This story is part of Fix’s Mentorship Issue exploring the unique ways climate leaders found their calling, and how new approaches to mentorship are upending old power structures. Check out the full issue here.
We all learn by doing, but if we’re lucky, we receive guidance from those who have gone before us. A few words of wisdom from someone we look up to can transform our worldview, sustain us during challenging times, and inspire us to pursue ambitious goals. The best advice can create the foundation of a career or even a movement, and light the way for those around us.
Fix asked nine changemakers in the climate space to share an indelible lesson they learned from a mentor, something that continues to shape and guide them. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Julia Kumari Drapkin, CEO and founder of ISeeChange in New Orleans; 2019 Grist 50 honoree
There aren’t that many mentors for me in the world — I’m a multiracial climate-tech founder from the South. I have been blessed with an incredible network, but I have to say my dad is my favorite mentor.
My dad always says, “Do what you love and keep eyes out for the opportunities.” That’s what I’ve done my whole career, which wound from archaeology and anthropology research to climate science journalism to starting my company, ISeeChange. The trend line across those choices was consistent and boils down to a single “passion-mission”: understanding how people connect to each other and their changing environment. If you can nail that passion-mission — “What you love,” as my dad says — then the choices you make in your career are easier to navigate.
Vic Shao, CEO and founder of Amply Power in Mountain View, California; 2020 Grist 50 honoree
“Entrepreneurship is about doing something others wouldn’t do, oftentimes at great personal risk.” My dad shared this with me a long time ago.
This is now, basically, my life philosophy. There are plenty of ultra-smart and hardworking people in this world who choose to continue to plod along existing paths and avoid taking risks. The global climate challenge, however, requires brave souls — and not just entrepreneurs but also vehicle manufacturers, energy executives, supply chain leaders, etc. — to make personal and potentially career-altering decisions to do things better, for the betterment of all.
Olatunji Oboi Reed, president and CEO, The Equiticity Racial Equity Movement in Chicago; 2018 Grist 50 honoree
I used to work at Nike, and [my supervisor] Larry Harper once had this whole conversation with me about how important it is that we are making space for young Black brothers and sisters to come into this environment.
The advice that Larry gave me — that we’re always making this place better for the brothers and sisters coming after us — was another confirmation that my work has a purpose, that my presence has a purpose. What he did for me is say that no matter what’s happening external to me, [ask myself] how am I making this moment, this place better than how I found it?
Arturo Massol-Deyá, executive director of Casa Pueblo de Adjuntas in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico; 2019 Grist 50 honoree
From my father and mother, cofounders of Casa Pueblo, I learned that ideas with actions based on science, culture, and community can lead to social transformation. Knowledge itself is not enough; culture and community are critical for building up a sustainable path for change.
At the university as a scientist, I learned how to understand natural laws, but with my parents, I learned to confront the political anti-nature thought. They taught me not to just know about the laws of nature but also to do something about it.
I feel privileged that I was taught by my parents, but I’m not the only student. Other generations, like my daughter’s, have also benefited from that advice and being a part of what we’re doing at Casa Pueblo. It’s not a personal or family lesson; I think the whole community is aware. So my parents have not only been my school, but the school for others. And that is extremely important, because we need means for sustainable change — that has to be transgenerational.
Maria Lopez-Nuñez, deputy director, organizing and advocacy at Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, New Jersey
There’s this piece of advice that we say a lot on the team: “We can give up, just not everybody give up at the same time.” It’s not inspiring, but I think it’s very practical when you’re doing this work, because there are so many moments when it can feel hopeless. That’s when we need our community around us, so we can share the heaviness of this work and take turns when we need to pay attention to it. We take on so many battles at the same time that it’s impossible to win every time.
Melissa Miles, who’s the executive director of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, [and I] have had to mentor each other through this journey. We just process, we talk a tremendous amount. Always debrief with your colleagues, because in that debrief, where we’re trying to understand the world of our struggle, we learn a lot from each other.
Caroline Spears, executive director of Climate Cabinet in San Francisco; 2021 Grist 50 honoree
[My mother taught me] just get started. When you get started, you’re not going to have all of the answers. Learn by doing and don’t erect barriers to your own success.
It can be really easy to look at a problem and think, “What could I possibly do on that?” Just get started, and don’t worry about having the perfect pedigree or the perfect knowledge base. Know that the first time you do something, you’re on a growth and learning curve. The first thing you do may feel chaotic. Don’t take the first thing that doesn’t go well as an indictment on you getting involved at all. You can keep trying it even if it doesn’t feel perfect to you.
When [my mom] saw something that wasn’t right with the world, she would just get involved. For example, she read a few articles about the foster care system and then was like, “I’m going to volunteer my time and take care of foster kids.” I remember talking to people growing up who said, “It’s so incredible that your mom does that, I could never do that, I wouldn’t even know how to get started.” And having grown up with her, she didn’t know how to get started. She just called some people and said, “Hey, how can I help?” She also read about air pollution and started taking me to protests. She was just like, “This is an issue, and I’m going to figure out a way to engage with it.”
Harleen Marwah, founding chair of Medical Students for a Sustainable Future and pediatric resident in Philadelphia; 2021 Grist 50 honoree
One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve heard from a mentor is that a “good leader doesn’t create followers; a good leader creates more leaders.” I heard this advice back in high school from one of my basketball coaches. I believe it embodies the essence of teamwork. At the time, we were applying this model to sports, in that the whole team is made stronger when each member empowers the others. I’ve carried this lesson with me throughout my entire life. As a physician, I think about this when I’m working on multidisciplinary teams. We all must be empowered to do what’s best for our patients and communities.
I think this type of leadership model not only inspires collaboration and teamwork, but it also is a more sustainable model for building coalitions and changemaking. For me, one of the most exciting things about Medical Students for a Sustainable Future is that it is continuing to thrive and be a movement for change even after I graduated from medical school. And that’s what movement-building in this space is all about. We have to have sustainable movements, we have to have a space to empower all voices to be heard.
Dorceta Taylor, senior associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and professor of environmental justice at Yale University
Quite often you have to become your own mentor. All the books that I wrote and big research grants that I applied for, a lot of that came from listening and talking to a lot of people. I was always recognizing when other people were doing tremendous things and thinking, “How did they do this?” Many people of color who are pioneers or trailblazers often encounter that. So, you survive by really looking at others.
For so many women at my career stage, you discover that the men around you, regardless of age or talent or lack thereof, are earning a lot more than you do. Yet you’re working harder, you have a lot more productivity, you have better deliverables. With myself, it started with the very first contract, the very first salary. Men are mentored and are guided through the job process and how to negotiate a fair salary — women aren’t. So quite often we start at that lower salary, and once you start at that lower salary, you simply stay at that lower salary, because you don’t understand that negotiation is a part of what happens and you’re no good at it.
It took a long time for me to even do wage comparisons. One of the places I did start learning that is [through meetings as] a Ford Foundation Fellow [at the] National Academy of Sciences. I remember going to a session specifically on salary negotiation and walking out of that room realizing I didn’t do any of those things that we were learning about. Going to the sessions that specifically focused on wages, salary, negotiating, the context of the workspace, really opened my eyes to the fact that your employers are not going to pay what you’re worth if you don’t understand how to document it, surface it during conversations, and follow through on it.
Faith E. Briggs, documentary filmmaker, creative producer, and podcast host in Portland, Oregon; 2021 Grist 50 honoree
I used to work for the author James McBride, who wrote The Color of Water. He would tell me “the work of your life is your life,” which I always liked, because he was saying not to rush through the work part to get to this life you think you’re going to be living, because that work is your life. I used to have a picture of it where he had written it down on a napkin one time.
I’m not on a very traditional career path. I used to work at the Discovery Channel, and it felt like that was it, like I had made it. And within two years, I ended up quitting that job and moving across the country and actually being on camera in a YouTube series. It was such a pivot and sometimes felt like a mistake. Like, “why did you leave a job with a very clear career path and a salary and health insurance to go do something that was only a nine-month contract?”
When I think that what I’m doing doesn’t make sense, [I’m] reminded that there isn’t one way that my life has to look or one goal that I have to get to in order to be “successful.” If we’re honest about it, we’re spending a lot more time doing the work than we are “being successful.” So, it just helps me value the process and the work, because that’s living. That’s the other thing [James] would say: “Live! Go out and live!”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Julia Kumari Drapkin’s name.
Explore more from Fix’s Mentorship Issue:
- How to have a meaningful conversation with your mentor
- What happens when communities and academics teach each other? ‘Communiversity.’
- Resilience, community, and other lessons i’ve learned from my plants