After 14 years, Hoosier Environmental Council executive director Jesse Kharbanda has decided to leave his position, but not the fight for environmental issues.
Kharbanda will step down from HEC, the largest environmental policy organization in the state, as soon as a new executive director is hired. He plans to apply his environmental knowledge to becoming a writer.
HEC board president Tom Barrett said it has been a pleasure to support Kharbanda’s leadership.
“In working with Jesse over the last 10 years, I’ve come to know him as an unrelenting advocate for the environment — knowledgeable, articulate, and credible. Jesse leads from his heart and has received widespread acclaim for his ability to build coalitions and build bridges during one of the most divisive times in our history,” he said.
Kharbanda began working at HEC in December 2007. He said has always been drawn to advancing solutions that are good for people and for the animal and plants that share the air, land and water with us.
“I saw in HEC an opportunity to make large-scale impact towards that aim in a state that has so much promise to be a national leader in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, green infrastructure, and more,” he said. “I was very interested in the challenge of how to make major change in the realm of environmental sustainability in a state that is culturally conservative. I felt that my leadership bent towards coalition building and bridge building could help bring about meaningful, positive change.”.
State Sen. Ron Alting (R-Lafayette) said he will miss Kharbanda’s indefatigable, hopeful spirit and his generous sharing of knowledge and ideas.
“Jesse was unwavering in his belief that we can achieve major bipartisan progress for sustainability initiatives in the Legislature,” he said. “I have greatly enjoyed working with Jesse and his staff on solar energy, wetlands protection, redistricting reform and many other issues.”
State Rep. Sue Errington (D-Muncie) added: “Jesse always brought a positive, can-do spirit to advancing forward-thinking legislation, ever willing to pull together policy research, and ever undaunted to do the crucial, challenging work of building bipartisan and coalition support for that legislation.”
Working on environmental issues in Indiana can be a bit discouraging at times, but Kharbanda has seen many changes he is proud of.
“With respect to HEC itself, I’m grateful that our organization has become an organization that is versatile in how we achieve our goals: statehouse-based advocacy; legal action; highly targeted grassroots organizing; thought leadership; strategic technical assistance, and more. This makes HEC remarkably agile in pursuing high-impact opportunities, especially important in the always-tough political terrain of Indiana,” he said.
He also pointed out legislative victories, stopping bills that would have stripped local governments of their ability to protect different parts of the environment, as well as grassroots success where HEC provided assistance.
More broadly, he said, “I believe that HEC has done more than any organization in the state to elevate awareness of the risks of coal ash and factory farm waste pits to our air and water quality. That unrelenting awareness-building has allowed us to build broad coalitions that, in time, will allow us to foster meaningful public policy change.”
Under Kharbanda, HEC also began the Environmental Justice Initiative, to help Hoosier communities that bear a heavier pollution burden than others.
“What I’ve so appreciated about Jesse is that he consistently sought to engage our branch of the NAACP in policy initiatives aimed at bettering our community’s environment and expanding our response to climate change,” said Chrystal Ratcliffe, president of the Indianapolis Branch of the NAACP. “He always took the time to reach out to me and to make sure that the NAACP’s voice was included.”
Kharbanda said, “HEC has persistently embraced a big tent ethic, working to draw in people of diverse ages and backgrounds, people from rural, suburban and urban areas, and with intentional efforts to partner with faith congregations, public health groups, and truly green-minded businesses.”
A few of the positive or encouraging changes Kharbanda points to seeing over the past 14 years are witnessing younger people getting involved in talking to elected officials, seeing a broader swathe of faith community, including Evangelicals and conservative Catholics, advance the cause of creation care, seeing Indiana being a leader in different aspects of conservation farming, and watching more cities come to appreciate green infrastructure as a cost-effective and climate-friendly way to reduce water pollution.
Kharbanda will be leaving HEC in a strong position. He hopes in the future HEC will increase its organizing capacity in rural areas and that the Environmental Justice Initiative will expand to other communities outside of the Indianapolis area. He also would like to see HEC increase its in-house legal capacity to provide more legal assistance to communities facing pollution threats and to litigate against serious polluters.
Kharbanda said he often encounters members and supporters of HEC who feel a sense of despair about the ability to make progress in Indiana through the legislature, fearing that special interest groups are too powerful and stifle legislative change.
“We can never turn away from the Statehouse. Never,” he said. “At the same time, we can never give up on fostering a meaningful relationship with every legislator, even those of profoundly different worldviews. What’s been remarkable in my experience is to find a lawmaker at total loggerheads with you on one issue, and very on your side on another.
“We have to keep forging meaningful relationships, including stepping up our efforts to show lawmakers the natural resources that we care so much about first-hand, and help lawmakers better appreciate the link between these natural resources and the public policy that these lawmakers are enacting.”
Kharbanda will be staying with HEC until a new director is found. He isn’t leaving the environmental field, but will be taking on a new role as a book author.
“I would like to be an author, for children and their parents alike, who instills a deeper love for all of God’s creation. I would like to heighten the emotional connection between my readers and both wild and farmed animals, so as to sensitize my readers to the great suffering brought about by, respectively, the crisis of our plummeting biodiversity and our society’s addiction to factory farming,” he said. “My hope and aim is for this writing to help accelerate action.”