John November recalls the day it all clicked together; that day when, bombarded by the infinite choices of youth, he set off on the path to leave the Earth better than he found it. After graduating from high school in 2002, the Atlantic Beach native was treated to a boat ride on the St. Johns River and after jumping off the side of the boat to cool off, his fellow passengers admonished him. You can’t swim in the St. Johns River! Those in the boat were crying foul, referring to the tainted water and the sordid history of polluters past. The incident was a call to action, but November didn’t yet know how to answer it. He’d soon get a chance, though.
“When I was in my early 20’s, my mom encouraged me to attend a City of Atlantic Beach commission meeting to support a friend,” November recalls. “By chance at the meeting, they were putting together a vote to apply for a grant to do Sunset pier, off of Tideviews Preserve. It was voted down and I was shocked.” As a kid, November and his friends would visit the 8-acre preserve located on the northwest corner of Atlantic Beach to launch canoes and fish. The rejection of the new pier endangered the future of the preserve as the park had struggled with safety issues as a result of the previously low visitation.
Distraught, November says that he marched over to the house of mentor and former Atlantic Beach mayor, Lyman Fletcher, looking for advice. “I said, ‘This is wrong! We need to do something.’ He told me to go see every commissioner, state my position and have them all call for a re-vote. I had two days to do so and I did it. They unanimously voted in favor of building the pier. That was my first piece of government interaction and I was hooked.”
Empowered by his ability to move the needle, November pursued his Juris Doctorate the University of Florida, the same school where he earned his undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies. After graduating, he was offered a position in the Florida Keys, which he thought was an opportunity to practice Environmental Law, only to find that the gig was more about community engagement. At the time, residents were at odds with Monroe County over proposed legislation that would reclassify and restrict homes with ground floor dwellings. November was brought on to advocate for the residents and educate the county. He had to become an expert on floodplains seemingly overnight. Water level is a continuous hot-button topic in the Keys and both parties involved were swimming in misinformation. The opportunity taught November valuable lessons in mitigation, and while not quite what he expected, he says that the opportunity provided him with another constant in his life.
“I thought I was going to graduate and jump right into some big environmental fight, but the flow of life took me to other causes in order to sharpen me up for what was to come,” November muses. “I don’t always get to pick where I end up,” November says of the professional positions he’s held.
Determined to maintain contact with environmental law and coastline stewardship, he co-founded Coastal Ocean Association of Science and Technology (COAST) alongside Dr. Brian Lapointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. The two met over discussion of Lapointe’s extensive work on algae blooms in South Florida and decided to form COAST. “I thought I had finally arrived at an opportunity to be an environmental lawyer and stay put for the rest of my career, but as it always is for me, something else grabbed my attention,” November says.
That something else was Gratitude America, an organization built to serve returning veterans with support retreats focused on critical mental and physical wellness. “It was an opportunity to learn how to build something from the ground up. The organization was nascent and I poured myself into it in order to really get it going,” November says.
He had yet to become the environmental lawyer he had envisioned himself becoming but helping veterans engulfed his life as he took on the natural adversity of growth. He secured a $615,000 grant from the Marcus Foundation and became the executive director of the organization. “I had so many people tell me that I should quit; that the odds were too greatly stacked against us,” November says. “But, if you can harness your desire to impact the world, then that can guide the choices you make every day. In the end, the richness of life is the choice to help those around you.”
November would have been content with staying at Gratitude America for the length of his professional career, but an opportunity to helm the Public Trust Environmental Legal Institute of Florida was too good to pass up. Commonly referred to as Public Trust, the organization focuses on protecting and preserving public lands and waters through all available legal means, including litigation when necessary.
So, once again, November went into the unknown. He left Gratitude America in capable hands and jumped into the job he had been waiting for. “I think that the Earth is incredibly resilient. We just have to give it a helping hand. Every little thing we can do can make a positive impact. We got to keep on putting the time in and the effort,” November says.
Under November’s watch, the Public Trust is creating a map of all Northeast Florida point sources of used water entering the main arteries, connecting the dots as to where next to attack the issue of water pollution. “We can’t run away from a problem because it’s too big. Each incremental step makes a huge difference down the road,” November says.
“At the public trust, we have been able to step into an enforcement gap. We have the big stick of litigation, as we are lawyers, but we want to avoid the adversarial approach. We want to collaborate and ensure that it is all about the resource. If folks are taking care of the resource, we will help,” November says.
Another initiative for the Public Trust under November was the creation of a tree canopy map. In Jacksonville, when developers remove trees they have to pay a fee set by the circumference of the tree. The money is supposed to go back into tree planting efforts across the community and while the fee is well-known to developers and city planners, it is not common knowledge to the average citizen. Discovering that there was approximately $20 million collected since 2000 and little to no replanting happening, the Public trust sued the city. After a two-year battle, both parties agreed on terms and settled on an appropriate application of the tree mitigation fund. “The Public Trust brought better picture of our current tree canopy and identified locations in the city where we can put more trees in the ground. We provided a pathway for citizens to get involved in planting $20 million worth of trees in the next 3-5 years.”
Action has defined November’s career so far. He’s sought out some of his fights and others have come to him, but he has yet to shy away from an opportunity to help. He is comfortable with being the mediator, the educator and the lightning rod all at the same time. He understands that it was what he was built to do. He is ever-hopeful of everyone’s ability to make a difference, regardless of passion.
“Your professional career may not have to be frontline altruism, but you can dedicate efforts and financial support to any cause you deem worthy. Donors are equally as important as the nonprofit sector,” November says.
“Look within for strength and look outside of yourself for purpose.”