Stephanie Prellwitz Believes in the Power of Her People
The nonprofit leader learned that the best way to handle an environmental crisis is to trust that your community will move forward together
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Stephanie Prellwitz told her story to producer Sarah Fuss Kessler for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I remember seeing things like a gas station lifted off its foundation and moved across the parking lot. I remember there was this dentist office where the entire building was gone. Everything, all the walls, the plumbing, but a single dentist chair was left bolted to the ground. It felt like an impossible task for these communities.
I live in Ripon, Wisconsin. I’m the CEO of a nonprofit organization called the Green Lake Association. I am an engineer. I’m a gardener. I’m a mother. I’m a wife. And I’m trying to keep it all in balance.
I was a sophomore at the University of Kentucky, and I was studying biomedical engineering. So I was working in labs dissecting mice, and Hurricane Katrina happened.
I took my fall break with a student group, and I headed down to Pass Christian, Mississippi, east of New Orleans. We were tasked with going there to help with the cleanup. And often we were working with the homeowners themselves to provide some relief, an extra set of hands to help them clean up the wreck.
The hurricane happened in August, so months had passed, and it was still in disarray. It looked like the day after it happened.
Obviously I wasn’t affected like the entire community was, but what I saw there I think forever changed me. What I saw is that Pass Christian, Mississippi was completely destroyed. It was leveled. Nothing was standing there. Rubble that filled entire city blocks was as high as buildings. Old photographs and heirlooms and history…it was all washed away.
It seemed out of balance, that nature was out of balance. The hot summer, it was this oppressive heat. We slept in a hollowed out church, so just the frame of the building existed, and a roof. We slept in our sleeping bags.
I remember pulling out moldy insulation, pulling out refrigerators that had been rotting in the sun. We had to duct tape them shut and make sure that the black oozing goo didn’t make its way out of the refrigerator onto your arms.
It felt impossible.
I think for me, the moments of hope were during mealtime. Putting on a lunch or a dinner for an entire community was no small feat. Still seeing that people found moments to laugh and to smile and to talk about their day. These were people who lost everything, but they still had hope.
And what was so inspiring was that working together and seeing the community working together made a difference. We didn’t solve all of the problems, but in this teeny town, in this single community, that we were able to work together to make a difference, felt like somehow restoring that natural balance.
So I came back to Lexington and I ditched biomedical engineering. I got out of the lab and I changed my major to biosystems and agricultural engineering. That for me really opened the door. I got to learn about these living, breathing systems, using engineering and biology to work with communities to solve environmental problems.
I worked for a few years at a consulting engineering firm, a civil engineering firm. I was sizing bridges, sizing culverts, and doing erosion control plans, but for me it was missing that people component. So I went back to grad school in the same major at Madison. I found myself living in Ripon, Wisconsin. I then took a job at the Green Lake Association.
Green Lake is in central Wisconsin, in the Lake Michigan watershed. So the water that flows from Green Lake makes its way northward and eventually drains in Green Bay to Lake Michigan. The mission of the Green Lake Association is to safeguard this amazing lake to improve its water quality and protect it from critical threats.
Last summer, right after the Fourth of July weekend, we started to hear some noise from really concerned neighbors about this non-metallic mine, which is really a quarry, that was going in their neighborhood. What was so alarming to us is that this non-metallic mine, that would be a 40-acre gravel pit, would be a single farm field away from these really incredible springs which are well known in the community, revered. These are magical spaces. They form the headwaters of our trout streams, and also this is the same groundwater that is flowing into people’s drinking water wells.
Literally just that year we had learned that brook trout were finally, naturally reproducing in Dakin Creek. They were last seen 70 years ago. The Green Lake Association worked on this project to bring brook trout back. And not only were they living and thriving, but they were naturally reproducing, which is such an important indicator of the water quality.
And so when this mine project came along, I think the whole community realized what was at stake.
We worked in the coming months, and we filed an appeal to the Board of Adjustment. We rallied the hell out of the community. All of that came together on December 23, two days before Christmas. There was a blizzard like I had never seen before, and I thought, We’re gonna lose the community voice here. But when I showed up at the courthouse, there was a line out the door, and as I weaved my way through the line and went through security, what I saw was there were probably a hundred people in the courthouse. There were hundreds of people who had joined online.
For hours during public comment, people came to the microphone. I remember hearing from a dairy farmer who lived across the street. He was worried about the quality of the water and the quantity of the water that he relied on to water his dairy cows. We heard stories from the Ho-Chunk tribe, who talked about the spiritual value of these properties, and how much it mattered to not have short-term gains permanently degrade these natural resources.
And so yes, we had the science and we had the data to show that this mine was gonna be a problem. But I think most importantly, I felt like the community carried us through. Their stories were so powerful that we were able to stop the mine.
When I think about what we were able to accomplish, it reminds me so much of what I saw in Hurricane Katrina. I think a lot of the work is about community trying to bring back balance to make these natural systems resilient. So that when the next challenge comes along they’re more able to cope with it.
Stephanie Prellwitz is the CEO of the Green Lake Association, a winner of the 2022 Defender Service Award. Established by Land Rover, these awards recognize the nonprofits doing selfless service for their communities every day. You can learn more about the Green Lake Association at greenlakeassociation.org.