Leah Cayson Staff Writer
As a descendent of a civil rights-driven family, David Whiteside’s activist roots run deep. From a young age, Whiteside knew he wanted to continue his family’s legacy and help as many people as he could.
In the first grade, Whiteside started to learn about environmental issues.
“I was angered by the fact that pollution existed and was hurting people,” Whiteside said.
By the time Whiteside was in middle school, the youngster knew he wanted to devote his life to fighting pollution. He started getting involved with Riverkeepers and was mentored by his godfather, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who became involved with the Hudson Riverkeeper in 1983. Kennedy also founded and is president of Waterkeeper Alliance (an umbrella organization for bodies of water), which was founded in 1999.
While at the University of Vermont, Whiteside’s senior thesis was “Founding Black Warrior Riverkeeper.” Although Whiteside was studying for his degree, he already was doing what he wanted to do after college.
In 2009, Whiteside founded Tennessee Riverkeeper. The organization’s mission is to protect the Tennessee River and its tributaries from illegal pollution by enforcing environmental laws and educating the public.
“I would like to be able to safely eat a fish from the Tennessee River without worrying about getting sick from pollution,” Whiteside said.
Karen Thomas, board president of Tennessee Riverkeeper, said the organization is lucky to have Whiteside as a part of its team.
“He is knowledgeable in the issues,” Thomas said. “He will be instrumental in improving the quality of the water in the river and future generations will be able to enjoy clean water.”
Thomas said Tennessee Riverkeeper has about 14,000 members. The organization also has more than 10,000 Twitter followers.
Whiteside would like to have a Riverkeeper group for every major river in Alabama and the South. That’s his dream.
To date, there are eight Waterkeepers, which can include coverage for rivers, lakes, creeks or bays, active in Alabama. There are more than 200 around the world.
Starting a non-profit organization in the midst of a recession was challenging, he said.
“Figuring out what you’re passionate about is not always easy,” Whiteside said. “Following your passion for a career combined with hard work is a recipe for success.”
Whiteside said he studies a lot for his job, and it’s a constant learning process.
“It’s massive. I could devote my whole life to it and not know anything about it,” Whiteside said.
As the executive director of Tennessee Riverkeeper, Whiteside is a “jack of all trades.” His role incorporates a variety of academic fields such as biology, technology, politics and business administration.
“It’s tough. … You have to be open to the job being different every day because of people who generally make the best Riverkeepers around the country have the characteristics to be a business leader or CEO,” Whiteside said.
Salary does not motivate Whiteside. He said helping people and improving the community’s health is his motivation.
“A lot of illegal pollution is being discharged into poor and minority communities, and by cleaning up public water supply, that’s helping the citizens in the community because our bodies are primarily water,” Whiteside said.
Whiteside hopes that Tennessee Riverkeeper will be widely recognized as a strong, independent non-profit organization that is strongly supported by the community in the future.
Leah Cayson can be reached at 256-340-2445 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/DD_Leah”>@DD_Leah.
Place of birth: Birmingham
Education: Altamont School in Birmingham (high school); University of Vermont, bachelor’s degree in environmental studies
Job: Executive director and founder of Tennessee Riverkeeper