Meet 5 Local Changemakers
Changemakers are people who identify a social problem, then decide to do the work to help solve that problem and don’t stop until they make an impact. We are lucky to be able to call many of those people our friends and neighbors. Meet five of them who are making a difference in our community.
Superpower: A water resources champion for Marin and beyond
As Marin faces exceptional drought conditions, conversations are turning to once far-fetched solutions ranging from construction of a pipeline across the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge to desalination plants. Helping make sense of it all and lead the county through mounting water issues is Cynthia Koehler, president of Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) board of directors.
“If I’ve had a role at the board, it has been to spur the district toward innovation,” says Koehler. First elected to the MMWD board in 2005, she has guided Marin through water challenges by putting efficiency and conservation measures in place, an approach that has successfully reduced water demand to below projected needs.
Koehler’s perspective is rooted in protecting the functioning of Marin’s unique Mount Tamalpais watershed. Her work on pesticide bans and greenhouse gas emission targets has brought renewed attention to the connection between local ecology and water resources. “I think I’ve always had the view that a solution that brings us prosperity, future security, reliability and resilience has got to be one that is in harmony with a sustainable environmental health,” she says.
Water has long buoyed Koehler’s career from wilderness canoe guide to positions at law firms, Save the Bay, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Leading at the national level, she currently serves on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Financial Advisory Board. As co-founder/executive director of the WaterNow Alliance, she also works with towns and utilities across the country to develop holistic water systems that consider factors like gray water, rainwater and efficient water use. Her work closer to home has garnered the accolades of the Bay Institute (2013 Bay Hero Award) and the Marin Conservation League (2011 Ted Wellman Water Award).
As Koehler looks to the future, she is championing community connections to the watershed. “I feel that we have more to do here, but that we’ve really shifted MMWD as more of a community partner,” she says. In this vein, she credits the MMWD team for recent work on audits, rebates and “Drought Drive Ups” to distribute water-saving kits that directly impact conservation.
While present-day conditions are increasingly dire, Koehler remains resolute in her commitment to policymaking and innovation, bringing her immense expertise to Marin and beyond: “I feel this is solvable, this is doable, and in the face of everything that is so hard right now, having that sense of possibility and purpose is energizing.”
Superpower: A Paralympian medalist who cycles, swims and runs to victory
When he was growing up in Casablanca, Morocco, all Mohamed Lahna wanted to do was join the soccer games that the other kids were always playing in his neighborhood. But playing soccer was very difficult for Lahna due to a disability he was born with called proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD) that left him without a femur on his right side and without hip sockets. He got around the problem by playing on crutches, but the other children were not always kind.
“I just wanted to be like the other kids, but if we lost a game, they would start insulting me and my disability and sometimes I would go home crying,” Lahna says. But his mother wasn’t having any of it and would send him right back out. “‘Go fight for yourself,’ she would say. She was pushing me to build that personality and be able to ignore those insults.”
That inner strength paid off. At age 24 Lahna received his first prosthesis, and a whole new world of sports — and a dream of becoming a Paralympian — opened up. He started cycling in 500-kilometer events, crossed the Atlas Mountains and became very curious about triathlons. But while swimming and cycling were no problem for him, doctors advised against running because of Lahna’s lack of hip sockets. Moving to the Bay Area in 2009 to go to college and discovering the San Francisco branch of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) changed all that.
Lahna soon attended a CAF triathlon camp, where he saw a girl like him running and asked her about it. “She told me, ‘I think you can run because I have the same condition as you,’” he says. A year later, Lahna applied for a grant through CAF and got a racing prosthesis. “It’s a sense of freedom that I never, ever had before; I’m finally running with my hands free,” he says. “I can go anywhere; I can run anywhere.”
And run he did, earning a bronze medal in triathlon for Morocco in the 2016 Rio Paralympics with coaching, travel and equipment help from CAF — an organization that routinely sends a large number of athletes to the Paralympics (Lahana just returned from competing in cycling in the 2020 Tokyo games).
“I’m so grateful for the Challenged Athletes Foundation because it changed my life completely,” he says, adding that he advises kids and their families all over the world who have PFFD. “We do this because we love sports. We want to show the world that we are just as good as the able-bodied.”
Superpower: Protecting her community from sea-level rise
Janelle Kellman is an activist, community leader, environmental lawyer, lifelong athlete and fierce fighter raising awareness for climate change. It’s no surprise that this real-life superwoman was elected to Sausalito’s city council with a record number of votes and is currently powering through her term as the city’s vice mayor during her first year in office.
At work, Kellman oversees the resolving of this diverse community’s most urgent challenges, such as protecting Sausalito’s waterfront, the area’s local businesses and Marinship artists. “My background lends itself to doing interdisciplinary work across environmental issues, and I enjoy doing work for my community,” she says.
Kellman earned her undergraduate degree at Yale before moving to Oxford for her master’s in environmental management. She then worked in Washington, D.C., studying the links between environmental degradation and national security issues. Kellman attended law school at Stanford and was entranced with the beauty of the university’s outdoor campus. She says it felt as if she was going to school at a national park, which fueled her desire to protect these delicate landscapes in the face of climate change.
She decided it was time to take action, and she was well-equipped for politics. “Something I enjoyed about running for office was how many people I got to talk to and hearing their stories to better understand what types of resources and assets that we have here. I see my role as tapping into those assets in order to do better things for our community.”
Kellman is currently working with the Center for Sea Rise Solutions, which uses communication and cutting-edge technology to fight to protect coastal communities (such as Sausalito) from sea-level rise and flooding. “I felt as we were evolving and issues were changing around climate, more needed to be done about rising seas, and disaster preparedness as it relates to fires and evacuation risk,” she says. Kellman is proud of the tools and the talent in her Marin community and is confident that individuals will partner with her in working toward solving climate issues.
“People here are at the cutting edge of their industries,” she says. “They’re thought leaders, novelists, artists — you can get into a conversation with somebody as you’re waiting for coffee only to discover they solved a huge issue you didn’t even know existed.”
Superpower: Building a better future for Marinites with developmental disabilities
When Erin Uesugi came across the opportunity to help Lifehouse build its new headquarters in San Rafael, she felt compelled to get involved. Her involvement with the Lifehouse project was a personal endeavor, as her daughter Sophie is a client of the organization and her husband, Doug, serves on the board. The nonprofit is a lifeline for many, and the organization works tirelessly to improve the quality of life for people with developmental disabilities. Uesugi, a Berkeley native, attended UC Berkeley and after graduating moved to Japan to study and pursue a career in architecture. She has worked on projects both in the U.S. and abroad, and this experience left her in an ideal position to help.
“Lifehouse has been one of the most fulfilling projects, and I don’t just say that,” she reflects. “Any time you can do a project that is so profoundly changing or affecting the client in how they work or live, it is so gratifying and rewarding.”
Uesugi designed the new Lifehouse building space pro bono and oversaw the entire 18-month project. With her professional expertise and guidance, the team created a layout that both was functional and would accommodate the future of Lifehouse’s growing staff and services.
She also relied on personal and professional relationships, reaching out to former corporate clients asking for donations or help to significantly trim down expenses.
Uesugi was able to acquire everything from fabrics to light fixtures to carpet and plastic laminate via donation or for a reduced cost — and Nancy Dow Moody, president and CEO of Lifehouse, acknowledges Uesugi’s generosity and long-lasting contribution to the community and to Lifehouse.
“She is a true example of the spirit of Lifehouse,” says Moody. “It was an enormous project that Erin enthusiastically embraced. Her pro bono services totaled more than $280,000. Additionally, using her connections, the furniture donation and the discount she was able to obtain on finishes totaled more than $400,000.”
It’s very clear that the relationship is symbiotic and that both Uesugi’s family and the Lifehouse family will reap the benefits for decades to come. “My daughter now lives in Novato in one of their supported living homes,” says Uesugi. “We’re so grateful, and I cannot tell you the positive changes it’s made in our lives, and in hers — it’s been a win-win. We give to them, but we get back so much more.”
Superpower: A vintner who is working to prevent wildfires and the destruction they cause
“We’re not expecting [a bad fire season in Napa], but we’re fearful that it could be as bad — and it could even be worse — than the last four or five years. We are in an unprecedented drought … The wildlands that haven’t yet burned are drier than they have been in decades. If a fire were to break out, and we couldn’t stop it immediately, it has the potential of being devastating.”
Rick Jones and his wife were sleeping soundly when the Glass Fire broke out last September; they evacuated within a half hour, only able to see the glow of flames against the night sky. While the family’s home was spared, their 10 acres of vines joined a large number of other vineyards that also suffered damage. And so began Jones’ yearlong effort to figure out how to lessen the effect of wildfires on lives and businesses in time for Napa’s next fire season, which is now upon us.
When Jones retired to Napa in 1992, he didn’t anticipate entering the grape-growing business, let alone the need to prepare for fires coming through his property. “And that’s the reality that many, many people in Napa came to realize,” he says. “That this is no longer somebody else’s problem. This is all of our problems.”
In addition to being the owner and proprietor of Jones Family Vineyards, Jones acts as chairman of the Fire Prevention and Mitigation Committee of the Napa Valley Vintners, made up of 50 wineries (the Napa Valley Vintners includes 550 wineries). With the urging of the Vintners, the county has already allocated more than $15 million over the next five years for reducing fuel loads (they are asking for a total of $43 million) and, in turn, the intensity of fires in the wildlands. “We don’t have all the answers, but we’re going to be working with a variety of conservancy organizations too,” he says, “and then make sure that Napa has a long-term plan for the right balance between fire resistance and water conservation.”
According to Jones, fire mitigation is a multifaceted effort that everyone can partake in. Property owners should build and landscape with fire-resistant materials like stucco and gravel; Napa could use more firefighting resources, even beyond the new volunteers and dedicated helicopters recently acquired; fire insurance rates don’t reflect real risks.
“I’ve been very pleased with the success that we’ve had in many of these areas in the space of nine months or so. We are getting traction, and there’s more to do. But we’ve done a lot,” Jones says. “Napa is a safer place going into this fire season than it was going into last.”