zoom calls), and through letters to the editor. Greater and greater levels of civic action, in rural, urban, and suburban counties, is the only way to offset the considerable influence of large special interests in shaping Indiana’s laws.
VALENTINE: You call HEC a big tent organization, welcoming everyone to the table in order to get the work done. This is literally true in that your conference,Greening the Statehouse, considers itself to be the largest Hoosier environmental conference, drawing diverse speakers and attendees. Why is it so important to get everyone in the same room, even those environmentalists haven’t historically considered allies?
KHARBANDA: Fundamentally, HEC is after goals that every Hoosier ought to rally around, like clean air, clean water, and abundant open space. It leads us to believe that there is limitless potential for growing the movement for positive environmental change in our state. And that, in turn, leads us to believe that attitudes towards the environment among lawmakers will change as increasing numbers — and an increasing breadth — of Hoosiers speak up. Furthermore, the greater breadth of people that we engage, the more likely we will see sustainable practices in every county of our state, whether that is weatherizing one’s home, installing a rain garden, walking & biking whenever safe, composting and recycling, and more. A true, enduring, and broad-based shift in values can only occur if we engage everyone.
VALENTINE: I’m taken by HEC’s framing of, and commitment to environmental justice. Tell us about environmental justice in Indiana, and why it is so important.
KHARBANDA: Low-income communities and communities of color have borne, and continue to bear, a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution, whether that’s being more likely to live near a contaminated, abandoned factory, a leaking waste disposal site, or a high traffic intersection with all of the attendant truck exhaust pollution. Every Hoosier has the right to clean air and water, and there’s an added urgency to get this right since low-income Hoosiers and communities of color often face considerable challenges such as living in food deserts, having access to lower quality education and housing, and having less maintained infrastructure. Given the multi-varied nature of environmental injustice, HEC concentrates our energies, when resources are available, on Marion County and Lake County. In just the last few years, in Indianapolis, we’ve helped embed the concept of environmental justice into city-wide plans, blocked a dirty factory from being built near a school and daycare center in a low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhood, and made the state of Indiana more attentive to environmental justice considerations in our capital city with respect to a major highway rebuilding project and a major underground spill area.
VALENTINE: How is HEC responding to the issue of climate change?
KHARBANDA: We see all of our initiatives through the lens of the climate crisis. Because of that mindset, we’re working on so many fronts to advance climate solutions: Organizing workshops in multiple regions of Indiana on solar energy. Testifying in support of the construction of zero-carbon technologies like utility-scale solar with battery systems. Advancing statewide mass transit legislation. Pushing to create more “carbon sinks” in Indiana through the permanent preservation of more forests. Pressing lawmakers to invest in green infrastructure and urging them to oppose legislation that would weaken cities’ and counties’ ability to respond to storms and floods. Speaking up for the need in the Indiana General Assembly to create a Climate Task Force. Making these climate solutions a reality — at the scale and pace that is needed — requires us to create a grand coalition like we have never seen in Indiana. We’re doing our part by deepening our relationships with progressive groups (such as our having helped to plan Indiana’s first-ever Climate March) while building relationships with political and religious conservatives in the Indiana Statehouse, Indiana business world, and the Evangelical and conservative Catholic communities. Furthermore, we’ve helped give climate-minded conservatives a platform to share their message in Indiana; former Congressman Bob Inglis and Reverend Mitch Hescox, two of the most influential “climate hawk” conservatives in America, have been very recent keynote speakers at our Greening the Statehouse, the largest annual gathering of environmental-minded people in Indiana, which draws Hoosiers from across the political spectrum. Addressing the climate crisis more broadly and firmly in Indiana will accelerate the creation of new sectors of employment, new arenas of innovation, new opportunities for private & social entrepreneurship, and new approaches to activism. We should therefore not avoid or fear or resist the climate crisis but embrace addressing it.
VALENTINE: Any exciting plans or developments we should be keeping an eye out for?
KHARBANDA: There are too many to name! We encourage readers to attend Greening the Statehouse, Indiana’s largest annual gathering of environmental-minded Hoosiers, which will be held on Nov. 20-21 and will be virtual for the first time in our thirteen year history of organizing this. It’s our signature annual event (hecweb.org/gts) and is the best way to learn about leading Indiana environmental issues and solutions and to learn about very specific, high impact ways to make a difference in changing our laws for the better. We’re also excited about endeavors we’re taking on to keep Hoosiers and their drinking water sources safe from coal ash, efforts to help safeguard an area in Indiana once known as “the Everglades of the North,” and a new initiative to help foster pollinator-friendly habitats on Indiana’s ever-growing number of solar farms. We encourage all readers to follow us on Facebook (hecweb), Twitter (hec_ed), and Instagram (hoosierenvcouncil).