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Rhode Island may be small, but our environmental and justice movements are mighty. Every year, we gather to honor the local heroes who have worked to make the Ocean State cleaner, healthier, and more just at our Breakfast of Champions. Meet our 2024 honorees!

The 2024 David R. Gerraughty Award goes to Dr. Sunshine Menezes. Dr. Menezes epitomizes the spirit of this award through her lifelong dedication to advancing environmental communication and empowering communities to safeguard their health, livelihoods, and homes. During Dr. Menezes’ seventeen-year tenure as the Executive Director of the Metcalf Institute at the University of Rhode Island (URI), it has become an international hub for promoting science communication and literacy, empowering journalists to accurately report on complex environmental issues as well as scientists and science communicators to structure and facilitate dialogue about their science in ways that center inclusion and equity.  

Dr. Menezes has done pioneering work to bridge the gap between scientific research and public understanding, collaborating with other local institutions, including Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, to host science seminars for journalists on climate change topics. Through her mentorship, research, and advocacy, she has inspired over 3,500 people to become effective agents of change, nurturing a new generation of environmental leaders committed to driving positive impact in our state. Dr. Menezes's lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship embodies the values and legacy of David R. Gerraughty, making her a truly deserving honoree.

Sen. Alana DiMario, Chair, Committee on Environment & Agriculture and Rep. David Bennett, Chair, Committee on Environment & Natural Resources are our 2024 Legislative Champions.

Sen. DiMario, an environmental leader in the General Assembly, was the lead sponsor of the solar siting reform legislation (S684) that passed in 2023, a priority of the Climate Jobs RI coalition. She was also the previous lead sponsor of legislation to ban toxic PFAS from common items in RI, and she continues to be engaged on PFAS policy and legislation.  

Rep. Bennett, another long-time environmental leader, was the lead House sponsor of the 2023 ban on polystyrene food containers (H5090) and is the lead sponsor of Extended Producer Responsibility legislation to fight waste from packaging. Additionally, he has been a leading voice in the effort to prevent and clean-up littered nips and other forms of plastic pollution.

The Childhood Lead Action Project (CLAP) is our 2024 Safe Drinking Water Champion. CLAP has worked since 1992 to eliminate childhood lead poisoning. In 2023, they led successful grassroots advocacy in support of legislation to replace the remaining lead service lines in the state, and they have prioritized lead outreach in environmental justice communities to ensure that every child has safe drinking water.  

Bill McCusker, President of Friends of the Saugatucket, is being awarded for Leadership in Fighting Plastic Pollution. Bill is a leader within the Rhode Island Zero Waste Coalition fighting to reduce plastic waste and protect local waterways. His “Great Nip Pickup Challenge” resulted in the collection of tens of thousands of nips by residents across the state which he enthusiastically showed off to the public, press, and elected officials while calling attention to the need for a bottle bill in Rhode Island.  

Our 2024 Climate Jobs Champion is Joe Walsh, Business Manager of IBEW Local 99. Joe and the IBEW have been strong supporters of clean energy in Rhode Island and a key member of the Climate Jobs RI coalition. He was also instrumental in the passage of 2023’s solar siting legislation, which ensures that solar power can grow while also protecting core forests.

Our 2024 Emerging Leader Award goes to Jaylyn McNeill. At only 19 years old, Jay has already been part of the Providence Green Team since 2022 where she serves as a Youth Leader. Jay has participated in multiple service-learning trips assisting in trail maintenance across the country. This year, Jaylyn has taken on more leadership with Groundwork Rhode Island, helping with the outreach and siting for their tree planting campaign in Providence. Jay also holds a seat on Providence’s sustainability commission.

Congratulations to our honorees!