We here at Grist are finally feeling a touch of optimism, and it’s not for the obvious reasons. Oh sure, we’ve got a president who believes in science, and the U.S. is rejoining the Paris Agreement. But it’s more than that. We’re getting these newfound good vibes because of 50 amazing, inspiring, brilliant, and deeply hopeful people. Around here, we call them Fixers.
The people on this year’s Grist 50 can reduce food waste, clean up long-haul trucking, and write mind-changing poetry. They’ll school your local candidates, introduce you to the coyotes in your yard, and deploy drones to plant a forest — along with 44 other extraordinary accomplishments.
You sent us nearly 1,000 nominations for this year’s list, and we spent three months weighing the options. The final 2021 Grist 50 includes emerging leaders in climate, sustainability, and equity who are creating change across the nation — not just in Brooklyn and Oakland, but Cleveland and Kansas City, too. These Fixers know a better future is possible. They’re making it happen today.
Arts & Media
Faith E. Briggs
This filmmaker puts equity into the picture
While working as a camp counselor, Faith Briggs learned a lot about city kids and the influence that the media has over their lives. She vowed to create images that could foster confidence and a sense of belonging. As an avid trail runner, she saw how decisions about public land often leave out Black and brown communities. Those threads came together in This Land, the 2020 documentary in which she ran 150 miles through national monuments in the West. She combines scenes of stunning beauty with reflections on race, conservation, and equity. “My work has always been about representation, widening the spectrum of what’s available to believe in,” she says.
In her new podcast, The Trail Ahead, she and fellow runner Addie Thompson keep this conversation going — including some interviews with Grist Fixers. In order to thrive, she says, the conservation movement must actively recruit a greater variety of people. “If you think a community isn’t interested,” Briggs says, “they just haven’t been invited.”
Photo: Kenny Hamlett
This Insta sensation answers all your climate questions
As a child, Isaias Hernandez was discouraged from playing outside. His family lived in Section 8 housing in Los Angeles, amid heavy traffic and pollution. He first heard the phrase “environmental justice” as a senior in high school, and what he learned propelled him to complete a bachelor’s in environmental science at UC Berkeley. But he often felt looked down on in his classes and found himself privately hustling just to catch up.
Hernandez didn’t want others to feel excluded from climate studies, so he started QueerBrownVegan — an inclusive, online space where people learn about environmental topics at an introductory level. It exists primarily on Instagram, where Hernandez has garnered more than 80,000 followers. But it’s not about the numbers. “It’s a community that I’ve cultivated over a year and a half that I can genuinely trust, and learn and unlearn alongside,” he says. The reward comes when he hears from young activists who have joined a local climate club or even started their own organization thanks to his lessons and encouragement.
Photo: Mary Wen
“Isaias is leading the way for intersectional environmentalists. Not only does his work shine light on environmental issues often far less seen but also on the people they affect.” —Pattie Gonia, drag queen, queer environmentalist, and photographer
Musician & Scholar
This musician’s climate plan hits just the right notes
Touring the world as a musician and spoken-word poet is cool and all, but what’s got Lyla June really excited is her seven-point policy plan, the Seven Generations New Deal. She wrote it with collaborators as part of a short-lived run for office, aiming to bring Indigenous leadership to policymaking. Her own ancestry includes both Diné (Navajo) and Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) forebears. The document includes explicit steps to address the climate crisis, with an eye toward environmental justice. “Emissions are just symptomatic,” she says; her bigger goal is to change the culture that led us into this greenhouse to begin with. So far one other candidate has adopted it, and she is working on getting the plan more widely embraced. And though the pandemic put a pause on travel, she still speaks and performs for online conferences and symposia. One major topic: “evangelizing Indigenous food systems and land management in gentle, tactful, and cross-culturally sensitive ways.”
Photo: Shara Lili
Cannupa Hanska Luger
This artist is sculpting a future you’d want to live in
The events at Standing Rock prompted sculptor Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota), who was born on the reservation, to consider art in a new light. More than an object to be admired, art is a process, a way of connecting and engaging people. That realization shifted his focus toward designing new forms of collective participation, for the water protectors there at Standing Rock, and for others. He made an instructional video demonstrating how to build mirrored shields that people could use to protect themselves and to confront law enforcement officers with their own reflections. In a project focused on the murder of Indigenous women, girls, and trans and queer people, he asked communities affected by the crisis to create clay beads, which he stained and used to create a massive mosiac-style portrait. Much of his current work falls under a banner he calls “future ancestral technologies,” which combines sci-fi, technology, and Native sensibilities and ideas. “Science fiction creates a tunnel into the future, which is a shadow for us,” he says. He’s currently working on a speculative narrative of the next 30,000 years, in which the elites have ruined and abandoned Earth, the colonialist mentality has collapsed, and those left behind atone and rebuild.
Photo: Brendan George Ko
Craig Santos Perez
Poet & Professor
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Climate injustice? He’s sonnet.
Craig Santos Perez was always an activist and a poet, but when he began writing about the environmental damage the U.S. military created in his childhood home of Guam, people really responded. Since then, his poems have often returned to themes of environmental injustice, as in his most recent collection, Habitat Threshold. They’re blunt, authentic expressions of dealing with climate crisis and injustice — angry and sad, for sure, but often funny and hopeful, too. “Climate poetry can humanize data and give us the human voice behind everything that’s happening,” he says. “I try to capture that range. It’s hard to feel despair and anger all the time.” Beyond writing, Perez is focused on teaching, blending literature and environmentalism in lessons that might have students join a beach cleanup then write about plastic pollution. Or he’ll Zoom into a high school classroom to talk about what they’ve created in response to his poems. This spring, he’ll lead a series of free, public writing workshops focused on Pacific ecopoetry.
Photo: Candice Novak
This hip-hop artist will help you face the music
After Ferguson erupted, musician and hip-hop artist Benny Starr felt the call to respond. Raised in the rural low country of South Carolina, he wanted to connect to those roots and echo a long line of Black artists focused on justice. He and his band The Four20s recorded A Water Album before a sold-out crowd in Charleston in 2018, the day after a near-miss from Hurricane Florence. The music reflects the life-bringing force of water and the existential threat that climate change poses to this flood-prone part of the world. The record is “a love offering,” he says. “We want to educate you, groove you, make you feel and think, but also want to let people know that there is power in our voices and our stories.”
Last year, Starr became the first artist in residence for the US Water Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of environmentalists, utilities, and others that lobbies for sustainable and inclusive water policies. His latest project: a concert film celebrating Southern Black farmers and efforts to correct the policies that have led so many to lose their land.
Photo: Joseph Johnson
She’s the reason ‘intersectional environmentalism’ is trending
When the Black Lives Matter movement gained nationwide attention last year, mainstream green groups at first kept quiet. Leah Thomas was disappointed, but not surprised. She posted a simple message on Instagram: “Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter.” Within hours, thousands of people inundated her with questions: What can I read? How can I join? “I had people’s attention, and I wanted it to be something legitimate, not just one IG post,” she says.
A week later, Thomas and friends launched Intersectional Environmentalist, a website heralding a more inclusive vision of sustainability. They stocked it with personal essays, articles, and manifestos reflecting a range of perspectives along with resources to learn about social justice and the environment. Corporations soon sought the group’s endorsement. Rather than turn their growing movement into yet another business seal of approval, the team created an accountability program that guides companies as they move toward diversity and inclusion. Ten businesses are now trying it. Meanwhile, Intersectional Environmentalist has 200,000 followers on Insta, injecting new energy into an old idea: Real environmentalism is social justice.
Photo: Alexa Miller
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
She left the lab to teach the fine art of science
A self-described “weather weenie” since childhood, Mika Tosca planned her career around the study of atmospheric science, eventually landing a postdoc at NASA’s illustrious Jet Propulsion Lab. She used models and satellite data to determine if smoke from tropical dry-season wildfires changes rainfall patterns to make droughts and fires worse. (Answer: probably yes.) But even as she made progress on that question, Tosca grew restless, feeling that her lab work wasn’t tangible enough. When she saw a job listing seeking a climate scientist to teach art students, she leapt. Now, she guides students through climate-related projects, expanding their scientific knowledge and honing their creative skills.
Recent student projects include an overlay of Jimi Hendrix’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” with an aural version of data on rising atmospheric carbon dioxide. She also arranged a panel with Chicago techno DJs to discuss ways to collaborate with researchers. Artists excel at turning intangible ideas (like climate change!) into meaningful, concrete objects, and scientists could learn from that. “Artists and designers start the process with human engagement,” she says. “They interact through intense, radical collaboration, which is something scientists could do more of.”
Photo: Jonah Salazar y Tafoya
Business & Technology
Atianna J. Cordova
Founder & CEO
Water Block & Water Block Kids
New Orleans, LA
She’s got designs on a greener, more equitable city
When Hurricane Katrina hit, New Orleanian Atianna Cordova was just a teen. But what she saw prompted tough questions: Why were her Black neighbors displaced? Why were their communities changing, and why weren’t residents involved in those decisions? A high school summer program in architecture showed her how the city was being reshaped not just by a storm, but by people in power. That stuck with her, later inspiring her to launch an urban design studio that includes community input in local development projects. The goal: “How do we make design more accessible, decentralize the process, and get minority and diverse populations to be part of the conversation?” Recent efforts include stormwater management projects in parks and green spaces. In 2019, Cordova launched Water Block Kids, which includes a virtual summer camp to introduce kids nationwide to fields like architecture, urban planning, and urban design, and demonstrate how design can make cities better and healthier.
Photo: Amairi Cordova
Building Electrification Initiative
New York, NY
This New Yorker is engineering diversity into green jobs
Given her knack for math and science, it seemed logical that Cristina Garcia would study something technical. But her major, civil engineering, didn’t grab her. It wasn’t until she caught a screening of An Inconvenient Truth as a sophomore that she realized she could use her talents to improve efficiency and sustainability. A few years later, a stint in the New York Mayor’s Office of Sustainability confirmed her own experience. She saw that few New Yorkers of color have climate-related engineering careers — possibly because they don’t know about them. It’s still a new field, and it’s insular.
She launched an internship program to train students from the city’s public university system for careers in fields like sustainable engineering, building development, wastewater treatment, and energy auditing; the program has placed 20 to 30 people each semester since 2018. Now, in addition to her day job helping city governments transition to clean energy, she organizes a networking group through the Society for Professional Hispanic Engineers, introducing hundreds of young people to these careers. “We’re trying to break that closed circle,” she says.
Photo: Alejandro Tirso
She has electrifying ideas for the future of transpo
“Micromobility” innovations, such as the electric scooters that flooded city streets in 2018, promise to ease congestion and emissions and offer a cheap, low-carbon way to get around town. Yet integrating these inventions into urban life hasn’t gone smoothly. Remember all those scooters choking sidewalks or dumped in lakes, and all the ticked-off city officials? When scooter startup Bird laid off sustainability chief Melinda Hanson and her team last spring, she saw an opportunity to help clear a path for micromobility innovators. Electric Avenue was born. “These companies are brilliant,” says Hanson. “But the context of understanding the system they’re coming into has been missing.”
The consultancy helps companies roll out products in ways that inspire, rather than enrage, citizens and officials. They also help cities create effective permits. She thinks we’ll soon see more electric bicycles, along with the docking stations and parking spots they need; three-wheelers anyone can operate; and maybe even micro-pod vehicles scarcely bigger than a bike.
Photo: Sam Polcer
Founder & CEO
His robot army turns trash into cash
The business of recycling has become kind of a dumpster fire: Sorting junk like bottles, cans, and containers is mostly done by hand — a dangerous, expensive, slow job. And the payoff may not be worth it, given the sagging prices for some used materials like plastic. To fix that trashy situation, Matanya Horowitz put robots on the job. His company developed machine-learning to train them to recognize and separate the stuff, distinguishing pop bottles from milk jugs and everything else. Working around the clock, the spiderlike, industrial robots use a suction-cup appendage at the end of a mechanical arm to grab items off of conveyor belts. Today, more than 120 are deployed worldwide. Software updates push new abilities to the bots, like how to recognize Keurig K-Cups. Next up: tech that analyzes a waste stream and rates its purity, helping set more accurate prices for bales of reusable refuse. “We’re trying to make recycling healthier and the numbers better, and make it a more dominant part of the waste environment,” says Horowitz.
Photo: AMP Robotics
ClearFlame Engine Technologies
Cleaner diesel trucks? Pretty clutch, he says.
Diesel engines aren’t going away anytime soon. After all, they’re powerful, durable, and are served by a nationwide fuel infrastructure. Besides, there’s simply nothing else that can haul a semi-trailer for 1,000 miles or more at a stretch or power a freight train. Heavy-duty electric or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are great ideas, but they aren’t coming online fast enough. That’s OK, says engineer BJ Johnson, because the diesel engine isn’t really the problem — diesel fuel is. “The key is getting rid of the addiction to the soot-forming petroleum product it runs on,” he says. ClearFlame wants to reduce carbon emissions by retooling engine technology to run on ethanol or other planet-friendlier fuels. Johnson knows ethanol isn’t a perfect solution, but it offers an immediate 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions. The company has optimized a commercial Cummins big-rig engine to run on the stuff and plans to have a driver-ready demo this year.
Photo: Echoing Green
Tech Dump & Tech Discounts
St. Paul, MN
Her biz turns tech waste into good jobs
Despite a lifelong love of data and numbers, the accounting scandals of the early aughts (remember Enron?) prompted Amanda LaGrange to reconsider a corporate career. She was drawn to the idea of something with a social mission, but nothing clicked until a friend started Tech Dump. The nonprofit provides skills and career paths for ex-offenders, hiring them to recycle and repurpose surplus electronics and e-waste — the fastest-growing garbage stream in the world.
LaGrange joined in 2013 as director of marketing, then became CEO two years later. The organization has processed 35 million pounds of gadgets and junk since its founding and now employs 71 people. “In addition to the environmental work, it’s the training ground for amazing humans who are often overlooked,” she says. The company spun off a retail outlet, Tech Discounts, in 2016 and hopes to expand throughout the Midwest and add national business partners.
Photo: Monika Hubka of Open Air Journal
AirLev & MIT Hyperloop
She’s hyper-focused on the future of transit
Growing up in a small border town in Texas, Deborah Navarro always felt isolated. As a student at the University of Texas, she read Elon Musk’s white paper outlining hyperloop — his dream of a super-fast, energy-efficient, and affordable network of train-like capsules moving through vacuum-sealed tubes. When Musk announced a prototype design contest, Navarro knew she had to enter, despite having zero engineering experience. “I don’t think any of us knew that we were actually going to develop prototypes that worked,” Navarro says.
Four years after winning an innovation award at the second annual hyperloop competition, Navarro is still at it. She founded AirLev to develop air-levitation technology (think of a puck skating across an air hockey table). She calls her startup “the Prius of the hyperloop industry.” Navarro concedes hyperloop faces massive financial and infrastructural obstacles, but believes it has the potential to connect the world without wrecking it. “If you want to make a huge impact on sustainability, you start with transit,” Navarro says. “That’s what drives me.”
Photo: Kaylee Johnson
San Francisco, CA
With this invention, he’s keeping it chill
Air-conditioning is not merely a first-world problem, says engineer Vince Romanin. As the globe heats up and people flock to cities in some of the world’s steamier regions, efficient AC becomes a necessity for climate adaptation. But because most cooling systems depend upon greenhouse-gas refrigerants and heaps of fossil fuels, they get a bad name. Romanin and his partners turned to a polymer that can replace heavy, expensive metal heat exchangers, and tinkered with manufacturing and design to boost performance. He claims their invention is 50 percent more efficient and 75 percent less polluting than conventional devices. This year, Treau plans to launch a sleek, high-end unit for design- and eco-conscious people looking to replace those clunky, old-school window machines. The next step will be adapting the technology to cheaper products for “the next 4 billion people,” as he puts it. “The solution to climate change is more AC, not less,” he says. “We just have to decarbonize it.”
Photo: © 2017 The Regents of the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Founder & CEO
Kansas City, MO
He’s using AI to solve the nation’s water woes
In the small town in India where Elango Thevar grew up, water was carried home by hand, and it was his job to fetch it. So when he came to the U.S. for a master’s degree in engineering, he got interested in something most people take for granted: the nation’s 52,000 drinking-water and 15,000 sewer systems, most of which are aging or even decrepit. The outlook isn’t good. Roughly 20 percent of our tap water is lost to leaks and breaks. Across the country, most of the pipes that make up this essential infrastructure are due for replacement — but knowing where to start is tricky, because even simple inspections are pricey. “The problems are enormous, and there aren’t any affordable tools to solve them,” says Thevar. His startup, launched last year, applies machine learning to maps and open-source data about things like weather, soil composition, and pipe materials to identify which ones are most likely to fail, and where utilities and municipalities can best target their limited dollars. Field tests suggest the model provides accuracy north of 90 percent.
Photo: Lauren Pusateri
Founder & CEO
This inventor is changing leather patterns
Materials scientists often gravitate toward fields like aerospace or biotech, but chemist Dan Widmaier knew the fastest path to sustainability goes through consumer products. He decided to apply his know-how to fashion, where R&D is usually an afterthought. “Nobody’s addressing the 80 billion garments produced every year,” he says. “It’s a massive opportunity.”
Bolt Threads uses methods copied from nature and tweaked to create biologically based materials for cosmetics, footwear, and apparel. One of its first products is Mylo, a fungal alternative to leather and synthetic pleather. Grown indoors by mushroom farmers, the stuff requires fewer natural resources than ranching while avoiding the toxic process of curing and tanning. Widmaier and team are now working with partners like Adidas and Stella McCartney, which demo’d a sleek black bustier and balloon trousers this month. Mylo-made merch is slated to hit shelves this year. Widmaier sees a future filled with a mind-blowing range of sustainable products derived from the incredible biodiversity on Earth. “Let’s use what nature invented for us,” he says. “Let’s cheat.”
Photo: Ashley Batz for Bolt Threads
Climate & Energy
Her plans for climate justice are on the money
When Melanie Allen joined a regional foundation in the South, she hoped to use the might of grantmaking to promote energy equity and economic opportunity. But she soon discovered fundamental flaws in traditional philanthropy. In the South, foundation support is roughly half what it is elsewhere, and precious little money flows to women of color, who lead many essential climate change and environmental justice projects. In response, funders and others launched the Hive Fund in 2019. Allen’s role includes counseling and educating others on better grant practices, such as freeing small grassroots orgs from burdensome paperwork. “We were created to shift existing philanthropy,” she says. The fund fosters dialogue between grantmakers concerned with climate and those focused on gender and race. It also encourages collaborative relationships between the people making the grants and the ones receiving them. Allen’s ultimate goal is to create a more equitable and accountable system for the next generation of donors.
Photo: Cornell Watson Photography
His drone startup seeds a new future for forests
Wildfires char some 7 million acres in the U.S. each year, a number that will only increase as climate change makes fire seasons worse. What’s more, we’re sorely behind in reforestation. Enter Grant Canary and DroneSeed. The service deploys (you guessed it) big ol’ drones to disperse seeds after wildfires. In addition to re-greening the landscape, these new forests will pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Trees aren’t the only answer to our climate problems, Canary says, but they are a proven technology, and we’re losing them faster than we can replace them.
The company’s 8-foot drones are far more efficient than human labor, and more precise than sprinkling seeds out of a plane. DroneSeed even designs and manufactures custom “seed vessels” that help protect that precious cargo from birds and other critters, giving them the best chance of taking root. “Our mission is to make reforestation scalable,” Canary says, “and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.”
Just Energy Director
Partnership for Southern Equity
In the South, she brings power to the people
When most people think about energy, says Chandra Farley, they think only of their bill. But that’s misleading: Where power comes from and how it’s produced is a kitchen-table issue when polluted air causes a child’s asthma attack or a family struggles to gas up the car and keep the lights on. Farley strives to help people see the connections between energy, health, and equity in all her work, most recently through the Just Energy Academy at the Partnership for Southern Equity. The seven-month program teaches community organizing and leadership skills to students, business leaders, activists, and others throughout the South. It also introduces them to energy, climate change, and health equity — who makes the rules, and how the money flows. Afterward, the academy helps them foster community change by providing ongoing support and mentorship, for instance, coaching grads to comment on a recent rate-setting decision. “My passion is making sure the people closest to the problem are the ones making the decisions,” Farley says. “My role is as a bridge and a door-opener.”
Photo: Casey Chapman Ross Photography
University of Maryland
College Park, MD
He’s paving the way to equitable infrastructure reform
Locals can tell you exactly which streets need repaving, which sidewalks require fixing, which spots pool with rainwater after a storm. And they know all too well that such things tend to be neglected in poor neighborhoods of color, degrading their well-being and leaving them more vulnerable to weather-related damage. As a grad student, Marccus Hendricks calculated the disparities in infrastructure investment in Houston, which endures increasingly bad flooding. “Disasters are a social phenomenon,” he says; institutional neglect explains why low-income communities take the worst of it. As part of his research, he trained residents to inspect ditches, channels, drain inlets, and other stormwater equipment. They compiled data rivaling an engineer’s report. Hendricks is now helping the city include community science in its capital-budget plans. At the University of Maryland, he’s launched four projects quantifying disparities in infrastructure investment, providing communities with the knowledge needed to advocate for equitable funding and to fix chronic problems.
Photo: Jelena Dakovic
Founder & CEO
Redwood City, CA
EV need some juice? She’s leading the charge.
Charging an electric vehicle becomes a real live wire when you live in an apartment, a townhouse, or anywhere else without a garage. Heather Hochrein was still in graduate school when she and fellow students came up with a solution: EV Match, a peer-to-peer system for renting someone’s charger by the hour. The software manages reservations and lets equipment owners set their price. Most owners simply cover their costs, but participants can choose to make a profit.
As the electric-car market has grown, so has EV Match, to about 4,000 users and 600 stations in almost every U.S. state, expanding beyond private homes to shopping centers and office buildings. They’re now working with utilities to make charging more affordable and convenient. “This is all about scale,” Hochrein says. The company aims for 200,000 users by 2024.
Photo: Echoing Green
She’ll help you #FindThatLizard — and a career in STEM
As a graduate student studying ecology, Earyn McGee often finds herself attending scientific conferences or policy meetings and seeing no one who looks like her. The lack of diversity not only discourages young people from pursuing careers in conservation, but leads to policy failures. “I think to myself, ‘You can’t be making decisions for these diverse communities, because you don’t know what their needs are,’” she says.
As @AfroHerper, McGee uses social media to build a more inclusive community by talking biodiversity, justice, climate change, and, above all, lizards. Lots of lizards. Her Twitter game #FindThatLizard, featuring pics of herps in hiding, is a smash. Offline she’s a STEM ambassador, introducing middle-school girls to careers in science and nature. Her Ph.D. research includes the impact of climate change on bug-eating lizards and analysis of the barriers discouraging Black women from careers in natural-resource management. As for her next move, post-Ph.D.? Perhaps a natural-history TV show.
Photo: Courtesy of IF/THEN® Collection
Asian Pacific Environmental Network
When climate disaster looms, her solution is community
Climate-conscious government agencies often focus on infrastructure — upgrading roads and bridges, managing forests, and the like — to prepare for the threats and changes to come. Amee Raval encourages them to also remember people, particularly the connections and resources that can make communities far more resilient and adaptable. “Vulnerability to climate change is also about socioeconomic conditions and neighborhood factors,” she says — and, like a bridge or forest, those also can be improved and strengthened.
In their work organizing working-class Chinese and Laotian communities in the Bay Area, Asian Pacific Environmental Network has pushed California to invest in “resilience hubs” — neighborhood institutions like libraries and schools that can provide refuge and resources in a time of crisis. Raval also launched a project that reveals how climate change amplifies inequalities and burdens (think pollution or economic inequality), highlighting areas with overlapping risks. The state took the suggestion and is expanding the project into a full-fledged visualization and mapping project, working with APEN and others to gather community input.
Photo: Brooke Anderson Photography
This profile was corrected after publication to reflect the communities APEN works with.
Dana Clare Redden
She’s shedding light on energy equity
In 2009, interior designer Dana Clare Redden fell in love with solar technology, but soon saw shortcomings like unappealing pricing plans and policies that block widespread use. She launched Solar Stewards as a kind of expert matchmaker focused on environmental justice. Say a school, library, or church in a neglected neighborhood wants solar, but can’t afford it. Now imagine a corporation or university wants to make good on its carbon-neutral pledge, but lacks connections in underserved neighborhoods. Redden steps in to put together a deal. “The corporate sector is buying, and they have beautiful, ambitious goals,” she says. “They’re procuring this whether it’s in communities that look like mine or not.” This helps big players get credit for carbon reduction and for improving equity and justice, which Redden helps them quantify for their annual reports. The neighborhood partners get the solar power they want. Ultimately, the community benefits from reduced air pollution and new investment. Last year, her business took off as companies rushed to assist communities of color. In Fulton County, Redden is working on a project to aggregate many smaller partners, including a senior center and African American museum, and hopes to line up an investor soon.
Photo: Lorikay Stone
University of Washington Tacoma
He’s documenting the wild side of urban inequality
Why do coyotes now roam our towns? Ask Chris Schell, who studies how carnivores adapt to urban life — and how their behavior reflects the planning decisions that shape our cities. These wily critters gravitate toward wealthy neighborhoods with abundant greenery, avoiding the poorer communities that tend to be less lush. One consequence: Nabes without predators attract more mice and rats. Through findings like these, Schell links wildlife biology to environmental justice, exploring how, for instance, the history of redlining (denying mortgages to people of color) shapes the habitats and activities of the wild creatures among us. “The stories of the animals guide the way,” he says. Their challenges mirror our own: After all, we too suffer in neighborhoods that lack ecological amenities like shade, clean water, and safe shelter. But it’s not all grim news. Schell sees cities as beacons for potential progress, places where conservation, climate justice, and equity issues can be tackled simultaneously.
Photo: Ryan Moriarty, UW Tacoma
Chief of Staff
White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy
She’s greening up the White House
As much as she loves science and the natural world, Maggie Thomas also has a knack for politics — and realized early on that is where real social change happens. “To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have a massive transformation of the economy to clean energy, you have to be willing to get down and dirty” in that world, she says. After working for Tom Steyer’s political action committee NextGen America, she joined Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign. He ran primarily on climate issues, and Thomas says the job felt like the chance of a lifetime. She and colleagues wrote a 210-page compendium of climate policy — the “green new details,” she quips. After Inslee dropped out, that policy portfolio lived on as an open-source document, providing bright ideas for what Biden says he’ll do: apply a whole-government approach to the climate crisis. In her new role, Thomas will lead the team charged with coordinating it all. As she puts it, “Every agency is a climate agency.”
Photo: Joan Cusick
March for Science
This biologist is bringing activism to academia
After he finished his Ph.D. and went to work at the Royal Society, the U.K.’s legendary science academy, Lucky Tran eagerly provided the world’s elite decisionmakers with the best climate information — and saw nothing change. He realized that to shape policy, scientists must become activists. After moving to the U.S., he organized scientists for the 2014 People’s Climate March, then got in early on the grassroots movement that became the 2017 March for Science. Its goal was, and is, to encourage researchers to become politically engaged and tilt the apolitical culture of science toward activism.
Tran also is connecting refugee communities to climate issues. He was born in a Malaysian refugee camp and raised in Australia, and was heartbroken by the devastation wrought by last year’s wildfires down under. Yet he was thrilled to see the outpouring of help from refugees — a connection he considers only natural. “People who are refugees know what it’s like to lose a place they love and cannot go back to.”
Photo: Lucky Tran
Food & Farming
This entrepreneur knows: Where there’s a still, there’s a whey
Grocery shelves groan with eco-conscious alternative products, but food scientist Emily Darchuk saw a hole you could drive a milk truck through: Nobody develops or markets sustainable booze for the conscientious cocktail aficionado. When it comes to liquor, “nothing spoke to consumers like myself who cared about flavor and also about having a ‘why’ behind their products,” she says. At the same time, she was aware that cheese-making generates 9 pounds of whey — a mix of lactose, proteins, and water — for every pound of cheese. It’s edible, but often leaves the food chain as fertilizer or biofuel. She knew there had to be a better whey.
Darchuk figured out how to distill the stuff into a crisp, aromatic, grain-free, not-at-all-cheesy, clear spirit and launched it last year as an upcycled alternative to vodka, gin, and rum. Wheyward Spirit has already won a Good Food Award and many blind taste tests. Her mixology recs: Enjoy it straight up or, perhaps, as a Wheyward martini.
Photo: Dan Cronin
This cook has an appetite for justice
Any conversation about climate change that doesn’t include Indigenous people isn’t really a conversation. That’s why Neftalí Durán cofounded I-Collective, a grassroots coalition of chefs, activists, and others focused on food, justice, sustainability, and Indigenous knowledge. Some members organize cooperative, DIY community aid for those affected by COVID-19. Others build businesses that champion traditional foods. Some work to preserve wild rice or address hunger, among other goals. The collective hopes to build a movement toward mutual support and justice. “Any work in food is environmental work,” Durán says. “It all has to do with climate change, a great threat to the way we eat and the well-being of the planet.” In 2020, Durán also started a farm-gleaning project in western Massachusetts, building on relationships with local farmers to collect fresh produce that would otherwise go unharvested and deliver it to local food pantries and soup kitchens.
Photo: Cara Totman
Ag Business Manager
He’s tending the next crop of Native farmers
The Winnebago tribe owns 30,000 acres of fertile land in northeast Nebraska. Growing up on the reservation there, Aaron Lapointe noticed the tribe leased most of it to non-Native farmers. With an eye toward reclaiming that land, he enrolled in the college of agriculture and natural resources at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and landed an internship at Ho-Chunk Farms — one of many for-profit companies the Winnebago tribe owns. When he graduated in 2016, Lapointe knew he wanted to return. Today, he runs the company. He has expanded the operation to 6,200 acres and incorporated cover-cropping, no-till, and other regenerative practices. “One of our main goals is to maintain the fertility of our tribal soils,” says Lapointe. “And not only maintain, but build them to make sure that our land is still going to be here for generations to come.”
Lapointe also serves on his local food-sovereignty committee and helped start a 3-acre community garden, two orchards, a farmers market, and an ag extension office at the tribal college. “Our youth see farming as a non-Native thing,” he says. “I’m trying to change that.”
Photo: Ho-Chunk, Inc.
Their solution to Big Apple food waste is rotten to the core
For Ceci Pineda, composting is more than just a fad. It’s an ancestral practice, and an accessible way of modeling the kind of resource-conscious lifestyles we need to address climate change. “It takes so much energy and work to produce a vegetable,” Pineda says. Why throw that valuable resource in the trash when it could be turned into another valuable resource?
As the executive director of BK ROT, Pineda gets to bring that practice to their fellow New Yorkers. The Brooklyn-based, bike-powered composting service employs young people from the community to collect food scraps from homes and businesses and turn that “waste” into compost for local agriculture and soil-restoration projects. “We’re a small model compared to the city’s huge footprint,” Pineda says, “but we see ourselves modeling a closed-loop service through which we can responsibly manage our waste.”
Photo: Rocio Montaño
Sin Fronteras Farm & Food
He’s planting peppers — and a new future for Latino growers
As a child in Zacatecas, Mexico, Eduardo Rivera was surrounded by fields and orchards — lime, quince, beans, corn, and a whole lot of chiles. He lost that link when his family moved to the U.S. when he was 10, and it wasn’t until adulthood that he rediscovered his relationship to the land through community gardening. As he learned to grow food, he discovered that while Latinos do most of the nation’s farmwork, whites own most of the farmland. “I became obsessed with trying to change that,” he says — both to right the injustice and to reconnect with his roots. After multiple programs and a stint as a farmhand, Rivera began renting land and planting crops, emphasizing ingredients for Mexican cooking. (His big cash crop: jalapeños.) Today, he owns a 17-acre farm where he grows 60 different kinds of produce. His expansion plans include a bigger handmade tortilla operation, a commercial kitchen, plus agrotourism and a training program for young Latinx food entrepreneurs.
Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz
Writer & Food-Systems Researcher
Juana Díaz, PR
His research gets to the root of the problem on Puerto Rico’s farms
Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz grew up in rural Puerto Rico, where he lived between a river and a pasture. He often gathered plants for his grandmother, and learned to look to the natural world for sustenance and healing. That childhood experience flows through his Ph.D. research into food systems and food sovereignty in Puerto Rico, where severe storms may devastate the local food supply — a problem that climate change intensifies. His earlier work established that nearly half of the island’s farmers remained worried about feeding themselves months after Hurricane Maria tore across the island in 2017. For his dissertation, he is documenting the political and economic barriers that prohibit local farmers and fisherfolk from adapting to a changing climate. “What I see is that farmers are aware of climate change, they are motivated, and have internal capacity to adapt,” he says. But local policies too often block farming practices that could build resilience, or prevent farmers from accessing resources that could get them there. His goal: to foster networks between nonprofits, ag officials, and farmers that will keep Puerto Rico well fed.
Photo: Génesis Marie Chamorro-Cruz
Beekeeper & Founder
They Keep Bees
Great Falls, MA
This beekeeper is bringing hive mentality to climate activism
As an independent beekeeper, Ang Roell knows how important bees are to the food supply. They also know all about the threats to the busy little critters — and how consolidation in the commercial business contributes to those dangers. A city kid, Roell got interested in farming as a way to connect with people and with the natural world. Then one day, they saw beekeeping in action. “It’s chaos, but such an organized kind of chaos,” Roell says. “That was it for me — this is the piece that’s been missing.” To educate, raise awareness, and celebrate the diversity of indie honey farmers, Roell organized a Boston bike-based “Tour de Hives,” hosted a 2019 Queer and Trans Bee Day, and wrote Radicalize the Hive, a free downloadable book of wisdom about community and the natural world. We have much to learn from these insects’ consensus-driven social lives, says Roell.
Photo: Sandra Costello
She’s got a fresh solution to a chilling problem
As an undergrad, Katherine Sizov went searching for a big problem to solve. She discovered, to her dismay, that 40 percent of the fresh produce grown nationwide is wasted. So she set about to fix it. She began with a local supermarket, then talked to farmers, who sent her to packers, who store fruit like apples and pears for months. These companies might have 100 cold storage rooms but no way of knowing what will ripen first. Misjudge that, and a whole roomful of food can rot before delivery. Sizov invented a sensor that detects the ethylene gas that fruits emit as they mature, helping packers know what to send to groceries first. “I like working in industries that nobody knows about,” she says. “It’s possible to make a big impact.” About half the nation’s packers now use her technology to monitor half a billion pieces of fruit and cut down on spoilage.
Photo: Eric Sucar
Cofounder & President
Black Farmer Fund
Holly Springs, NC
Her fund seeds new growth for Black farmers
As Olivia Watkins became more involved in regenerative agriculture and sustainable farming, she vowed to make a broader impact in that world. “You can’t necessarily stop at growing food,” she says. “There are socioeconomic and political levers that influence who has access to your food.” Black farmers and others who are marginalized often cannot raise capital. So after earning an MBA, Watkins and her cofounder launched the Black Farmer Fund to invest in farms, food distributors, and other such businesses in New York. The nonprofit raised money from foundations, individuals, and impact investors to disperse as loans and grants. It also will engage in advocacy and provide technical assistance. Looking ahead, the fund wants to help grantees collaborate and create networks for a more resilient food system. The fund plans to make its first loans this year. Meanwhile, Watkins tends 40 acres of hardwood forest in North Carolina that has been in her family for 130 years, restoring wildlife habitat, conserving open space, and growing shiitake mushrooms.
Photo: Leia Vita
Policy & Advocacy
Center for Health Equity Education & Advocacy
For this doc, better health begins with a better planet
Patients trust their doctors with the intimate details of their lives, including struggles with housing, racism, or the immigration system. Gaurab Basu considers this a privilege. All healthcare providers are storytellers, and they can use these anecdotes to foster systemic change. The Center for Health Equity strives to equip them with the skills they need to advocate for better policies.
What galvanized Basu was the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which chronicled the threats to everything he cares about as a doctor — dignity, equity, justice, health. He jumped into creating new curricula for medical professionals incorporating climate and equity; writing op-eds about planetary and human well-being; testifying about how to bring health into decisions about building or transportation policy; and generally mobilizing others to make these connections. “I get excited about a world in which we do this right,” he says.
Photo: Gretchen Ertl
Climate Justice Director
Santa Fe, NM
She’s writing the playbook for Indigenous climate activism
When Jade Begay was young, water flowed through the New Mexico desert that was her home, water that irrigated crops and served as a focal point for the cultural traditions of her Tesuque Pueblo community (she is also affiliated with the Diné). Her experiences there, and at the Institute of American Indian Art where her mother worked, gave her a strong sense that Indigenous culture was thriving. Today, that conviction motivates her work leading conversations about adapting to a warming world. “I have a lot of appreciation for who I was and where I came from,” she says. “That plays out in my work nowadays. That’s what I fight for.” Her team is creating a climate-migration playbook for organizers, climate groups, and nonprofits to help communities recognize threats and develop a decision-making process for responding. At NDN Collective, Begay is also involved in an effort to incorporate more Indigenous perspectives in the Green New Deal as the legislation begins taking shape.
Photo: Cara Romero
National Organizing Lead
Red Black & Green New Deal
In Miami, this activist will help you weather the storm
Even before there was officially a Miami, Valencia Gunder’s family was in South Florida. “I love this place,” she says. That long-standing love takes shape in the form of disaster relief, resilience planning, and direct services for homeless people and other Miamians. She launched a spontaneous DIY donation campaign after the devastating Haitian earthquake in 2010, collecting two 18-wheelers full of supplies. She discovered a knack for organizing and direct assistance. In the years since, she launched the Smile Trust, which provides basic help like meals, clothes, and showers to those in need. She also became a grassroots climate advocate, helping people understand how climate change acts as a threat multiplier, making struggles with rent, food, and safety even more complex. Most recently, she joined the nascent Red, Black, and Green New Deal, a coalition project to develop and promote policies that arise from Black climate advocacy and focus on Black communities.
Photo: Johanne Rahaman
Director of Urban Initiatives
Greener, more equitable cities? Her maps will show us the way.
After flirting with a career in research psychology, Yeou-Rong Jih had a life-changing conversation while in Taiwan. A friend of her mother’s — an oceanographer — told her that failing to address climate change would leave 10 percent of that nation underwater by 2050. “To think of one-tenth of your home country being underwater,” Jih says. “The cities that you know, the beaches, the subway systems.” Back home in Georgia, she threw herself into climate-mitigation efforts.
During a stint in the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Resilience, Jih helped write the city’s 100 percent clean-energy plan. That project introduced her to data-science nonprofit Greenlink Analytics, which soon made her its director of urban initiatives. With extensive data and snazzy, interactive maps, Jih now helps other cities, from Orlando to Cleveland, craft clean-energy plans that prioritize the needs of residents. Says Jih, “We’re creating a practice to actually bring city staff and community members together to look at data, analyze it, and create stronger climate and equity policies.”
Photo: Sheng Lin
Youth Justice Organizer
She’s schooling her peers on environmental justice
She was 14 and looking for her first summer job when Nyiesha Mallett met the climate and justice organizers at the community organization UPROSE. Something clicked. Even though her mother is from the island nation of Grenada, she had never thought much about climate change. Now she saw it everywhere. At the group’s annual youth summit that summer, she addressed an audience of hundreds, explaining the impact of a warming world on Brooklyn: more asthma, more storms, more problems. In subsequent summers, Mallett returned to organize those summits and do community outreach around climate justice, helping small businesses with climate adaptation, for instance, and fighting a rezoning plan that would gentrify the industrial waterfront. (They won that battle last fall.) This year she’s helping launch a leadership program for young people, teaching them about climate justice and organizational skills. “Inner-city youth need to know what’s going on around them,” she says. “They have the right to know what’s going on, and it’s not taught in schools.”
Photo: Bryana Newton
“Nyeisha Mallet gives us all a good reason to feel optimistic about the future.” — Regina Hall, actress
Medical Students for a Sustainable Future
This med student brings climate into the classroom
Growing up in Southern California’s Inland Empire, Harleen Marwah noticed that hot days and bad air often make people sick, a problem that hits poor people hardest. Still, she didn’t consciously connect equity, health, and climate until graduate school, when she heard a lecture suggesting that climate change would be the defining challenge of her generation. When she started medical school, she pledged to use her influence as a budding doctor to raise climate awareness. She launched Medical Students for a Sustainable Future, now a network of 345 student members nationwide who recognize the urgency of the threat. They combine the spark of youth activism and the credibility of medicine to advocate for policies that protect patients. She also provides residents and interns with guidance on launching their own groups. “We’ve recognized that climate change is a critical threat to the health of our future patients — but also an opportunity to create a more just and equitable future for everyone,” she says.
Photo: Sarah Miknis Photography
This politician’s Maine goal: More green jobs
Chloe Maxmin launched her town’s first student environmental club, which eventually got solar panels installed on the high school’s roof, all without public dollars. “That’s where I learned the power of young people,” Maxmin says. She brought that lesson to Harvard, organizing a student campaign to pressure the university into dropping its fossil fuel investments. That effort, still underway, taught her that mass mobilizations aren’t enough without strong advocates in power. She returned home with a plan to push for progressive change in rural Maine — and to run for office. Climate concerns in her district take shape in worries about lobstering, ice fishing, and in a demand for green jobs. Her constituents “feel left behind and abandoned by government on every front,” she says. She focused on voters’ common values and needs, and in 2018, they made her the first “D” from her district to win a state House seat. Last fall they sent her to the state Senate. It seems they like her pledge to envision and enact a just transition to the post–fossil fuel era.
Photo: Kristin Dillon
Georgia Conservation Voters
In Georgia, she puts energy into community organizing
The word “environmentalism” can be dauntingly abstract — and to some people, it can sound like a high-level problem. Brionté McCorkle helps communities see what green can mean for them. That might take the form of better transit that reduces pollution, emissions, and gets people to work on time. Or training people for sustainable jobs to address unemployment and local infrastructure needs. Then there was her campaign for Atlanta City Council in 2017, which emphasized local parks because residents said that issue mattered most to them. (She lost by only 166 votes). Now, she’s focused on community organizing, educating low-income and Black voters about local energy issues and the politicians who have the power to address injustices, such as charging utility ratepayers to clean up coal ash. “Tying climate to economic and public health issues is the approach we’ve found most effective,” she says. “People are definitely in their pocketbooks.”
Photo: Tatyanna Chamere Brown
Founder & Executive Director
Shaker Heights, OH
Jewish environmentalism finds a home at his new nonprofit
A few years ago, Yoshi Silverstein began dreaming about a community center that could weave together the threads of his life — fitness and movement, his Chinese and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, a love of nature, and outdoor teaching and leadership. At the time, he was directing a fellowship within the burgeoning JOFEE movement — Jewish outdoor, food, and environmental education — but wanted to create something tangible and local. He found inspiration in Crossfit and its combination of community, fitness, and self-care. Mitsui, the center he envisioned, would promote all of those things, plus teach resiliency skills and offer a home for Jews of color and others with identities that aren’t always recognized by mainstream Judaism. We all need to connect with nature and with other people, he says; those common drives can also be linked to nutrition, urban agriculture, and physical activity. “The idea was to bring these things together, build community, and meet needs in the same space,” he says. His nonprofit launched just as the pandemic hit, so Silverstein has yet to fully realize his vision for a physical space. Mitsui now offers workshops and seminars in movement, nature exploration, self-care, prayer, Jewish diversity, and other subjects.
Photo: Camp Nai Nai Nai
San Francisco, CA
She’s bringing climate to a political platform near you
Caroline Spears heard wildly divergent things about climate change while growing up in Houston: It’s real. It’s not. It’s caused by cows. The confusion sparked her curiosity and led her to solar finance, where she soon recognized the enormous power that states wield over clean energy. When a friend ran for the Texas senate in 2018, Spears helped draft her climate policy. Realizing the broader need, she wrote 100 more briefs for Texas candidates, providing district-specific data on climate issues, polls, incumbent voting records, and energy-related jobs — information essential to running a strong campaign, but often hard to find. Seeing a nationwide need, Spears launched Climate Cabinet in 2019. She and a friend from Google built a database including every district in the country; they provided specific information to candidates in 800 districts. “Every candidate running for office needs to know how to run on climate change, win on climate change, and legislate on climate change,” Spears says. She’s going to make sure they can.
Photo: Harrison MacRae
The Charles Roundtree Bloom Project
San Antonio, TX
For kids with incarcerated parents, she has a wild solution
Growing up in San Antonio neighborhoods she describes as “hyper-policed,” Ki’Amber Thompson knew what it was like to have family members caught up in the justice system. But it wasn’t until camping and kayaking trips in college that she experienced the solace and restoration that the wilderness can offer. It was something that few people back home could access. She returned to Texas, and in 2019, she launched the Charles Roundtree Bloom Project to introduce the children of incarcerated parents to it all, from city parks to wilder places. “This was very personal,” she says. “It was a need I saw in my community.” The initiative combines gardening, rock climbing, and other activities with environmental education, an introduction to environmental justice, and opportunities for kids to discuss their experiences with police and incarceration. Last year, 26 students participated; this year, Thompson is planning for 30 to 40 more.
Photo: 4.0 Schools
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation
Old Crow, Yukon, Canada
This young chief knows: A greener future depends on learning from the past
As a teenager, Dana Tizya-Tramm never expected to see 30. He struggled with drugs, alcohol, and violence before a job at a Vancouver gelateria offered a lifeline. Still, something was missing. He thought of his grandfather, who had been a prolific trapper and possessed untold knowledge of the land and the caribou in his native Yukon. “I realized that there’s already been so much lost from my grandfather to me,” Tizya-Tramm says. “I was not willing to be that missing link between my grandfather and my grandchildren.”
He returned to Old Crow, a tiny community in the far northwest corner of Canada, and immersed himself in its history and ecology. He fought against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to preserve the caribou he calls a renewable energy source. In 2018, at the age of 31, he was elected the youngest chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. He initiated the largest solar project in the Arctic — which, this summer, will enable his community to turn off their diesel generators for the first time since the 1970s — and intends to make the town carbon-neutral by 2030. When it comes to climate action, Tizya-Tramm says, our future lies in “bridging Indigenous ways of knowing with Western best practices.”
Photo: Weronika Murray
“As the youngest chief of the First Nation, Dana Tizya-Tramm has made climate action the center of his leadership. He is guided by the understanding that we are all inextricably connected to this planet and to each other.” — Gina McCarthy, National Climate Advisor
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