Interview with David Wilcoxen

By Sydney Nielsen, RORG Student Intern

I had the honor of interviewing David Wilcoxen about his background and interests, as well as his involvement with the Red Oak Rain Garden. David and RORG Director Eliana Brown initially met in 2002. Eliana joined David’s staff in 2004 and worked with him for 10 years during which time RORG was initially built.

David is the Associate Director of Environmental Compliance at Facilities & Services at the University of Illinois. He focuses largely on industrial operations and pollution control, such as air pollution, wastewater, construction, and stormwater runoff. His work largely coincides with the pollution control side of environmental law, which also aligns with his prior education.

David holds three degrees from the University of Illinois – an undergraduate degree in Physical Geography, a graduate degree in Urban Planning with a concentration in Environmental Policy, and a law degree focusing on Environmental Law. After his studies at the University, David worked for the U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute for a few years, where he looked at army installations and environmental programs around the United States, making recommendations for changes and improvements. 

Eventually, he returned to the University and began his work here in 1995, when the environmental compliance department was just getting started. David notes that he essentially built the program from the ground up over the course of many years, up to its present state.

The Executive Director of Facilities and Services came to Dave to address a need for a conservation program for the University. This program would be called Building a Lasting University Environment (BLUE). Under BLUE, the faculty/student seed-grant program was created – a model which would be later replicated by today’s Student Sustainability Committee.

While David was working on BLUE, he noted that he relied on Eliana to help with expansion, stating that they “embraced the emotional aspect of humanity through the arts.” Through their work on BLUE, they wanted people to feel an emotional attachment to create change. 

RORG Director Eliana Brown presents at the April 2022 Garden Party with Dave Wilcoxen (third from left) looking on. Photo by Travis Tate.

David grew up on a farm, noting that he spent a lot of time outdoors. When it rained, he’d see litter in the water running off the fields. Around that time, he saw an anti-littering campaign that deeply influenced his way of thinking and and inspired his career interest. And environmental laws were just starting to be written into place. 

David noted the connectivity of humans to the earth, stating: “we are an expression of the earth the same as those tulips and those bluebells…we are nourished by the same energies, the same nutrients.” 

In 2005, Eliana went to David and posed the idea of a rain garden as a BLUE project, and he was immediately enthused. When the garden was in its initial stages, David worked on the administrative end while Eliana wrote the Request for Proposal, sought collaborators, and built excitement about the garden. Professor Tony Endress‘ proposal was selected and he took on the project.

To enhance the rain garden, David added the element of public art. He asked Professor Alex Fekete to work with art students to propose sculpture designs for the rain garden, one of which would eventually be installed. Jennifer Astwood’s Prairie Fire design would be selected and installed, where it stands in the garden today. Fun fact: this was David’s first sculpture install!

David is an artist in addition to an attorney, and he noted that these are both two things he swore as a child he would never become. David currently has his own art initiatives, stating that he is drawn to the guerilla artist style and methods. After working under this style for a period of time, David later became interested in sculpture. His wife noted she wanted some sculptures throughout their community. So, David reached out to find others interested in sculptures –  and would inevitably create the Public Art League, a nonprofit organization. David was the president for 11 years, and throughout the time of its existence, they have established a variety of sculptures around the community. 

One of Dave’s many artistic works.

Dave noted that the bridge in the Red Oak Rain Garden is “a literal piece and a metaphorical piece for what green infrastructure is…it’s a bridge to the next way of managing urban systems. The physical presence of it ensures that the Red Oak Rain Garden will continue.” He notes that in the future, he expects that students and alumni will get engaged on the bridge as well as other significant emotional events. Many graduating students had photos taken there during this year’s commencement weekend.

David also commends Eliana for her hard work and for continuing to sustain the garden, noting that it is easy to lose momentum on a project.

Sydney Nielsen is a sophomore at UIUC majoring in Communication with Organizational and Cultural Communication concentrations. She is also working towards double minors in Spanish and East Asian Languages and Cultures (Japanese). She loves learning about different languages and cultures and can often be found watching shows/movies and listening to music from different countries around the world. She enjoys traveling and hopes to study abroad in a future semester to further her linguistic and cultural learning.

Cover Photo by Layne Knoche

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