The 2016 presidential election may have paralyzed many progressive Americans for a few days, but not NRDC’s chief program officer, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz. Though she had hoped for the best in the lead-up to the polls, she had planned for the worst.
“I sat on my couch, and like many others, I was in disbelief at what was happening,” she says. “NRDC had a contingency plan because we knew that if something like this happened, we’d all be in a state of shock.”
When North Carolina went red and the Democratic firewall burned down in the Midwest, Casey-Lefkowitz and NRDC’s senior staff held a midnight conference call to rev up that plan. Though she got little sleep that night, Casey-Lefkowitz was in her Washington, D.C., office early the next morning, ready to combat the Trump administration’s expected assault on clean air and water, public lands, and the U.S. commitment to reducing global climate change.
And, it’s not just the Trump administration NRDC has to contend with.
“Keep in mind the 115th Congress started on January 3, and it’s the most anti-environmental congress we’ve ever seen,” says Casey-Lefkowitz. The House and Senate have already made a series of attacks on environmental safeguards such as the Stream Protection Rule, which prevented mining companies from dumping waste into waterways.
Casey-Lefkowitz, alongside Jenny Powers, NRDC’s media director, and David Goldston, NRDC’s director of government affairs, spearheaded a transition team that quickly steered the organization’s policy, communications, and government lobbying efforts to outmaneuver the full-court press coming from the executive and legislative branches.
Already, NRDC has filed three lawsuits against the Trump administration, including one for its withdrawal of the Mercury Protection Rule, another for blocking the rusty patched bumblebee from the Endangered Species List, and a third for its unconstitutional buy-one-and-lose-two regulation deal.
The road ahead looks threatening, but Casey-Lefkowitz remains sanguine and indefatigable. Experience has taught her the value of patience and coalition building. When she began leading NRDC’s efforts against the expanding tar sands industry in Canada’s boreal forest back in 2005, she faced long odds against a corporate behemoth. Working with partners, NRDC helped kill the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. “That was a campaign we were told we couldn’t win, but we did,” she says. “We were able to get out on the street and stand with indigenous groups, ranchers, and partners like 350.org and the Sierra Club.”
Casey-Lefkowitz believes the success of the Keystone XL campaign (a battle that’s been reinvigorated under President Trump) sparked the imagination of the people dedicated to public advocacy. “Our success was much broader than that single project,” she says. “It shows what’s possible when you put the health and safety of people first.”
That campaign—which brought about her first arrest—also strengthened Casey-Lefkowitz’s will to fight. “When you’re standing with others who are willing to put themselves on the line, it’s impossible not to feel emboldened,” she says.
Having lived in the Netherlands and conversant in five languages, Casey-Lefkowitz held posts at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Germany and the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C., before joining NRDC. She’s been devoted to protecting nature since her days as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where she worked in the Monticello gardens. “Gardening gave me a feeling of connection to the land,” she says.
At UVA’s law school, environmental advocacy was an unconventional focus. “At that time there was a stress on corporate law, but learning environmental law through that lens taught me something about how corporations think,” she says.
Now, almost three decades later, Casey-Lefkowitz has learned that while progress may sometimes come at a slow pace, persistence pays off. It’s an attitude she fosters at the office, where any one of her colleagues might pop through her open door when in need of a boost in morale. “I try to remind our staff about the long view,” she said. “A single campaign may take 10 years.”
Her experience has also taught her how a common threat can strengthen partnerships among organizations. Since Inauguration Day, threats to public health, to the environment, and to civil rights have multiplied in tandem. Along with helping NRDC team up with other environmental and equal-protection advocacy groups, Casey-Lefkowitz has been showing her support for issues across the board in person—from rallying at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., to protesting Trump’s travel ban on the steps of the Supreme Court to speaking outside the White House after Trump fast-tracked the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. “When people mobilize and stand up for what’s right, it makes me eager to keep going,” she says.