Chao at her community's beach, where a living shoreline was installed on Chase Creek a few years before she moved there with her family. (Chesapeake Bay Program/Will Parson)

If you asked Noelle Chao five years ago to explain the country’s environmental issues, she’d probably mention things like drilling in Alaska, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline or the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But starting in 2017, she began to see things a little differently.

In the summer of that year, Chao attended an information session at the Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy (WSA). At the session, WSA Director Suzanne Etgen gave a presentation on how a majority of land in Anne Arundel County, Maryland is privately owned, which means that the issue of polluted runoff has as much to do with the average person’s yard as it does with major industrial polluters.

Living in a community on the Severn River, Chao realized that when it came to the environment, she and her husband might have been paying attention to the wrong issues.

“It never occurred to us that we needed to be focusing on the environmental issues where we lived, and as homeowners, doing what we could on our own piece of land to do the right thing.”

Growing up in a family where people cared a lot about conserving and not wasting, Chao has always had a number of environmentally-friendly habits ingrained in her, like reusing materials, conserving energy and recycling. But she admits that these habits don’t always translate into responsible actions outside the home.

As an adult, she began asking herself what more she could be doing to live up to her values, and maybe how she could help others do the same.

Bringing communities together for cleaner water

It didn’t take long for Chao’s epiphany to spur on a career change. She had been looking transition out of her current job, and a few months after that 2017 information session, she accepted a job as a program coordinator at WSA.

Now, Chao’s entire workday revolves around encouraging and empowering everyday people like herself to become leaders in environmental action.

She is key player in a number of WSA programs, including Clean Water Communities, where she connects neighborhoods with the tools to reduce stormwater pollution, RiverWise Congregations, where she mobilizes congregations across the watershed to adopt eco-friendly practices, and Certification Course for Watershed Stewards, where she helps train individuals in becoming certified watershed stewards. Recently, she’s also become the point person for WSA’s educational outreach, where she assigns volunteer stewards to solve environmental issues that schools are dealing with on their property.

Through its certification course, WSA trains community members to install landscape projects that reduce pollution and organize campaigns to encourage environmentally-friendly habits. Stewards who complete the training can volunteer through WSA’s programs or take on projects through other community connections. Most watershed stewards enter the program because they have noticed their local water quality worsening or have experienced flooding or drainage issues on their properties and want to do something about it.

“What the Watershed Stewards Academy gives to all the stewards who are a part of it is hope,” said Chao. In her experience, community members often feel like not enough is being done to protect local lands and water. “It doesn’t mean that we give up, because we can do so much on our own.”

Chao at a community park, where she obtained funding for native plants through a grant from Unity Gardens.

Chao at a community park, where she obtained funding for native plants through a grant from Unity Gardens. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Working on both sides of the fence

Chao’s work doesn’t only focus on empowering volunteers to make environmental improvements, but also persuading people who aren’t jumping at the opportunity to make changes in their lives for a cleaner Bay.

Throughout Anne Arundel County, she often has to collaborate with folks who are hesitant to plant more trees in their yard or fix a runoff problem, though it’s not that they don’t want to help. Most of the time, community members want to be a part of the solution, but because of competing neighborhood priorities, feel like no meaningful progress can happen.

Chao doesn’t think people should give up when they’re struggling to make their goals for the environment a reality. As she explains, “We all have to just decide ‘hey we’ve all got our different perspectives but if we have an end goal in sight, the way to accomplish that end goal is to bring everyone together.”

Making room for more seats at the table doesn’t just include those resistant to environmental best practices, but also those who want to help but are limited based on resources and access. WSA relies mostly on volunteers making environmental improvements in their own communities, but there are many neighborhoods in Anne Arundel County where residents may not have the time and financial stability to volunteer, which means those communities have few opportunities to connect with WSA’s existing programs.

Chao and others at WSA realize that this creates barriers to participation and are actively developing programs that could fill these gaps, as well as conducting internal analyses on their relationships with diverse communities.

“Even in my work now at WSA, it’s a truism that there isn’t one message or program that’s going to work for every community,” said Chao. “It’s figuring out what we can design that’s going to serve the needs of communities we haven’t previously engaged, by listening to their concerns, respecting and hearing what they’re saying, and creating opportunities to connect that value them and address their needs.”

Continuing her work through hardship

With the bulk of Chao’s work being about connecting with new people every day, it’s important for her to have a level of trust in her community. This was put to the test in the last several months as prejudice against Asian Americans rose in the country.

At one point in 2020, a neighbor made a remark to Chao, who is Chinese American, about COVID-19 that intensified her anxiety. And after the shootings in Atlanta, in which the majority of victims were women of Asian descent, Chao and her family members felt an even stronger separation from their community.

“We didn’t feel like a lot of people could understand how anxious we were being outside, not knowing whether it would be safe,” said Chao.

Issues of racism and cultural conflict have always hindered environmental progress. People who would otherwise work together to keep their communities clean or advocate for changes are kept from doing so because of interpersonal tension.

Fortunately, leaders like Chao and her colleagues at WSA are inching us closer to stronger and more unified communities. The initial goal might be to make our lands and waters cleaner, but in the end, so much more can be accomplished because of it.

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