“I didn’t vote for you,” a six-year old Stephanie Stuckey told President Richard Nixon, after tugging on his jacket to get his attention at a White House holiday party in 1971. “You’re too young to vote,” responded a surprised Nixon. “Even if I was old enough, I wouldn’t have voted for you,” she replied.
Realizing she needed a “quick recovery” from her bold assertion, the young politician-in-the-making asked Nixon how he became president. During his ten-minute explanation, cameras clicked and Stephanie’s father, Congressman Bill Stuckey, and her mother were finally able to find her in the crowd.
Four years later, Stephanie decided that the White House needed to embrace recycling. Sensing that a letter on plain paper might not garner the attention she sought, the precocious ten-year old used her father’s Congressional stationery to make her request. Then-president Gerald Ford responded by saying: “I hope that someday you’ll devote your life and career to protecting our natural resources.” Today, Ford’s framed letter hangs on the wall in her office.
When Stephanie won a seat in the Georgia House in 1998, she sought the advice of her mentor, Sen. Sam Nunn; he told her that she couldn’t be an expert on everything and should focus on one or two core issues, becoming the “go-to” person on those matters. The decision was easy for the lawyer who has long believed that protection of the natural environment was her “calling.” Decades later, the evidence is abundant that Stephanie has used her considerable legal, political and people skills to achieve major results.
Public service is clearly a family tradition. Stephanie’s father represented the 8th District of Georgia for ten years in the US Congress and her grandfather served in the Georgia Legislature, after founding the Stuckey’s candy store chain. Stephanie is particularly proud of her father’s leadership role in creating the Cumberland Island National Seashore in 1972, a complicated negotiating task with government agencies at all levels, the families who have lived on the island for generations, and environmentalists.
From her parents and her own experiences, Stephanie says that she has learned two important lessons about advocating for the environment. First, victories are rarely possible without a broad coalition of interests and, secondly, bipartisan support of environmental initiatives is essential. As evidence, Stephanie cites a significant environmental victory in the early 2000s in favor of Georgia’s waterways. The legislative battle pitted the Georgia Water Coalition and its bipartisan allies against big money, pro-development interests that wanted to change state law to allow the water in our rivers, lakes and streams to become a commodity available to the highest bidder.
I met Stephanie at the State Capitol during this intense period, as I lobbied on behalf of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and the Water Coalition, and I’ve been fortunate to count her as a colleague and friend ever since. After serving fourteen years in the House, Stephanie decided that it was time for her to leave. Her district had been re-drawn; there were good progressive candidates to take her place; and, like her father, she didn’t want to make politics her career.
As the new director of the nonprofit organization GreenLaw, Stephanie says she learned the importance of litigation and the power of the Clean Water Act and its “citizen suit” provision to help everyday people impacted by pollution. She strongly believes that those without power or “a seat at the table” need to consider litigation, if there is no other remedy to protect their families and property.
In early 2015, Stephanie received a call from Mayor Kasim Reed, asking her to serve as the director of sustainability for Atlanta, which was, shortly thereafter, selected one of 100 Resilient Cities worldwide, a program pioneered and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.
Building her team to a staff of 21 and achieving a slew of successes on climate change, clean energy, urban agriculture, green infrastructure and more, Stephanie thrived in the position. The administration’s efforts culminated in Resilient Atlanta, an action-oriented strategy adopted in November 2017; the report provides a ready-to-implement roadmap with practical initiatives to maximize the city’s assets in a changing environment and withstand future shocks and stresses.
With the city’s sustainability program in a strong position and a new administration in place, Stephanie left the city a year ago and in November became the first director of sustainability services at Southface, the nationally-recognized nonprofit that promotes sustainable buildings and communities; she says that the organization has served as the city of Atlanta’s “number one implementation partner for sustainable policy and projects,” so the transition made perfect sense. Understanding that the new administration, led by Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms, has its own priorities, Stephanie is respectful and hopeful that the city will continue to embrace climate resilience strategies.
What does Stephanie view as the biggest urban challenge from the climate crisis? The fact that greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector now exceed those of the built environment – not just in Atlanta, but globally. Ever optimistic, she sees some areas in the city where progress is being made on this issue, but the outspoken activist in her knows that time is limited and we all need to push harder for a safe, prosperous future for everyone.
Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Her Above the Waterline column recently won first place for opinion writing at the Georgia Press Association Awards.