Neighborhood Heroes: Willis Elkins

Willis Elkins

The thought of tackling large-scale environmental issues can be daunting. You’re not alone. Sometimes, as it turns out,  the best way to get started is in your own neighborhood. Meet Willis Elkins, the program manager at Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA). In green circles, he is the man to know when it comes to environmental efforts here in the North Brooklyn area.  We had the chance to sit down with Willis over coffee a few days ago to learn more about what drives him to help Greenpoint.

Willis is tall, sports a well groomed beard, and has an unassuming demeanor. But get him talking about his work with NCA and it’s easy to understand how so much progress has been made with him at the helm of most of NCA’s cleanup programs. AND he’s active in the art community. But more on that later.

Willis was born and raised in Houston, and first came to New York City during the early 2000’s. He went to college at New York University, and received his BA degree in 2006. After graduating from NYU, Willis moved to Greenpoint, near Newtown Creek.

“I stumbled on the creek, and I was interested in getting access to it,” he said. “The creek is out of sight, out of mind for most people, and I wanted to create more access to it so people could learn about the waste.”

Willis actually ended up spending much of his spare time exploring its waterways on an inflatable raft. (It must be said that with Greenpoint’s history of water contamination, an inflatable raft doesn’t seem like the safest route to take!) This is how Willis witnessed, firsthand, the negative impacts of the pollution that was inflicting on the creek, and why Willis decided to take action and  commit himself to its restoration and preservation.

Willis Elkins

As program manager for NCA, Willis essentially oversees the projects that the NCA undertakes. That includes everything from brainstorming and planning, to coordination and execution. Most of the work that Willis does at NCA involves environmental restoration, improving public access to natural spots, and community environmental education efforts. Besides his position at the NCA, Willis is also a founding member of the North Brooklyn Boat Club, where he serves as a canoe instructor and trip leader. He often leads environmentally educative outings on Newtown Creek, which are free, so we definitely encourage residents to experience it.

His work has not gone unnoticed by the community. “There are people who saw the creek in the 70s, and see it now, and comment to us that it is a lot cleaner today,” Willis concludes. Beyond his incredible environmental work, he is also a dedicated artist. Unsurprisingly, many of his artistic interests are linked with his love for the environment. With his art, Willis often explores the relationships between synthetic, human materials and the natural landscape around him.

For example, one of his projects included collecting old, discarded lighters that he found in the Newtown Creek and displaying them in eye-catching patterns. Willis’s finished project, entitled “The Lighter Log,” was even featured in the New York Times Magazine in 2013.

Willis Elkins art

Willis’s artistic endeavors also extend beyond the environment. He’s written and contributed to several published books, and has been included in many exhibitions for his collage work. Since graduating from NYU, Willis has spent many of his summers at a camp in Vermont, where he teaches art classes to young, budding artists. Willis is also involved with the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Institute here in NYC, acting as a review team member for the annual design challenge. We definitely recommend that you head over to Willis’ website to check out all of his incredible artwork.
Basically, whether it’s through his art or his environmental efforts, Willis is constantly working towards making the world a little more beautiful for everyone. And that’s something that we can all get behind here at Go Green Brooklyn. To learn more about Willis and his efforts with the Newtown Creek Alliance, click here.