Marisa Butler: “Know your audience”

Know your audience. When I was first cultivating my volunteer base, I reached out on social media platforms where I was more likely to find active, environmentally conscious individuals who would be naturally excited to work with my organization. Some of the Facebook hiking pages in San Diego are much more environmentally inclined than others, […]

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Know your audience. When I was first cultivating my volunteer base, I reached out on social media platforms where I was more likely to find active, environmentally conscious individuals who would be naturally excited to work with my organization. Some of the Facebook hiking pages in San Diego are much more environmentally inclined than others, so instead of posting in every possible group, I targeted which groups I felt best reflected the community I was hoping to create. This allowed me to create an amazing base of followers and become a known and respected name within the groups I targeted. This has allowed me to have 100% organic volunteer growth and attract absolutely amazing volunteers that fit the culture of my organization.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marisa Butler.

Marisa Butler of Maine was named Miss Earth USA 2021 on January 17 at the national finals held in Orlando. She will represent the USA at the Miss Earth international competition on December 12th, 2021.

Marisa graduated Cum Laude from Stonehill College in Easton Massachusetts in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Economics and a minor in Business Administration. She earned an athletic scholarship to Stonehill for soccer, lacrosse and cheerleading. Marisa studied abroad at King’s College London, where she specialized in Environmental and Political Economics.

Marisa, now 27, lives in San Diego, California where she works as a Financial Advisor and leads a non-profit called We Clean Trails. Her organization meets every Saturday morning to remove litter from walking, hiking and bike trails, as well as beaches and public parks.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in Standish, Maine, which is a small and rural lake town. My house bordered a wildlife preserve, so I had an unparalleled opportunity to see undisturbed nature at its finest. My mother has always been a huge advocate for animals, and I would often assist her in the rehabilitation of sick, injured and orphaned animals. She taught me from a young age, if you can lend a helping hand to always do so, even if the recipient is as small as a mouse.

I carried on that love for animals and nature to college, where I volunteered with NOAA’s Cooperative Shark Tagging Program collecting data on endangered sharks. This program is the longest running shark study in the world and I was so thankful to be a part of it, and to see my data being used to enforce more protections for at risk shark populations.

After graduation, I moved to San Diego for work. There, I joined countless environmentally focused organizations before eventually starting my own.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

We Clean Trails is a community cleanup organization that aims to reduce the amount of litter in San Diego. Litter can cause soil, water and air pollution and put our animal friends at risk of injury or death. Plastic debris cause the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Through my group, I am creating a community of like-minded earth advocates who not only remove trash from their local communities, but also inspire and remind others the importance of Leave No Trace principals.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

When COVID-19 hit San Diego, more and more people turned to the great outdoors than ever before. While I was happy to see more people getting involved with healthy activities such as walking, biking and hiking, I unfortunately noticed a huge increase in litter on my favorite hiking trails as many of these people were not properly educated on Leave No Trace principals. I belonged to a few San Diego hiking groups on social media and saw I was not the only one who noticed this huge uptick in litter. I decided to take some of my beach cleanup equipment that I already had and invite some of the hiking group members out with me each Saturday for the month of June as part of my Think Global Act Local project for the Miss Earth USA competition. I knew I wanted to do something to help not only people, but the plants and animals that also call San Diego home. San Diego is home to more endangered plants and animals than anywhere else in the continental US. I might not be able to remove all threats to these plants and animals, but I can help remove one obstacle to their survival and give them a clean and safe place to call home.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I originally had no intention of creating an organization at the time, but simply wanted to do something about the problem I saw rather than just complain about it online hoping that someone else would do it. My original plan was to do one cleanup a week for the month of June. When June came to a close, my boyfriend — who saw not only all the hard work I had put into this project, but the amount of joy it gave me and the amazing community I built — urged me to keep going. It was due to his love and support that I had the courage to begin the process of creating the organization I now call We Clean Trails.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I was completely clueless when I first started. And I think it’s important to note that anyone doing something for the first time is also clueless and to not let the fear of the unknown stop you from doing something great. My advice is to lean into the people in your life who can help and give you guidance. Never be afraid to ask for help. I was very fortunate that I had some amazing mentors from the Miss Earth USA organization who pointed me in the right direction as to how to apply to become a nonprofit. I was also fortunate that our sponsor, The Clean Earth Project and Garbo Grabber, LLC gave my organization some great deals on equipment, and that I received a 5,000 dollars environmental scholarship from Rosen Center Hotels to aid in my environmental work.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I would say the event that I am most proud of was our July 24th Rose Creek Cleanup. As a group, we removed over 1040lbs in two hours, breaking our previous one-day record of 750lbs. One of our strangest finds also happened to be at this location, we found an entire green car bumper!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

My organization is very dog friendly, my dog Milo serves as not only our mascot, but is also present on our organization’s logo. The volunteers often say one of their favorite parts about volunteering with me is the fact that they can either bring their own dog or get a chance to see Milo. However, the one day I probably would have preferred if he stayed home was when he got out of his harness in Balboa Park and decided to take a swim in the fountain… the one with signs everywhere saying, “do not swim”. It took me probably 5 minutes to finally coax out my water loving, soaked, super excited fluffy companion from that fountain. While I was mortified in the moment, all my volunteers who were there that day still view that incident as one of their favorite and funniest memories. The lesson I learned is that even in moments of stress with your organization, you are almost always harder on yourself than the people around you are. That incident gave me a lot of confidence to deal with unexpected issues going forward with much more poise.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

As discussed earlier, I could not have done any of this without the love and support of my boyfriend Jamie Ford. He was the one who encouraged me to continue my project past the original one-month time frame. He also is kind enough to allow me to put hundreds of pounds of trash in his brand-new truck each week. Aside from him, I could not have done any of this without the help and support of my We Clean Trails family. I am so fortunate to be able to say that I do not believe there is one single volunteer who has not come to at least two cleanups, with most of our volunteers coming almost every week for the past year and a half. The fact that they are willing to spend most of their Saturday mornings with me, exploring and cleaning up San Diego is the biggest compliment and motivator that I could ever receive.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Pack out what you pack in — one of the most famous phrases from the Leave No Trace Principals. We need to hold ourselves accountable for making sure that if we bring litter producing materials with us outdoors, that we have made sure we have a plan for disposal and all pieces are accounted for. Some things to look out for: Food wrapper edges often get left behind or blown away, bottle tops, cigarette butts, dog poop bags.
  2. Encourage companies to produce less single use plastics and more biodegradable packaging. We need to limit the consumption of products that have a higher likelihood to become litter, and work to make those products more environmentally friendly and biodegradable in case they do become litter.
  3. We need to tackle our homelessness problem. This is not only a humanitarian issue, as I believe all humans deserve the basic right of shelter, but also an environmental issue. Our heaviest loads are often from locations with abandoned encampment sites. Our two most recent being 1040lbs at Rose Creek and nearly 400lbs at Sunset Cliffs.
  4. Cigarette Butts are the single most littered item in the world. While the numbers have been going down, we need to put serious pressure on our politicians to ban the harmful chemicals found in these cigarette butts, to create incentives for disposing of them properly, and to lower demand for these products through education. I would also like to see these require a brighter color, as the yellow often blends in with sand or other natural materials making it difficult to see and cleanup.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

As a Financial Advisor and earth advocate, I am a big fan of ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) investing. Studies have recently linked companies with a high ESG score with higher profitability and less volatility than their market counterparts with lower ESG scores. My theory as to why that is, is because companies that strive to make the world a better place are approaching their decisions from a long term and holistic point of view, and is an indicator of a strong management team. My generation in particular has shown an increase demand for sustainable goods and expects the companies they support to share the same moral values. As we become older, and as the wealth of the company shifts to this generation, the demand for sustainability will only intensify. If a company does not keep up with this demand they will shortly be phased out for more environmentally and socially conscious options.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. I wish someone told me to use a luggage weight to record my totals when I first started. I only began recording weights after seeing another cleanup organization post a photo of their volunteer taking the weight of one of their bags of litter using a luggage weight. This 20 dollars piece of equipment has allowed me to record important metrics for my organization, and I wish I had that information dating back to inception. My volunteers love knowing the weight totals of their impact, and I have noticed they are far more likely to share on their socials when they have these data sets to share.
  2. The importance of ice breakers and get-to-know-you activities at the beginning of each event. I only began asking people to share their names with the group in the past year. This has allowed not only me to learn my volunteers’ names through repetition (super helpful since we didn’t even have each other’s faces to go off of because of the masks!), but also allowed fellow volunteers to get to know each other as well. After starting our introduction circle prior to every cleanup, I have found many of my volunteers have become friends and are more likely to ask each other for help during the event when they need it.
  3. To not be afraid to ask for help. When starting this organization, I felt like I had to do everything on my own. When I was out of town, I never felt comfortable asking volunteers or friends to lead the cleanup while I was gone. Unfortunately, when you skip a week, the week you return often has smaller participant numbers. I began asking for volunteers to lead the cleanups while I am away, which has not only made the volunteers I asked feel special and appreciated, but also kept numbers up and more consistent.
    Half of the reason why people are there is to socialize so go out of your way as the group leader to speak to each volunteer individually during the event. Not only is this a great way to network and to receive feedback, but it is also a chance to make friends with your volunteers. Volunteers that I went out of my way to get to know were way more likely to be repeat and become long term volunteers.
  4. Know your audience. When I was first cultivating my volunteer base, I reached out on social media platforms where I was more likely to find active, environmentally conscious individuals who would be naturally excited to work with my organization. Some of the Facebook hiking pages in San Diego are much more environmentally inclined than others, so instead of posting in every possible group, I targeted which groups I felt best reflected the community I was hoping to create. This allowed me to create an amazing base of followers and become a known and respected name within the groups I targeted. This has allowed me to have 100% organic volunteer growth and attract absolutely amazing volunteers that fit the culture of my organization.
  5. Network with other environmental organizations in your area. While the day-to-day work we do as an organization is so important, it is also important to position yourself to be able to make real systematic change in your community. The only way a small community organization like myself could effect change in our political landscape is by partnering with other community organizations with similar goals. Not only are you able to learn from their experience with the day-to-day activities, when you are trying to make legislative changes, the collective action is far more likely to gain local government attention. My group recently partnered with the San Diego Seal Society for an Earth Day cleanup and supported their effort to close Point La Jolla and Boomers Beach during seal and sea lion pupping season. I am happy to say that our efforts resulted in the temporary closure of those beaches and a park ranger stationed to enforce the new rules. We have also partnered with Friends of Rose Creek and have removed over 2,500lbs from that location over the course of three weekends.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

The first thing I would tell them is that it is easier than you think to make a difference in this world. I believe the big reason many people do not contribute to bettering our environment or society is because it seems like an insurmountable task. Rather than allow it to intimidate you to the point of not trying, remember that the only thing that has ever changed the world were individuals just like you who decide each day to show up for themselves, for each other and for our world. Find an organization that aligns with your unique interests, skills and abilities, and schedule time in your week to do something positive.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Don’t sit and complain about something that you have the power to make better. This is exactly what prompted me to create We Clean Trails in the first place. I was getting sick of seeing trash on all the beautiful nature trails around San Diego, so instead of just being annoyed by it I decided to do something about it. Thinking about the world this way gives you more power over your life and often leads to very rewarding moments.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would LOVE to sit down for a private breakfast or lunch with Jane Fonda. Jane not only has had a very impressive modeling, acting and fitness career, and is (not even arguably) the most stunning 83-year-old woman on the planet — but what I find the most admirable about her is that she has never ceased in her fight for what is right. Jane has spent her entire life tirelessly fighting as a political, environmental and women’s rights activist. She was never afraid to speak her truth, even if it meant losing career opportunities or going against popular culture of the time. She is the perfect example of a strong female role model that I look up to and aspire to be like. She is the true representation of a beauty for a cause.

How can our readers follow you online?

Personal IG: @marisapaigebutler

Titleholder IG: @missearthusa

We Clean Trails IG: @wecleantrails

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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