Q&A with Natalie Johnston-Russell, Executive Director of the Keep Georgia Beautiful Foundation
Have you ever wondered how to make more of a difference in your community? We spoke with Natalie, our fearless leader, about youth empowerment, the importance of unifying voices across Georgia, and why cleanups are only part of the solution to addressing litter.
You lead a large number of affiliates in sustainability efforts across the state. Tell our readers a little more about your work with KGBF.
I get to work with some amazing people across the state, primarily on reducing waste, increasing recycling, eradicating litter, and beautifying communities. That’s important on so many levels—the economic well being of a community, the safety and health of a neighborhood, the general mental health of the people living in the area—and of course protecting the environment.
Along with Taylor and Meagan (KGBF’s other staff members), I engage the community at large to increase awareness of our mission and provide ways to get involved and support us. I provide training and support to current affiliates, work with communities to start new affiliates, fundraise, and manage the ever-exciting behind-the-scenes tasks of any organization. I also support our board in their efforts to engage other partners in our work.
What first drew you the organization? Why work for the environment?
From the time I took biology in high school and college, the environment and the impact we have on it have been a major focus for me. [Previous to this role] I worked in other areas in the nonprofit sector, concentrating on human services. When this opportunity arose, I saw my chance to influence both people and our environment, and in doing so, I get to make a difference and show my kids how to be responsible stewards. Engaging people in the betterment of their local communities was something I felt really moved to do, especially after seeing the impact that had already been made. I liked that aspect of local leadership and finding what works best for each individual community, whether that means creating a publicly accessible orchard or involving a school with a cleanup effort.
Any favorite parts of the job?
I love working with local board and staff members. They’re so passionate and bring so many new ideas to the table. Conversations are always interesting and often surface new approaches for solving an issue. I also enjoy working with the state team—I get to collaborate with two very dynamic, creative women as well as a committed board.
I also find youth involvement very powerful. Seeing another generation get excited and involved about issues related to our mission is a big highlight for me. Our affiliates involve youth through projects like school recycling initiatives and beautification projects. I recently spoke at a children’s water festival. The students there learned that litter doesn’t just go on the ground, but ends up in our storm drains and our waterways, and it was really great to watch that light bulb turn on for them.
What do you look forward to in the future? What further impact do you hope to see in Georgia?
I’m looking forward to our [upcoming] statewide litter campaign so that we can unify all the voices in our state and end littering. We know it takes changing people’s behavior rather than cleanup efforts alone. It’s not an easy thing to do, but we can’t clean our way out of the problem; we have to change people’s habits so we don’t have any litter to begin with. For everyone to realize the impact they make when they drop something or it flies out of their truck bed, and for them to know that many of those items have value and can be composted or recycled into something new–that’s super exciting to me. I also love every time we onboard a new affiliate, because that means we’re covering more of the state.
Any advice for people looking to make their communities cleaner, greener, or more beautiful?
Start with yourself and take action at home—recycle, reduce your waste, make sure it goes in the right place. Then get involved locally! Check to see if you have a community affiliate. If so, they will welcome your engagement, ideas, and support. If there’s not something already going on in your community, you can make it happen. It’s really not that difficult if you start with something small. Start by picking up litter on your street or organizing a clean-up. Choose an area to beautify and volunteer to plant flowers or maintain it so others will want to gather there. More than likely, there is an issue in your community that needs your help.