Grist is proud to present the Change Gang — profiles of people who are leading change on the ground toward a more sustainable society and a greener planet. Some we’ve written about before; some are new to our pages. Some you’ll have heard of; most you probably won’t. Know someone we should add to the Change Gang? Tell us why.

As a member of a crew of carpenters working for wealthy residents on the upper East Side of Manhattan in the late 1990s, Betsy MacLean got lessons in class consciousness and racial awareness from two directions at once. She had the least skills or experience of anyone in her crew, but as the only white person on a mostly black and Latino team she discovered that clients would frequently address her as if she were the boss. And then there was her real boss: a former labor organizer who had spent the 1980s making trips to Nicaragua in solidarity with the Sandinistas.

“He gave me my first book on Che,” says MacLean with a sharp laugh, as she explains how a one-time philosophy major from Ohio ended up devoting her life to improving the welfare of the mostly low-income, minority residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood known as East New York. “His whole thing was we do all of this work in the city for rich people, and it’s gonna pay for us to go down to Cuba and work on the reconstruction of Old Havana. That was the dream.”

MacLean followed that dream, and soon found herself working in the “super-marginalized” outskirts of Havana with “micro-brigades” of all-women construction crews. Soon she was organizing her own groups of Americans for regular trips to Cuba to help build urban agriculture projects. After completing a dual masters in international affairs and urban planning at Columbia, she decided to employ some of the lessons she had learned down south in East New York.