Alumni Spotlight: Leah Thill (MPA/MSES), Senior Environmental Planner, Michiana Area Council of Governments (MACOG)

Using Policy and Science for Sustainable Impact in Local Government

Career Hub: Can you tell our students a little bit about yourself and the work that you do?

Leah: In my role with a regional planning organization in Indiana, I work to support local governments on issues related to sustainability and the environment, including clean air, clean transportation, clean energy, and regional brownfields redevelopment. I’ve been with MACOG now for almost three years. It’s meaningful to see the impact of my work at the local level. I find that working towards implementing concrete solutions to environmental problems every day lightens the burden of existential crises that those involved in environmental research or policy work often carry.

Career Hub: What did your professional journey look like from college to your position today?

Leah: Immediately after finishing graduate studies at IU, I served as a Technical Advisor for the SolSmart Program, funded by the Department of Energy. I assisted local governments in earning solar-friendly designation and making it easier, faster, and cheaper to go solar by reducing soft costs related to planning and zoning, permitting, inspections, and market development.  I also helped to launch the volunteer-powered Solarize Northern Indiana initiative which brought about 120 new solar installations to the region in 2017 and 2019. During my graduate studies, I gained experience in other sectors through an Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps fellowship with a multi-national corporation and two different internships with IU Bloomington’s sustainability office.  But until I took the position with SolSmart, I had no direct experience with local governments.

Before attending IU, I spent two years in an AmeriCorps program in Pittsburgh with an environmental non-profit. Since I had a bachelors in Chemistry, that break in my education was really important to discern what type of graduate program to pursue. I also had a prior internship on a chemistry research project related to renewable energy. I decided it was important to me to do something to blend science with policy and see a real-world impact. I didn’t want to be primarily behind a lab bench doing research or in involved in uphill battles related to state and federal policies and programs that were removed from the impact. My current work with local governments as a regional environmental planner does just that, and the dual degree prepared me well to do so.

Career Hub: What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow your career path?

Leah: Consider pursuing a career in local government even if you don’t have a formal planning degree. I’ve learned most of what I know about how local governments function on the job. You can add value to local governments or regional planning organizations by bringing a different perspective and background. Although metropolitan planning organizations may be best known for their work on transportation and transit, they aren’t limited to those areas. Roles can cover a broad range of programs from community development, active transportation, watersheds, food, to other environmental topics.

Career Hub: What skills are most important in your role?

Leah: The ability to understand technical information and translate it for non-technical audience is critical. A proactive mindset is also invaluable. I’ve now had work experience in sustainability positions within the private, public, academic, and non-profit sectors. It’s important to recognize that the initiatives you are tasked with are usually not the first priority for those whom you depend on to move them forward, even if they care deeply about the issues. They will have a full time job putting out other fires. The key to moving initiatives forward is to find a balance: to facilitate and provide support and gentle reminders without becoming frustrated with the people you’re working with on one hand or letting project languish on the other. Further, I’ve observed that if you are the only one with a sustainability role in your organization it may be largely up to you to shape the direction of those initiatives but you may also feel isolated or like a middle manager with all the responsibility but none of the authority. It’s important to develop strong networks with others in a similar role in the region, state, and nationally as well as to partner with others locally who are in different sectors but have interests in the same issues.

Career Hub:What trends do you see on the horizon in this type of career?

Leah: I’ve seen the increasing emphasis on planning for resilience and climate change adaptation and hazard mitigation planning. Local governments are increasingly seeking to understand and mitigate risks to infrastructure, tree canopies, storm water management, and vulnerable populations. This type of expertise will become increasing valuable. Adapting to environmental change is increasingly a practical matter.

By Miranda Redman
Miranda Redman Associate Director of Career Services