The last time this publication featured an in-depth profile of Manna Jo Greene, it was the year 2000. She hadn’t yet been elected to the Rosendale Town Board or the Ulster County Legislature. She hadn’t yet gone to Iraq with the Hudson Valley Peace Brigade to serve as a “human shield” in the leadup to the US invasion of that country in 2002. She hadn’t yet taken up the mantle of environmental action director at the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater – the post from which she has just retired after 23 years of leadership. But she already had such a stellar list of accomplishments under her belt that Mohonk Consultations had decided to honor her with its annual Distinguished Achievement Award for Environmental Sensitivity.
That wasn’t the first time that her track record as an advocate for the planet had attracted notice, either. She had received the Pride of Ulster County Award in 1991, been named Woman of the Year by the Ulster County YWCA in 1993 and received the Sacred Universe Award from The Well Spirituality Center in 1997. There would be many more honors to follow.
When we checked in with her at the turn of the century, Greene was getting ready to embark on her third career. She had already distinguished herself as a voice for sustainability, first as a member and then chair of the Town of Rosendale Environmental Commission, and then co-founder of the Hudson Valley Sustainable Communities Network (now called Sustainable Hudson Valley) and organizer of the Hudson Valley Environmental Network, Hudson Valley Smart Growth Alliance and Hudson Valley Materials Exchange. She was hired as the Town of New Paltz’s first recycling coordinator in 1989 and was soon recruited to do the same on a larger scale by the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency. She threw her considerable energies into education and advocacy, and on her 10-year watch in that position at UCRRA, the rate of recycling countywide jumped from four percent to 40 percent.
In part, says Greene, her interest in garbage as a focal point for environmental change in the 1990s grew out of her first 23-year career: nursing. “I noticed all these people in critical care who had serious respiratory problems because they were smokers, and I started to ask, ‘What about all the people who are getting sick because of environmental exposure?’” It was a time when the negative health effects of toxic waste materials, such as PCBs, were much in the news.
By then Greene had also spent many years as a volunteer on Toshi Seeger’s crew of litter-pickers at Clearwater’s annual Great Hudson River Revival music festival. “She was getting 10,000 people to recycle,” Greene recalls. “Toshi taught me that if it’s the right thing to do, do it and demonstrate that it works. Don’t wait for it to become commonplace.”
Toshi’s husband, Clearwater founder Pete Seeger, had been a hero to Greene since her girlhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her mother was a bookkeeper who commuted into New York City to work in the management office that represented both Pete and Woody Guthrie. “He was kind of a household word,” she says. Even before she began volunteering for Clearwater, she had dropped out of high school to join the civil rights movement, largely inspired by Seeger.
“I helped found the Bridgeport chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. I became their secretary. We were mostly working on housing discrimination,” Greene relates. “I typed a letter to James Farmer, the leader of CORE – on an old manual typewriter – inviting Martin Luther King to Bridgeport. Not only did he come and visit, but he made a whole tour of the Northeast. So, our office became a force to be reckoned with, and not just a straggling handful of hippies!”
The Connecticut group organized two busloads of local activists to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, so Greene was among those who heard the “I have a dream” speech in person. “I was standing about 300 feet from Dr. King,” she remembers. She also went to DC several times to lobby for passage of the Civil Rights Act. “I was there when it passed in Congress; I was there when it passed in the Senate. Afterwards we all linked arms and sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ From that moment on, you could not tell me that people cannot get things done.”
Greene went on to marry and give birth to two sons and a daughter, but by the mid-1970s she was a single mother, pursuing her AAS in Nursing at Ulster County Community College. By 1979 she was working as an RN at Benedictine Hospital; she earned a BA in Biology at SUNY New Paltz in 1985 and an MS in Environmental Studies at Bard College in 1989. She continued her nursing career part-time while devoting more and more of her energies to the issues of recycling and sustainability.
As leader of the Hudson Valley Sustainable Communities Network, Greene drove the development of the Ulster County Farmland Preservation Plan and worked with the Cornell Cooperative Extension to establish the Hudson Valley Harvest farm-to-table food campaign – a successful regional branding effort adopted enthusiastically by dozens of local restaurants. In the late 1990s she joined the Clearwater Board of Directors for a couple of years and finally took the leap to become environmental action director there in 2000 – only a few months after her award from Mohonk Consultations.
It proved to be the perfect platform for Greene to weave together her “background in civil rights, my concern for health care and my concern for environmental issues. The position made it possible for me to do something about the issues that I most care about.” And so, for the past 23 years, Greene has spearheaded Clearwater’s engagement on a variety of environmental issues, including the battles to get Con Edison to clean up the PCBs that its factories dumped into the Hudson River, to shut down and decommission the nuclear plants at Indian Point and to address the PFOS and PFAS contamination of Newburgh’s water supply. She was a founder of the Hudson River Watershed Alliance and the Rondout Creek Watershed Council and coordinator of the Fallkill Creek planning process. During the same time period, she also served as a member of the Rosendale Town Board (2006-2013) and of the Ulster County Legislature (2014-present), where she chairs the Energy, Environment and Sustainability Committee and the Climate Smart Committee.
While the decades-long campaign to shut down Indian Point finally succeeded in 2021, much work remains to be done to ensure that the plant’s current owner, Holtec International Decommissioning, is not allowed to discharge fuel-pool water that is contaminated with radioactive tritium isotopes into the Hudson River. “Part of the old way of doing things was the attitude that ‘The river will wash it away.’ We now know that there’s no such place as ‘away,’” Greene observes. The Harckham/Levenberg “Save the River Bill” to prohibit radioactive wastewater discharges was just passed by the New York State Senate (S.5181) but has not yet been brought to a vote in the State Assembly. The battle to prevent the fracked-gas-fueled expansion of the Danskammer Generating Station in Newburgh is also still an ongoing concern for Clearwater.
At this point, however, Manna Jo Greene feels confident that she’s leaving her docket at the environmental watchdog organization in capable hands. After watching it go through several very rocky years, she says that Clearwater’s new executive director, David Tommen, is “brilliant” and “very strong on nonprofit finance.” She gave notice of her retirement a whole year ago, so that a nationwide search could be conducted for her replacement as environmental action director, and so that she could train that person. “They have hired someone, though I can’t say yet who it is. But I am thrilled with the person they chose,” says Greene. “Plus, there are a lot of new people there who are caring and talented.” Her last day at Clearwater was May 31.
While she’s looking forward to attending to several long-deferred personal projects and spending more time with her five-year-old grandson Emmett, Greene has no plans to step down from the Ulster County Legislature anytime soon. “The greatest threat to the Hudson River is the climate crisis. I felt compelled to work on climate issues full-time,” she says. “One of my greatest regrets is that we haven’t been able to get renewable energy in place soon enough.”
She will remain deeply involved with a new environmental consortium called the Hudson Valley Climate Science and Solutions Network, whose mandate is to educate legislators, government agencies and the general public about the hard science behind climate change, as well as to “put in place systems that make [solutions] easy and accessible,” she says. “We’re in a global existential emergency and we’re not acting like it. It’s a hard ship to turn around… If I’m able to contribute to the solutions, then my grandson won’t have to come to me and say, ‘This crisis was going on – why didn’t you do something about it?’”