Ryan Mooney-Bullock has been told she’s “always on brand.” If she’s not working in her role as executive director of Green Umbrella, Greater Cincinnati’s regional sustainability alliance, she’s probably taking a hike, spending time outside with her family or tending to their urban homestead in Spring Grove Village. Its 11 acres are home to a large vegetable garden, fruit trees, ducks, chickens, bees and goats, which help with invasive plant control (although Mooney-Bullock still spends plenty of time chain sawing honeysuckle).
“Climate (and) environmental work isn’t just my job,” she said. “It’s how I live and truly guides almost every decision I make.”
That lifestyle is fitting for the leader of an organization working to create a “resilient, sustainable region for all,” as its mission reads. Green Umbrella brings together hundreds of member organizations and individuals who share Mooney-Bullock’s passion for improving our region’s environmental health.
“The organization really serves as a connector,” Mooney-Bullock said. “I like to think of myself as a spider in a big web, sensing who is touching down, what they’re interested in and how I can connect them.
“I really love being able to ignite people’s interest in environmental issues and then figure out how they can plug into what’s going on, whether as an individual or as an organization … so they can all help create what’s coming next,” she said.
Mooney-Bullock’s own interest in the environment sparked at a young age and was fueled by her family, her faith and lots of time outside.
Growing up on the East Side of Cincinnati, she spent hours playing in the little ravine behind her home. She even joined a regional environmental club for kids. (Recycling was a hot topic back then.)
“I always just felt some level of connection with the natural world, and I was pretty outraged that people would treat it like garbage,” she said.
In her social justice-oriented, politically active family, those early environmentalist tendencies both fit with the dynamic and set her apart, giving her an issue she could take on as her own.
Faith also helped shape her environmental ethic. “I recognize the divinity in the whole world, and that helps inspire me to take care of it and connect with it,” said Mooney-Bullock, who attends services at Christ Church Cathedral.
From early interest to career
It might seem as if Mooney-Bullock’s environmental career was a foregone conclusion, but that wasn’t her first inclination. She started at the University of Chicago with the goal of being an overseas doctor. Getting into the pre-med coursework, though, she realized it wasn’t for her. So she switched to environmental studies, another major that combined her interests in science and social justice.
A summer internship with the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago-based sustainability think tank, morphed into a full-time job after graduation.
“It was focused on how can urban spaces be really sustainable, and how can we advocate for policies that create sustainability within urban spaces?” she said.
After a few years, though, she realized she didn’t want to spend all of her time at a computer doing research and writing.
“I wanted to be speaking to people who weren’t already convinced about these issues and helping to raise the next generation of environmental activists,” Mooney-Bullock said.
So she headed back to school, earning her master’s in environmental science with a teaching certificate at Antioch University New England. When she finished her degree, she and her husband, Jesse, moved back to Cincinnati to be closer to family and to the hills and trees they loved so much. (They met in 1995 while students at Walnut Hills High School and have now been married for 21 years.) She spent the next three years teaching science at Princeton High School.
After a few years at home to start her own family – she and Jesse have four kids, ages 6 (in May) to 16 – she made the transition from formal to informal education by joining the staff of the Civic Garden Center. There, she launched the Green Learning Station, an environmental education center, and helped craft education programs. That’s also when she got to know Green Umbrella, serving on one of its action teams.
Chad Edwards, principal at Emersion DESIGN and a former Green Umbrella board member, recalls meeting Mooney-Bullock back then. The architect was teaching a seminar about sustainability at the University of Cincinnati and invited Mooney-Bullock to speak.
“She was super passionate, exceptionally knowledgeable and really high energy, so the students really engaged,” he said.
“I get energized when I get to be in front of people and share my passions,” Mooney-Bullock said, tracing her love of public speaking back to her high school years as a “theater kid.”
In 2017, after a few more years at home with young children, Mooney-Bullock joined the Green Umbrella staff as communications and program manager. When she applied for the executive director role a year later, Edwards, who was on the hiring committee, recalled their previous interaction and
He’s since been impressed with the organization’s growth under her leadership.
“The way she’s been able to adapt and grow into the role has been, in my mind, pretty tremendous,” he said. “She’s been able to take us to the next level.”
Wade Johnston, executive director of Tri-State Trails, agrees. He worked with Mooney-Bullock first as a colleague and then with her as his supervisor at Green Umbrella. (Tri-State Trails became its own nonprofit in February.)
“She has a really great pulse on the sustainability movement here in Greater Cincinnati,” he said. “Under her leadership, Green Umbrella has matured a lot and become more sophisticated … I’m impressed by what she’s accomplished.”
Growing an organization
New initiatives launched or adopted during her tenure include:
The 2023 Green Cincinnati Plan, lead by city and county officials with strong support from Green Umbrella on plan development, including co-facilitating community engagement efforts and co-designing the equity framework.
Cincinnati 2030 District is a network of healthy, sustainable and high-performing buildings.
Common Orchard Project plants orchards around Greater Cincinnati to provide fresh food, tree canopy and green space.
Greater Cincinnati Regional Climate Collaborative connects government entities seeking to address climate impacts and become more sustainable.
CPS Outside connects local organizations focused on providing outdoor experiences and environmental education for Cincinnati Public Schools students.
Faith Communities Go Green mobilizes religious communities interested in climate change (now co-supported by EquaSion).
All that growth required people. When she took the reins, the organization had a staff of four; today, they’re at 13, not counting four Tri-State Trails employees who were formerly Green Umbrella staff. It also took money: Green Umbrella increased its annual budget from $720,000 to $2 million under her watch.
Mooney-Bullock is proud of the work they’ve done but recognizes there’s a lot more to do. “I try to pause and celebrate our successes, but I’m always thinking about the next thing, because there’s so much to do,” she said.
And although Green Umbrella focuses on organizations, advocacy and policy, its work really comes down to people.
“Pretty much everything we do is around how does this affect people?” she said. “I think people want to know how the work we’re doing is going to make their community better in a lot of ways: health, quality of life, economic impacts.”
As an example, she pointed to planting trees and decreasing emissions to improve air quality – which helps people living with asthma.
That way of framing things brings together diverse groups of people with a range of political beliefs, Edwards said. Green Umbrella works in a 10-county region that includes audiences ranging from urban to suburban to rural.
“She has been very mindful of helping people understand that (sustainability) is something we can all agree on and rally around; this does not have to be divisive,” Edwards said. “She’s been able to pull people together … and show them that we can all work together for the common good and for each individual’s good.”
Johnston remarked on Mooney-Bullock’s optimism in a field where “it’s easy to be frustrated and feel cynical or hopeless. Ryan is upbeat and genuine and leads from her heart,” he said.
“I’m really encouraged by human resiliency and our ability to come up with amazing solutions,” Mooney-Bullock said. “We have most of the ideas we need to really create a more sustainable future. We just need to be all hands on deck going in that direction.”
Cincinnati is apparently a good place to be doing environmental work, for a few reasons.
“The City of Cincinnati has had a climate and sustainability plan longer than most cities, especially Midwestern cities,” she said. “My assessment is that people are pretty impressed when they hear what’s going on in Cincinnati.” The region has a huge amount of green space, an asset that must be protected, she said.
Additionally, the region is considered a “climate haven,” meaning experts predict the impacts of climate change won’t be as devastating here as in other parts of the country, she said. “We are expecting a significant increase in population for this reason.”
Mooney-Bullock hopes Green Umbrella’s continued work connecting people and organizations to work on sustainability will help our region produce solutions that no one entity could tackle on its own.
“I hope that we are successful in making Greater Cincinnati a region where everyone has access to health and environmental quality and that it’s a beautiful place to live for generations,” she said.
What you can do
Mooney-Bullock offers a few easy ways anyone can make an environmental impact:
- Plant trees, especially native ones
- Take advantage of “green” incentives for energy and transportation
- “Green up” your commute by walking, biking, taking the bus or driving an electric vehicle
- Make small adjustments to your home’s temperature
- Be more intentional about how much food you buy, and use what you buy to avoid food waste that will end up in the landfill and produce methane.