We are proud to recognize a group of young professionals who are working on critical environmental issues, from cleaning up water to improving community greenspaces. While some on this list have local ties, we decided to broaden our scope and highlight people making an impact across metro Atlanta.

Rachel Maher, 36

Director of communications and policy, Park Pride

Rachel Maher has spent nine years at Park Pride, a nonprofit that helps communities improve their parks.

She was just named director of communications and policy, in part due to her efforts with the Greenspace Advisory Council, which will help guide Atlanta’s policy on parks and greenspace.

It’s an effort that began back in 2017, Maher said. Park Pride brought together 13 nonprofits aimed at making greenspace a critical issue to the mayoral campaign.

The group came back together for the 2021 mayoral election, putting together a list of collective priorities for the candidates.

About a month after Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens took office, he announced those 13 nonprofits would form a “green cabinet,” becoming his trusted advisors on parks, greenspace and recreation. The groups include the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, Trees Atlanta, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance and Eco-Action, among others.

Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, called Maher the glue that held the group together, crediting her for coordinating with the 13 nonprofits and keeping the effort going.

Maher said she’s excited for what they can accomplish. They are already meeting on Activate ATL, the city’s 10-year master plan for parks and recreation.

“I am very hopeful,” Maher said. “There hasn’t been a time in my last nine years at Park Pride where this many nonprofits have come together for a shared purpose.”

Maher is a native of Buffalo, New York, and grew up on Lake Erie. “Being in nature was always front and center,” she said. 

Maher double majored in communications and biology at the University of Richmond.

After college, she spent time in Morocco as an environmental and community development volunteer with the Peace Corps.

Outside of work, Maher is an avid gardener, and her home garden in Edgewood is certified as a wildlife sanctuary through Georgia Audubon. 

She’s currently in a graduate program at Georgia State University, studying urban planning and economic development. 

Brionté McCorkle, 29

Executive director, Georgia Conservation Voters

Brionté McCorkle is on a mission to tackle both environmental and social justice issues.

Early in her career, she was really struck by the lack of diversity in the field.

“Some of the strongest and most passionate people who care the most about the environment are people of color, who are largely excluded,” said McCorkle, who studied public policy at Georgia State University. “That narrows our thinking. It stunts the solutions that we’re coming up with and promoting, because we don’t have all that perspective.”

McCorkle currently serves as executive director of the Georgia Conservation Voters, where she is working to elect pro-environment candidates and hold elected officials accountable. The organization also educates voters and lobbies for environmental and social justice issues.

One of her proudest accomplishments is raising awareness about the Public Service Commission and clean energy issues across the state.

Among her efforts, McCorkle is a plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenges how Georgia elects its utility regulators, claiming the Public Service Commission’s statewide at-large districts dilute the voting power of Black residents. It’s set for a hearing in federal court in June.

“We spent a lot of time working on that voting rights lawsuit to try to secure more representation on the Public Service Commission, which we hope will lead to more clean energy,” she said.

McCorkle’s impressive resume includes past roles with the Atlanta Regional Commission and Southface Institute. She also previously served as assistant director for the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter, where she led its involvement in the successful effort to expand MARTA to Clayton County. McCorkle said she learned a valuable lesson from that experience – how to best approach communities about environmental issues.

“When you connect it with their immediate concerns, which are usually economic in nature, they will be more receptive to the environmental message,” she said. 

She also ran for Atlanta City Council District 11 in 2017, almost making it to the runoff by a difference of 166 votes.

“I was just overwhelmed by the amount of support,” she said, noting she’s open to running for office in the future. “It really taught me that every relationship matters.”

April Lipscomb, 38

Senior attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center

As a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), April Lipscomb gives a voice to organizations and citizens affected by pollution and mismanagement of environmental resources.

“My practice area focuses on clean water and environmental justice,” said Lipscomb, a DeKalb County resident who earned her law degree from the University of Denver. “I work closely with other environmental groups and community groups that want to protect our water resources or clean up polluted waterways.”

For example, she has represented Riverkeeper organizations in lawsuits against industrial and municipal wastewater dischargers to enforce the Clean Water Act, and she has helped negotiate settlements to reduce the amount of pollution in wastewater going into rivers and streams.

For her work with river groups across the state, in 2018, the Georgia River Network awarded Lipscomb as its River Conservationist of the Year. That honor also recognized Lipscomb’s role in securing Georgia’s first bill governing fracking, which better protects local communities and drinking water.

She’s currently representing the Citizens for a Healthy and Safe Environment, a citizen activist group concerned about a Metro Green Recycling plant built directly next to Black neighborhoods in the city of Stonecrest. 

The citizen activist group and the city sued Metro Green and the director of the state Environmental Protection Division, claiming the company improperly got authorization for the solid waste handling and recycling plant, which could expose people to pollution as well as excessive noise, dust, and heavy dump truck traffic. 

Last September, a DeKalb County judge granted Lipscomb’s request to enjoin Metro Green’s operation while the case is pending.

“We intervened to protect that community and to make sure that their voices were heard,” Lipscomb said. “The neighbors had no idea this facility had been approved to crush concrete and handle solid waste in their backyards, and we’re doing everything we can to reverse this environmental injustice.”

Matt Josey, 28

Park planner, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area

Matt Josey came to appreciate the natural world as a kid in Boy Scouts, especially time he spent at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, backpacking in the Rocky Mountains.

“It really left me with this passion to leverage my professional career … to protect these special places so that future generations can enjoy them,” said Josey, an Eagle Scout.

He landed an internship with the National Park Service (NPS) his last semester at Georgia Tech, where he’s worked​ permanently since 2015. In that time, he has honed his skills in strategic planning and building community partnerships. Some standout moments include working on the 100th anniversary of the NPS in 2016, along with helping manage a fund source called the Centennial Challenge, which leveraged funding from Congress and matching donations from partner organizations to fund priority infrastructure projects, such as​ the rehabilitation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home.

Now, he is a park planner with the Sandy Springs-based Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA), which is a National Park Unit that spans 48 ​river miles along the Chattahoochee. It includes 15 ​land units, such as the Palisades.

Josey is actively involved in the CRNRA’s very first trails management plan, which will provide direction for improving trail conditions within the park’s more than 5,200 acres. A ​final draft plan is being released for public comment in ​early April.

“This is pretty huge for us, and we’re going to look at how we can improve our existing trail systems, increase our trail mileage​, and improve the visitor experience on park trails,” Josey said.

He also serves as the park representative for the​ Chattahoochee RiverLands working group, a regional vision to build a 125-mile multimodal trail running from Buford Dam to Chattahoochee Bend State Park. While it is not a NPS project, it would involve greenway construction on NPS land and requires coordination with the CRNRA.

Outside of work, Josey is proud to have served on the ​master plan advisory committee for​Westside Park, Atlanta’s largest park. 

Gina Webber, 28

Deputy director, Sierra Club Georgia Chapter

Before coming to the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter, Gina Webber spent several years fundraising for local and state Democratic campaigns.

They served as deputy finance director for Cathy Woolard during her 2017 Atlanta mayoral campaign.

Webber then worked as finance director for Lindy Miller when she ran unsuccessfully for Georgia Public Service Commission in 2018. That experience opened their eyes to environmental justice issues. The Public Service Commission regulates the state’s utility companies.

“I heard so many stories on the campaign trail about people who have been affected by bad energy policy, by toxic coal ash, by high energy bills,” said Webber, a native of Dunwoody who earned a political science degree from Georgia College. “It really made me realize how much of an economic issue it is and a people issue.”

In that role, Webber helped raise voter awareness around the Public Service Commission, which is always last on the statewide ballot.

“Seeing over the past five years, the general public understand more what the Public Service Commission is and the decisions they make … I feel like I’ve had a small part and I feel extremely proud of that,” they said.

Now, as deputy director of the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter, Webber is charged with fundraising, grant writing, political strategy, and programming.

One key issue the Sierra Club is working on is protecting the Okefenokee Swamp from mining.

Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals is seeking permits from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to mine titanium dioxide at a site near the swamp.

At this year’s Georgia General Assembly, the Sierra Club advocated for a bill that would have protected the Okefenokee from mining, but it didn’t pass. Now, the Sierra Club is waiting for the EPD to open up public comment on the mining permits.

“We are really, really working hard to try and protect Okefenokee Swamp from this mining proposal,” Webber said. “Once they open up that public comment period about the permits, we are going to media storm, education storm, advocacy storm all over Georgia and try and get as many comments opposing it as we can.”

(Photo by Suzanne Girdner)

Gabbie Atsepoyi, 27

Community activist

Gabbie Atsepoyi is passionate about improving her community. The resident of Belvedere Park is working to create park space in her neighborhood, a part of DeKalb County severely lacking in access to greenspace. She felt inspired while walking her young daughter around the neighborhood during the start of the pandemic. 

“We couldn’t walk to a park,” said Atsepoyi, a second-generation Nigerian American who grew up in Denver – two places that greatly shaped her appreciation for nature.

So, Atsepoyi decided to act, seeing the potential for a community schoolyard at Columbia Elementary School.

“I just started sending emails,” said Atsepoyi, who earned a degree in environmental studies from Spelman College. “There’s a lot of opportunity at Columbia to do a lot of things right. Give kids a place to explore, to give kids a place to learn, to get them outside to teach them science in a way that is engaging and fun.”

Through her persistence, Atsepoyi was able to get support from the principal and school district. She secured grants from Park Pride and the Children and Nature Network to get a park designed and fund outreach for the “Greening Columbia” project.

Now, the park project is waiting for funding.

Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, praised Atsepoyi’s grassroots efforts, saying she’s “saving the world in her free time.”

But that’s not all. Last year, Atsepoyi started a farmers market near Columbia Drive called Sun Market. It was her family’s way of bringing more fresh food options to their community, as well as an effort to support and help connect Black farmers to market opportunities. Atsepoyi was able to secure a grant through Georgia Organics to start the market.

Sun Market will return May 14 and runs the second and fourth Saturdays through September 10. The market offers 50% off produce purchased through EBT.

Atsepoyi hopes to further its impact. “I want to expand Sun Market to not just be in south DeKalb, but also in other communities,” she said. “It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than all of us. My goal for Sun Market is for it to be like a corner store with produce that is intentional about partnering with Black farmers and supporting all local Georgia farmers.”

Laura Buckmaster, 29

Social media manager, Trout Unlimited

Laura Buckmaster believes people need to get outdoors to feel inspired to protect the environment.

“I’m super passionate about making big environmental issues fun and approachable for people,” said Buckmaster, an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys canoeing and fly fishing. “If you don’t have a connection to some of these places, it’s hard to stand up when they are threatened.”

Buckmaster spent a lot of time on the Chattahoochee River as a kid.

“My parents put me in a canoe when I was six months old,” she said with a laugh. “It’s so funny, before I was even born, they had one little life jacket from REI hanging in the closet.”

Buckmaster studied environmental issues and psychology at the University of Oregon, learning how to rally people around advocacy issues.

After college, she worked as the stewardship trips and outreach director with the Georgia Conservancy, where she would take 2,000 people annually on nature trips around the state.

Another career highlight was working as a trail restoration fellow on Georgia’s Cumberland Island, leading a volunteer program to restore 50 miles of trail on the barrier island.

“We made the first GIS map of the island,” she said. “We wanted to break down those barriers of accessibility … We just wanted to get people out exploring.”

Now, Buckmaster is the first-ever social media manager for Trout Unlimited, a national nonprofit dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. Her job is telling great stories to engage people and support the organization’s work.

“This is my absolute dream career,” she said. 

Buckmaster also recently joined the board of the Southeastern Trust for Parks & Land, an organization that works to preserve land for conservation, research, education and recreation.

“Their mission really resonated with me to protect these places, but to protect them for recreation access as well, because recreation is such an important component of cultivating stewardship and advocacy,” she said.

Jennifer Duenas, 24

Clean water associate, Environment Georgia

At Environment Georgia, Jennifer Duenas is advocating for safe drinking water at schools across Georgia.

“Lead is still an issue in the United States today,” said Duenas, who was born in Dunwoody and raised in Lawrenceville. “It leaches into our drinking water through lead pipes and corroded faucets. Lead is a neurotoxin that affects the development of a young child’s brain … It is very, very bad for our children’s brains and their success in school.”

She added that about 20% of lead exposure comes from drinking water. Most schools have at least some lead in their pipes, plumbing or fixtures, according to Environment Georgia, which creates a risk of contamination. So, Duenas is working to educate school systems across Georgia on the dangers of lead and the state and federal funding available for testing, removing lead pipes and installing filtered hydration stations.

“We have been advocating for all of these resources, because the solution is right in our hands,” Duenas said. “We are trying to get the word out about how dangerous lead is. It’s a crisis and our children matter.”

Duenas said she had an early love for nature, inspired by summer trips to Asientos, a small town in the Mexican state of Aguascalientes, where her family is from.

An AP environmental science class in high school really piqued her interest, leading her to study geosciences at Georgia State University.

During college, she interned for the Georgia State Office of Sustainability. She was also on the executive board for the student environmental team, which secured funding to start an urban garden at Center Parc Stadium.

Duenas said her long-term career ambitions include continuing to advocate for clean water and educating Hispanics on environmental issues.

“I’m really proud of being a Hispanic, young woman rising up within this community,” Duenas said. “I feel proud that I can be a part of really trying to uplift different voices within the environmental movement.”

Amy Wenk

Amy Wenk was editor of Reporter Newspapers in 2021-22.