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September / 2020

Sparkplug Award, 2020 Recipients

Maria Elena Letona (pictured on top receiving the award via Zoom) and Lena Entin (pictured below), both formerly of Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts Education Fund, were awarded $50,000 Frank Hatch “Sparkplug” Awards for Enlightened Public Service by The John Merck Fund on September 29, 2020. This award is granted annually to an outstanding leader or leaders whose work embodies extraordinary creativity, dedication, and foresight.

Serving as executive director and campaign director at Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) respectively, Maria Elena and Lena were organizers for the successful Mt. Tom Coal Plant Campaign. With 15,000 members, N2N builds power among communities of color and low-income communities in Massachusetts to confront inequality, environmental degradation, and racism.

Once known as “Paper City” because of its thriving paper mills, Holyoke has always been a city of working-class immigrants. Today, Holyoke has a large Latinx community, with asthma rates that are twice as high as the state average. It is also home to an active environmental justice community.

Launched in 2010, N2N’s Mt. Tom Coal Plant Campaign had four goals: close the Mt. Tom coal plant, ensure a just transition for workers, clean up the site, and redevelop the area. With community members playing a leading role, N2N coordinated a campaign with state and local groups to engage local residents and workers at the plant in a highly effective and innovative campaign that achieved all four goals. The plant is now closed, workers at the site received transition assistance, and the state supported cleanup of the site, which now serves as a solar facility.

Beyond the initial success, the campaign left community organizers stronger, with more skills and capacity to continue their organizing and outreach to clean up their community. With its focus on putting local leaders at the core of the campaign, it also served as a model for coal plant campaigns in Massachusetts and Connecticut. N2N used the experience and momentum from that campaign to work with chapters on other community climate initiatives. As Lena Entin put it, “The Mt. Tom campaign helped Neighbor to Neighbor begin to see itself as a climate justice and just transition organization. That has been a major transition for us.”

Maria Elena recently retired from Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N), where she served as executive director. Ms. Letona has devoted her career to promoting racial and environmental justice through community organizing. She has spent more than 30 years working with grassroots organizations, with experience ranging from public policy to fundraising, finance, and organizational development. Prior to working with N2N, Maria Elena served as executive director of Centro Presente, a Boston-based immigrant rights organization. Maria Elena holds a Master’s degree and a PhD in Public Policy from the University of Massachusetts. She is author and co-author of numerous articles and reports on topics related to organizational and community capacity building.

Lena Entin served as N2N campaign director for the Mt. Tom coal campaign. Under Lena’s leadership over sixteen years, N2N doubled in size as she founded chapters in Fitchburg, Holyoke, and Springfield, Massachusetts. She also led the organization’s fundraising work for two years. Lena got her training as an organizer in El Salvador, where she worked with US-El Salvador Sister Cities. Lena now serves as deputy director of Community Action Works (formerly Toxics Action Center), where she continues to help local communities engage in successful environmental justice campaigns.

In 2011, The John Merck Fund made a commitment to fund efforts to close all seven remaining coal plants in New England. At this juncture, four have closed, two remain open at limited capacity in New Hampshire, and a third in Connecticut is slated to close in 2021. In presenting the award, JMF Chair Whitney Hatch said, “With our goal to close all the remaining coal plants in New England, the Mt. Tom coal plant became the model for all those fights. We’ve learned a lot from your example about what it means to do true community organizing with lasting impact. We’ve been so proud to support this effort.”

At an emotional meeting on September 29, both Lena and Maria Elena recounted the work on the coal plant campaign and the lessons it inspired for their ongoing organizing.

“JMF was the first funder that was willing to bet on us to run this campaign. That made it possible to get all the support that followed. I’m not sure we could have launched ourselves without that help,” said Lena. “I learned how to be an organizer in El Salvador, where organizers taught me that you have to work from the ground up to build power in the community. The Mt. Tom campaign not only did just that but helped me apply that approach in all my work going forward.”

“This award is such an inspiration for me,” said Maria Elena, who has devoted her career to racial justice, environmental justice, and community organizing. “To know that you all honor this work and this approach is deeply meaningful for me. My gratitude goes way beyond the award; I feel a deep well of gratitude for what it seeded at N2N.”

The John Merck Fund, a longtime funder of climate and clean energy solutions in New England, created the Frank Hatch Sparkplug award in 2006 to honor its former chair, Frank Hatch. Maria Elena and Lena are the sixteenth recipients of the award.

September / 2019

Sparkplug Award, 2019 Recipient

Tim Storrow of Gill, Massachusetts, was awarded the $50,000 Frank Hatch “Sparkplug” Award for Enlightened Public Service by The John Merck Fund on Tuesday, September 24, 2019. The award is granted annually to an outstanding leader whose work embodies extraordinary creativity, dedication, and foresight.  Mr. Storrow is the fifteenth Sparkplug Award recipient.

Over a career spanning nearly forty years, Tim Storrow dedicated himself to the protection of the natural environment and agriculture.  He retired earlier this year after serving as Executive Director of the Vermont-based Castanea Foundation, Inc. from 2006 to 2019.  Under Mr. Storrow’s stewardship, and in collaboration with social entrepreneurs engaged with the region’s farm and food system, the Castanea Foundation supported over 150 farmland conservation and rural economic development projects in Vermont and New York State with patient, risk-tolerant capital.  The John Merck Fund partnered with Castanea Foundation on numerous projects in Vermont during Storrow’s impressive tenure.

Prior to joining Castanea, he was President of Legacy Partners, LLC, a conservation real estate advisory firm in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and a founding Board Member of the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust based in Athol, Massachusetts.  He also served as Deputy Director for the New England Forestry Foundation, Director of Land Protection for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, American Farmland Trust, and in the early 1980s, Chief of the Bureau of Land Use, Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.  Altogether, Mr. Storrow’s activities have helped protect about 400,000 acres of land in New England and the United States.

Mr. Storrow served on the original Board of Managers for the Vermont Flexible Capital Fund, a social impact investment fund; as Manager of Evergreen Conservation Partners, LLC, a conservation partnership that included The John Merck Fund; and as Manager of Taproot Capital Fund, L3C, a joint venture between Castanea Foundation and High Meadows Fund focused on investing in farm, food, and forest-related enterprises in Vermont.

In his remarks as he conferred the Sparkplug award on Mr. Storrow, Frank Hatch’s son, George Hatch, noted, “In his years of working in Vermont, Tim was a great on-the-ground partner for The John Merck Fund, alerting us to important opportunities to preserve the working landscape that continue to reap dividends for the state’s agricultural economy and serve as models for the rest of New England and beyond.  Without exception, Tim could always be counted on to give JMF sound advice about where our investment could catalyze a change for the good.  That’s what makes him a quintessential Sparkplug.”

In response to the news he’d been chosen as the 2019 recipient, Mr. Storrow said, “I was surprised and overwhelmed to receive the Sparkplug Award.  It’s a real honor to have an association with Frank Hatch, one of America’s leading environmentalists and philanthropists, whom I admired and respected greatly.”

Mr. Storrow is a graduate of the University of Vermont with a degree in Agriculture and Environmental Studies, and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Law from Vermont Law School.  He grew up in Jericho, Vermont, and currently operates a small farm in Gill, Massachusetts, with his wife, Dorothy.  They have two children and a granddaughter.

September / 2018

Sparkplug Award, 2018 Recipient

Sylvia Broude, Executive Director of the Toxics Action Center, was awarded the $50,000 Frank Hatch “Sparkplug” Award for Enlightened Public Service by The John Merck Fund on September 20, 2018. The award is granted annually to an outstanding leader whose work embodies extraordinary creativity, dedication, and foresight.

Sylvia oversees Toxics Action Center’s six New England offices and supervises a team that organizes with nearly 100 communities each year.  Sylvia has spent much of her career at Toxics Action Center, joining the team as a community organizer in 2006 after working with Sierra Club, MoveOn PAC, and the Fund for the Public Interest. She took over as Executive Director in 2012 and has directed Toxics Action Center’s work in recent years to prevent a wave of new incinerator proposals across the region and win progress towards zero waste as well as to transition New England away from coal-fired power plants and to clear the way for clean energy.

John Merck Fund Chair Whitney Hatch said, “Under Sylvia’s direction, the Toxics Action Center has been instrumental in helping local communities and residents become active leaders in closing down the remaining coal-fired power plants in New England and in fighting to stop a major buildout of natural gas in the region.”

Toxics Action Center was inspired by mothers of Woburn, Massachusetts, who took action in the mid-1980s to protect the health of their children when the chemical company W.R. Grace contaminated their drinking water. The Woburn leukemia cluster eventually claimed the lives of 14 children. In 1987, a group of public health and environmental advocates created the Massachusetts Campaign to Clean Up Hazardous Waste—now known as Toxics Action Center—to help residents who faced their own Woburn-like situations. Since those early days, Toxics Action Center has expanded into every New England state, has organized with more than 1,000 neighborhood groups, and directly trained more than 20,000 frontline activists in the skills needed to address local environmental threats.

Today, Toxics Action Center trains activists who are fighting dirty energy in their own communities to become clean energy champions for their states, and works to ensure that the communities hardest hit by pollution have a seat at the table to advocate for clean energy and climate justice.

Mr. Hatch noted, “Toxics Action Center does not aspire to be the leaders in the room. They work behind the scenes to make sure that those most affected by dirty fuels become leaders in promoting a better future for their communities. The goal is not to win one small battle in a single place, but to build lasting capacity in communities throughout the region. Toxics Action Center is steadfast in promoting its organizing model while remaining nimble in applying that model to an ever-changing landscape.”

The John Merck Fund, a longtime funder of Toxics Action Center, created the Frank Hatch Sparkplug award in 2006 to honor its longtime former chairman, Frank Hatch.  Whitney Hatch is Frank Hatch’s son.

Broude said, “I couldn’t be more thankful for the lifetime of critical support The John Merck Fund has provided to Toxics Action Center, first under the leadership of Frank Hatch and now, in his legacy. From our early days working alongside community members to address to drinking water pollution in Woburn to our expansion into each New England state, The John Merck Fund has been there with us as partners and investors in our vision of clean air, clean water, healthy, just and vibrant communities, and a stronger people-powered environmental movement.”

Mr. Hatch added, “Sylvia has brought her considerable energy, enthusiasm, and a deep intelligence to shepherding Toxics Action Center as it has grown into a sophisticated, dynamic, and effective organization.”

September / 2017

Sparkplug Award, 2017 Recipient

Ruth G. Hennig stepped down after 29 years as Executive Director of The John Merck Fund in September 2017. She has worked in the environmental field for over 30 years, first at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston and then at The John Merck Fund, where she oversaw program-related special initiatives, including Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

Ruth currently serves as a board member of League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, which promotes civic engagement and education on environmental issues, and was a founding board member of Issue One, which seeks to end the corrosive impact of special interest money on politics and policymaking. She has also served as chair at SmartPower and the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, two organizations that she helped create.

In service to the philanthropic community, Ruth was Beldon Fund Trustee, served in management roles at Environmental Grantmakers Association, the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity, and the Health and Environmental Funders Network, and continues her service to JMF as a Trustee. She currently also serves as a board member for Baraka Community Wellness, a nonprofit organization which is changing lives in Boston’s low-income communities with evidence-based fitness and nutrition programs.

Ruth lives in Boston, where she spends as much time outside with her Labradoodle as possible. Photography, movies, travel and politics are her special interests.

September / 2017

Sparkplug Award, 2017 Recipient

Brian F. Keane is President of SmartPower and author of Green Is Good: Save Money, Make Money, and Help Your Community Profit From Clean Energy (Lyons Press, 2012). He is a leading voice on clean energy, energy efficiency, and the environment. As President of SmartPower, a Washington, DC-based marketing agency dedicated to promoting clean, renewable energy, and energy efficiency, Keane has helped shape the energy debate in the United States and brought clean energy and energy efficiency to the American consumer. Hailed as Mad Men for an eco-conscious generation, SmartPower’s award-winning marketing campaigns have engaged hundreds of thousands of people across the country, drawing credit for inspiring our nation’s renewed interested in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

For their efforts, Keane and SmartPower have been recognized with numerous awards, including a 2010 Clean Air Excellence Award from the Environmental Protection Agency, recognizing SmartPower’s “America’s Greenest Campus” energy efficiency campaign. Other accolades include the coveted Green Power Pilot Award presented by the EPA and the US Department of Energy; four Gold Awards from the Service Industry Advertising Awards (SIAA); and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Circle Award. In 2005 Keane was recognized as one of Connecticut’s “Outstanding Forty Under 40.”

A former advisor to the late Senator Paul Tsongas (D-MA) and congressional aide to Representative Les Aspin (D-WI), Keane has an extensive and cutting-edge background in nonprofit management, political organizing and communications. He has used this experience to create organizations that challenge conventional wisdom and help to set the national agenda. To be sure, before there was a “Tea Party,” Keane was one of the architects of The Concord Coalition, a nationwide non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating the federal budget deficit.
Keane combines his passion for major policy issues with a marketer’s commitment to creating compelling messages that resonate with the general public, not just the converted. As such, Keane is a much sought-after interview subject and presenter on a host of issues – including clean energy and energy efficiency. He has spoken extensively across the nation, internationally and with local and national media.

June / 2016

Sparkplug Award, 2016 Recipient

Elizabeth M. Berry-Kravis, MD, PhD, is a Professor of Pediatrics, Neurology, and Biochemistry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago  She has a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Notre Dame, a PhD in biochemistry and MD from the University of Chicago.  She has been at Rush University Medical Center since 1992.

Dr. Berry-Kravis established the comprehensive Fragile X Clinic and Research Program at Rush in 1992, through which she provides care and support to over 400 patients with Fragile X syndrome (FXS) for management of neurological, medical, and behavioral and genetic issues.  Her clinical research projects involve studies of epilepsy and psychopharmacology in Fragile X, clinical trials of new promising medications in FXS and development of outcome measures and biomarkers for such trials in the FXS population.  She is also involved in research to characterize neurological problems in Fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome (FXTAS) and relate clinical and radiological findings to molecular measures in Fragile X carriers.  Her laboratory research involves studies of effects of Fragile X mental retardation protein (FMRP) on signal transduction mechanisms in neural cells as well as molecular studies aimed at identifying genetic risks and genotype-phenotype relationships in neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, vascular dementia, congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, and SIDS.

At Rush and other Chicago institutions, Liz lectures in biochemistry, pathology, genetics, neurobiology and genetic counseling courses.  She co-directs the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at Rush, which runs molecular tests for diagnosis of numerous genetic conditions including Fragile X syndrome.  She is on the advisory board for both the FRAXA Research Foundation and the National Fragile X Foundation and received the Jarrett Cole Award for clinical work with individuals with Fragile X in 2002 and The Hagerman Award for FXTAS research in 2004.

December / 2015

Sparkplug Award, 2015 Recipients

Andrew Falender served as President and CEO of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) from 1989-2012. The AMC is the Northeast’s leading conservation/recreation organization. While there, Andy updated governance, greatly expanded conservation and recreation programs, created an innovative 70,000-plus acre conservation/recreation corridor in Maine, maintained an unbroken record of balanced budgets, and presided over significant increases in endowment, membership and facilities. Andy also served as CEO of the New England Conservatory of Music from 1975 to 1988, in a number of management positions at the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare from 1971 to 1974, and as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines from 1968 to 1970. In addition to serving on a number of boards, including the Trust for Public Land, the International Alliance of Conservation Volunteers, and the Environmental Federation of New England, Andy has received several awards for his contributions, including Honorary Doctorates from Plymouth State University and the New England Conservatory of Music, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the EPA, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s “Audubon Award.” Andy joined the Conservation Law Foundation of Trustees in March 2012, and resigned from the board temporarily in May 2014 to join CLF’s staff as a Volunteer/Chief Orienteering Officer.

Jay Healy: First as a state representative from Charlemont, Massachusetts, then as Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture under Governor Weld, and finally as State Director for USDA Rural Development in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, Jay gave his time and considerable talents to working on projects and policies designed to help strengthen rural working landscapes by helping farmers become more financially viable and environmentally sound. During his long and successful career, Jay worked on such innovative projects as food hub development and other new aggregation, processing, and distribution models, expanding farm-to-institution initiatives, expanding and enhancing agricultural technical assistance services to improve farm and food business viability, supporting new ways of communicating and networking about developments in the food system across the New England region, and creating durable public-private funding partnerships. Perhaps the most durable and impressive public-private funding collaborative with Jay’s imprimatur on it is the USDA-JMF partnership that helped launch Farm to Institution New England, now in its fifth year and proving of great value to farmers, food producers and institutional customers across the region. As is clear from the impressive roster of speakers, plenaries and workshops, and the nearly 200 people already signed up to attend the inaugural New England Farm to Institution Summit at UMass-Amherst in April 2015, with FINE Jay helped to spark some new and important pathways to viability for New England farmers and food producers.

December / 2014

Sparkplug Award, 2014 Recipient

Brad Schlaggar, MD, PhD, is a professor of neurology and the newly appointed director of the Division of Pediatric and Developmental Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine (St. Louis).  He also treats patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where he was recently named neurologist-in-chief.

Brad was awarded the $50,000 Frank Hatch “Sparkplug” Award for Enlightened Public Service by The John Merck Fund for 2014. Dr. Schlaggar is the eighth recipient of the prize that the foundation presents annually to a grantee whose work embodies extraordinary creativity, dedication and foresight.

“Brad’s contributions and commitment to the fields of child neurology and psychiatry demonstrate the reasons for awarding him this year’s Sparkplug Award,” said Olivia Farr, chair of the JMF board, in presenting the award. “Brad has become a leader in research into the developing brains of children, using innovative neuroimaging techniques. At the same time, he has pushed to ensure that brain researchers target problems faced by the developmentally disabled.”

Dr. Schlaggar said, “I feel privileged and humbled to be recognized by The John Merck Fund with an award that is named for Mr. Frank Hatch, a man whose vision and leadership has had such an enormous impact on the lives of so many people, especially those with developmental disabilities. I share strongly the values and priorities of the John Merck Fund, making this recognition especially gratifying.”

“Brad’s attitude and respect for the interface between brain and mind, and his ability to incorporate that perspective into his clinical and scientific work, has driven his groundbreaking research.  He is an inspiration to students, colleagues and the entire scientific community,” said Ms. Farr.

Originally from Chicago, Brad received his Honors ScB magna cum laude in Neural Science from Brown University in 1986, and his MD and PhD degrees from Washington University School of Medicine in 1994.  He completed residency training in Pediatric Medicine at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and in Adult Neurology at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, before completing his Fellowship in Pediatric Neurology at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in 1999.

Brad has been the recipient of many awards, including most recently, the E. Mead Johnson Award for Pediatric Research, given by the Society for Pediatric Research for outstanding research achievements in pediatrics.  He was chosen for this award for his contributions to basic and translational research using brain imaging, such as functional MRI, to understand the development of human cognition.  He has been listed annually in the “Best Doctors in America” since 2005 for Child Neurology.  Brad’s current research efforts are directed at brain activation studies in development and plasticity of human cognition and language using functional MRI.  His clinical responsibilities include pediatric movement disorders, pediatric stroke, and hemiplegic cerebral palsy.

Brad received a John Merck Scholars Award in 2002, served on the John Merck Scholars Program Panel from 2008 to 2010, and is currently serving on the Translational Research Program’s Scientific Advisory Board.

December / 2013

Sparkplug Award, 2013 Recipient

Pete Myers is founder, CEO and chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences. He holds a doctorate in the biological sciences from UC Berkeley and a BA from Reed College. For a dozen years beginning in 1990, Pete served as director of the W. Alton Jones Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia. Along with co-authors Dr. Theo Colborn and Dianne Dumanoski, Myers wrote Our Stolen Future, a book that explores the scientific basis of concern for how contamination threatens fetal development.

Pete is now actively involved in primary research on the impacts of endocrine disruption on human health. He has chaired the board of the Science Communication Network since its founding in 2003. He has served on the board of the H. John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment since 2007 and in May 2012 became board chair. He also serves on the board of the Jenifer Altman Foundation. Until its merger with Pew Charitable Trust in late 2007, he was board chair of the National Environmental Trust. He has also served as board president of the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity, an association of 40+ foundations supporting work on biodiversity, climate, energy and environmental health.

When the temperature is above 50 F and it’s not raining, Myers regularly publishes and from a platform in the woods near his house. Turkeys, foxes, turtles, deer and other creatures meander by. In spring the trees above are full of migrating warblers.

December / 2012

Sparkplug Award, 2012 Recipient

Russell Libby is a Maine native who planted his first garden after getting free seeds at the end of fourth grade. His involvement with Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association (MOFGA) started at the first Common Ground Country Fair in 1977 where he saw a connection between local, organic food and a strong Maine economy. He began participating in the Consortium for Maine Food Self-Reliance in 1979, and joined the MOFGA Board of Directors in 1983. After a dozen years on the Board, including two years as President, Russell became Executive Director in 1995. He has led MOFGA’s growth over the past decade as the organization moved to the new Common Ground Education Center in Unity, expanded the ag services and education programs, and created a subsidiary to run the certification program. He served 10 years as Research Director at the Maine Dept of Agriculture, and now serves on the Agricultural Council of Maine, the U/Maine Board of Agriculture, Maine Farmland Trust, Eat Local Foods Coalition, FEDCO Seeds, and the National Organic Coalition.
Both in and beyond Maine, Russell is respected as a well-informed, persuasive and deeply committed champion for how small-scale, local, organic, sustainable agriculture can serve as a powerful antidote to what he tagged in a recent TEDx talk as, the “Roadrunner economy.” Russell conjures the image of Coyote in hot pursuit of the Roadrunner as the perfect metaphor for our prevailing economic system whose frantic chasing after an illusory object of desire has sent humanity and the natural world off the cliff, suspended in mid-air, and destined to fall. Russell offers that the strong connections forged between people in community as they grow, prepare and share food can soften what will otherwise be an unforgivingly hard landing.
Russell has a degree in economics from Bowdoin College and a Master’s in resource economics from the University of Maine. With his wife, Mary Anne, and three daughters, he operates the small diversified Three Sisters Farm in Mount Vernon. He served three years on the local school board, has chaired the town’s Comprehensive Plan Committee, and serves as a Selectman. He also writes poetry in his spare time. Russell’s first book, Balance: A Late Pastoral, was published in 2007.

(JMF was saddened along with everyone who knew and worked with him by his death in 2013.)