(This piece was originally published on December 16, 2016 in the Indianapolis Star.)

Donald Trump’s words and actions have many environmentalists worried about what is to come. But one of Indiana’s leading environmentalists is calling not for fear but rather a renewed era of activism.

I’ve talked for years to Jesse Kharbanda about the challenges of running a nonprofit organization aimed at protecting the environment in a state where policymakers often seem hostile to that goal. And every time we’ve talked, Kharbanda has offered an optimistic take on the situation, and a belief in the value of reaching across the ideological spectrum in search of commonality.

Things have been tough in recent years, with state lawmakers often siding with polluters while also stomping on the ability of locals to make their own environmental decisions. But Kharbanda, who heads the Hoosier Environmental Council, has remained a sensible truth-teller who understands the need to balance economic and environmental concerns, while also fighting the notion that those two goals must be at odds.

Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect when Kharbanda and I met for breakfast on a recent snowy morning. After all, past pro-environment obstacles suddenly seem like child’s play in the Donald Trump era — an era in which foes of both environmental protections and facts about climate change will fill key White House roles, including the presidency.

Well, I have good news to report. Kharbanda hasn’t lost his optimism, and he isn’t buying into the notion that all is lost. Rather than bemoan the current state of affairs, he sees the potential for a new era of activism among those who care about things like clean air and water and worry about where public policy is headed.

“I think it’s so important to be strong and resilient,” he said, “and to keep our eyes focused on who we are ultimately seeking to help.”

Therein lies the beauty of Kharbanda’s message. He isn’t thinking only about liberals who tend to most vocally support his cause and his organization, but rather about an ideologically and geographically diverse mix of Hoosiers. “No matter how difficult the political terrain may get,” he said, “we have to stand up for those people who are hurting or could be hurt by pollution in both rural and urban areas.”

He talks with deep concern about residents of rural Indiana counties, noting that they face many of the state’s most pressing environmental concerns. And regardless of politics, he argued that there are few people who don’t want the water their family drinks or the air their kids breathe to be clean. Or who don’t appreciate Indiana’s waterways and parks. Or who wouldn’t be concerned about pesticide runoffs or airborne toxins near their home.

Such issues, Kharbanda insisted, can bring people together and go hand-in-hand with the type of quality of life that is critical to Indiana’s future. Talk to any mayor, he said, and you’ll hear about how having a clean, healthy and safe city impacts the ability to attract residents and employers.

“We have to look for ways in which the environment and the economy can both prosper,” he said, pointing, for instance, to the immense growth of jobs in the clean energy sector. “That’s a vision we’ve always believed in, and that we believe will resonate with people across the political spectrum.”

As long as I’ve known him, that’s how Kharbanda has seen the world. He has run the Hoosier Environmental Council for nine years, and in that time he has consistently looked for ways to bring more Hoosiers together, even as the issue he fights for has become in many ways a wedge issue.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “there’s a segment of our politics that sees this as an ideological battle where the environmentalists are on one side and they are on the other. This pitting of one group of Americans against another is not healthy, and it’s not in the interest of the country.”

So he is talking about the impact of coal ash dumps on water quality in rural areas, and about the damage that can come from abandoned industrial sites in Indiana cities. He points to the state’s low ranking on so many environmental issues and argues that hurts our ability to attract high-quality employers. He is urging Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb to empower state environmental regulators to aggressively investigate factory farms and other polluters. That underfunded agency, he said, must be allowed to look out for the interests of Hoosiers in a way that is fair but tough.

There is good news to report: The Holcomb team recently reached out to Indiana environmental groups, which might not sound like a big deal but truly is. In response, Kharbanda’s organization forwarded the Republican governor-elect’s transition team a list of 50 recommendations. At the top of the list was that plea for more resources for and empowerment of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Kharbanda is not out to hurt Indiana employers; he simply and accurately believes that the environmental concerns of Indiana’s residents and communities have taken a back seat for years to the concerns of manufacturers and others with deep pockets. The idea that any of that will change in the wake of the 2016 elections might seem far-fetched, but it’s nice to see that Kharbanda is not giving up.

People can’t shut down,” he said. “They need to stand up and be permanently off the sidelines. It is all about people channeling their fears and worries into constructive action, and into support for those groups that have spent years leading the cause.”

As I wrote recently, many have asked what they can do to impact public policy. Well, if you care about the environment, one thing you can do is support the Hoosier Environmental Council. It doesn’t have the resources or the political clout of factory farms and manufacturers, and balancing that out a bit would be great for Indiana.

Thank you for reading. Please follow me on Twitter: @matthewltully.

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