Grist 50: 2020: Because the World Needs Fixers: Celebrating 5 Years of Grist 50

Welcome to the fifth annual Grist 50.

For the past half-decade, we've brought you the stories of emerging leaders cooking up the boldest, most innovative solutions to save this here planet. We like to call these forward-thinking phenoms Fixers. This year, we started with 1,000 nominations (!) and selected 50 people who are shaking up environmental policy, the food system, the clean-energy sector, art, commerce, and more. These talented, hard-working, spectacular folks give us hope for the future.

Meet the 2020 Grist 50!

Zelalem Adefris


She helps Floridians keep their heads above water

Zelalem Adefris

Photo: Shireen Rahimi

After four years in Miami, Zelalem Adefris sees all too clearly that climate change does more than just flood shorelines. Low-wealth communities already bear the brunt of climate change in its many forms, she says, including extreme heat and hurricanes, upticks in infectious diseases, and displacement caused by rising inland-property values.

Her solution? Train community members to fight for their rights. Adefris wrote a curriculum for the anti-poverty nonprofit Catalyst Miami’s leadership training program on climate justice. It has 260 graduates to date. Each is eligible for a mini-grant program she launched, and graduates are tapped for input on Catalyst’s ongoing policy projects.

Adefris is also on the steering committee for the 80-org-strong Miami Climate Alliance, which ensures the city makes equitable climate-infrastructure investments. “We push for transparency and community engagement,” she says, “and going to where the need is.”


Alexia Akbay


She’s working on a cure for the bovine belch

In the brownish-reddish fronds of red algae, Alexia Akbay sees the future, and it looks something like Beano for cows. Bovine guts produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, but the humble seaweed Asparagopsis taxiformis reduces the output by up to 85 percent when used as a dietary supplement.

Akbay founded Symbrosia while in grad school at Yale to see if the seaweed could be grown at scale and plugged into a sustainable circular-economy model. The company is currently growing happy, healthy seaweed, fertilized by poop from a neighboring shrimp farm, in 1,500-liter commercial-sized tanks. A proof-of-concept demo is slated for this June, with an eye toward a commercial product in early 2022. Livestock produce up to 10 percent of global greenhouse emissions, and while Bessie might not be as sexy as a Tesla, says Akbay, “we think livestock is just opening up as a potential industry for emission reductions.”


Cecilia Aldarondo


After Hurricane Maria, she kept the cameras rolling

Cecilia Aldarondo

Photo: Flora Hanitijo

After Hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico, people in the path of its wreckage were often depicted as victims of climate change. There’s a lot more to the story, says filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo. In the wake of the storm, in the face of the corruption and incompetence of local and national government, people began rebuilding and recovering on their own. It was a story that needed telling. “Puerto Rico is a place that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough, and yet it’s a really important case study for understanding the social experiments that happen after a natural disaster — or an unnatural disaster,” she says.

The resulting feature documentary, Landfall, is a window into how vulnerable people and people of color are more directly affected by climate change, and how people who survive disasters can build extraordinary communities that “help us imagine new worlds,” says Aldarondo. The doc will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.


Logan Atkinson Burke


She’s making a play for affordable energy

Photo: Emma Meyerkopf

Trained in the theater arts, Logan Atkinson Burke once helped create costumes for Broadway blockbusters like Hairspray and The Producers. When she moved to New Orleans, Atkinson Burke found another theatrical outlet: local city government. She began working as an intern for the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a watchdog organization that advocates for sustainable energy policy for state residents.

Today Atkinson Burke runs the joint. She helps shape policy as well as conduct community outreach and education — and recently helped uncover a scheme by the local utility to pay actors to publicly support a new gas power plant. She was also instrumental in getting a new standard on the city council’s docket last year that would see New Orleans adopt 100 percent renewable energy, mostly community-owned, by 2040. “It’s about broadening the scope of people who have a say in these issues,” she says.


Brandon Ballengée


He’s got conservation science down to an art

You could call him a scientist, an artist, an educator, or an activist, but what Brandon Ballengée really does for a living is get people hooked on conservation.

As a scientist, Ballengée probes why so many amphibians seem to be dying off or sprouting deformed limbs and organs, then looks for creative fixes. Growing tall grasses around some frog-filled ponds, for example, seems to reduce deformities, perhaps by filtering the water.

As an artist, Ballengée creates boundary-defying artworks inspired by his lab work. For one installation he cleaned and stained animals collected in the Gulf in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. The otherworldly images are meant to start conversations about what we can do, he says. In his current project, he brings a portable “museum” of species that have vanished since the spill to small Louisiana villages. “We help those villages connect, and by working collectively, come up with solutions,” he says.


Stephanie Benedetto


This scrappy entrepreneur is trimming textile waste

According to Stephanie Benedetto, around $120 billion worth of the fabrics created every year go unused, generally winding up tossed or burned. So she created an internet matchmaker to improve the market for deadstock, the excess fabric piled up in warehouses around the globe. On her blockchain-powered Queen of Raw website, sellers can post excess inventory, and buyers can sort by fabric type and price to get steep discounts.

Textile production uses tons of water, so in the last quarter of 2019 alone, she says, Queen of Raw’s 130,000 users have saved over 1 billion gallons of water that would have gone into making new material.

Going forward, Benedetto plans to offer similar services to industries like aviation and computer electronics. “Any business that has a supply chain creates waste,” she says. “It’s just a supply–demand mismatch and we can correct it.”


Shane Bernardo


In Detroit, he’s serving up culture and justice

Photo: Amanda Alexander

Although he cofounded the nonprofit Food as Healing, shane bernardo (he prefers lowercase) eschews the “activist” label. Many indigenous people do the work of sustainability and climate justice without being recognized as “celebrity activists,” he says. Bernardo has been involved with these grassroots circles in Detroit for years, using food as a way to better understand social justice and climate change.

He now has ties to a bushel of groups: At the Detroit Food Academy for instance, he shows local youth how, and why, to fish, and teaches them why maintaining traditions matters. He cofounded Uprooting Racism Planting Justice to address the fact that white-identified growers in Detroit were getting most of the press (not to mention grants, land access, and jobs). He also cofounded the Detroit Filipino Supper Club, where people in that diaspora connect through food and culture. And, yes, he grows much of his own: “My garden is a very sacred place,” he says.


Tony Bova


This chemist has the solution for a more fantastic plastic

Photo: Mallory Ladd

As a chemist, Tony Bova always wanted to make stuff. But he wanted to make better stuff — stuff that might actually solve problems, not just clog up landfills.

He hit upon a plan to turn a paper-industry waste product called lignan into a bioplastic that degrades after its usefulness is over. In 2016, with little more than “two beards and a pitch deck,” Bova and his hirsute business partner launched Mobius, which has since won 19 business competitions. Next comes fundraising, so they can produce at scale the chocolate-sprinkle-like “pellets” that are the building blocks of the plastics industry.

The first target: single-use, agriculture industry products like plastic flowerpots — over 5 billion of them are sold every year in the U.S. alone. The vision, he says, is to “turn organic waste resources into the chemicals of the future.”


Marcus Briggs-Cloud


He knows it takes a village to preserve a culture

Photo: Kody Cecarelli

As a teenager (and budding linguist), Marcus Briggs-Cloud noticed that few people his age spoke his native Maskoke language. According to prophecy, the loss of the language would mean the Maskoke people would cease to exist as such.

The language, he realized, was tied to a culture that had been rooted in the natural world. So more than a decade ago, he started planning a community where his people could live sustainably, speak their native tongue, and return to traditional ways of life. The fledgling Ekvn-Yefolecv Maskoke Ecovillage today houses a few dozen people on 577 acres of reclaimed ancestral land, and features a language classroom, an aquaponics facility, and even a herd of bison. It’s off the grid, constructed with natural building techniques.

“Our origin and migration stories tell us that we are led to this particular place to care for it,” Briggs-Cloud says. The next steps: a farm stand, restaurant, and eco-learning center where others can come and see what it’s all about.


Layel Camargo


They’ll show you how to be more #climatewoke

Photo: Jesus Iniguez

As a nonbinary person of color, Layel Camargo sees diversity and complexity as the keys to surviving climate chaos. Colonialism — which squelches diversity — and its mass extraction of resources drive these crises, says Camargo: “We’re in so many wars, and yet we have public school systems without clean water!”

Camargo (who uses the pronoun they) and their partner launched the Woke N Wasteless project in 2018 to encourage queer people and communities of color to adapt to environmental changes. The organization offers workshops and advice on climate-friendly lifestyle changes, like making your own toothpaste and deodorant. They also work with the political arts organization Center for Cultural Power, producing content and connecting artists, indigenous people, and people of color on issues around climate justice, among other things.

Camargo also co-launched the #ClimateWoke project, including a video series highlighting those on the frontlines of climate change, which will be distributed by PBS starting this spring.


Liz Carlisle


In farm country, she’s finding common ground

Photo: Su Evers

As a girl, Liz Carlisle listened to her grandmother’s tales of losing her Dust Bowl-era farm, which sparked a lifelong interest in the stories of farmers. After college, she became a folk and country singer. She opened for acts like LeAnn Rimes, hearing more tales of farm life and the connection to the land from the people she met on the road. She left that pursuit to work with Jon Tester, an organic farmer from Montana who won a Senate seat in 2006, and met the Montanans who were inventing their own form of regenerative agriculture by rebuilding the soil and fixing agrarian systems.

Carlisle went on to graduate school, wrote a thesis about what they were doing, and later a book for a general audience, Lentil Underground. Now an environmental studies professor, she sees her role as building common ground and connecting agricultural grassroots leaders, up-and-coming environmentalists, and people who see the promise of a new rural economy. “I hoped that if I could tell stories about an agrarian land ethic, people would be really moved by it,” she says, “just like I was, talking to my grandmother.”


Erika Dickerson-Despenza


This playwright puts justice in the spotlight

Photo: Joey Stocks

The concept of justice, and who benefits from it, preoccupies Erika Dickerson-Despenza. She describes herself as a radical black feminist and cultural worker, and sees her playwriting as a form of organizing. In 2016–2017, as curriculum specialist for social-justice arts org People’s Theatre Project, her goal was to teach young people how to engage their communities both politically and socially, and to become, in essence, community organizers.

Now, as Tow Playwright-in-Residence at New York’s prestigious Public Theater, Dickerson-Despenza’s goals are heading for a larger stage. Her upcoming play, cullud wattah, uses the Flint water crisis as a backdrop for a black family in turmoil. It’s set to open in July. She’s also curating a series of “public chats,” like videos and podcasts, featuring people struggling with other water crises, and is writing a 10-play cycle about Hurricane Katrina. The common theme, she says: “How do we abolish systems and circumstances that allow such apocalyptic moments to happen?”


Hillel Echo-Hawk


This chef’s dinners will also feed your mind

Growing up in rural Alaska, Hillel Echo-Hawk drew inspiration from a nearby Athabaskan matriarch who fought the state government for decades over subsistence hunting and fishing rights for her people. Echo-Hawk, who is Pawnee and Athabaskan, learned from her how to live off the land — and how to fight for what you believe in. Echo-Hawk trained as a chef, and launched her own catering company two years ago that focuses on indigenous foods with an original twist. Think: not just corn and squash, but also duck-fat maple popcorn.

In her hands, food, the ultimate human connector, is also education. At catered dinners, she’ll tell attendees why she makes certain dishes, why she chooses certain ingredients — the story behind the meal. “When I say these things, and put down a plate of food, the lightbulb goes off, and people have a new understanding about native people,” she says. Then comes her greatest pleasure: walking around, listening to what people are saying about the meal, and joining the conversation.


Beka Economopoulos


This artist’s latest work: getting Big Oil out of museums

Photo: Roddenberry Foundation

In 2004, Beka Economopoulos cofounded the arts collective Not An Alternative, in an effort to integrate culture and activism. Then one day, it clicked: Why not leverage the power of major institutions like museums to engage critical environmental issues? “Poll after poll shows they’re among the most trusted sources of information in society,” she says, yet they don’t have a loud voice — and many also depend on Big-Oil donors. In 2014, she cofounded the Natural History Museum as a traveling pop-up exhibit, seeing it as a Trojan horse that could change the sector from within.

Six years later, Economopoulos and her team have convinced nine world-class museums to scrub fossil fuels from their endowments. They partner with indigenous communities to develop exhibitions, public programs, and advocacy campaigns that connect museum professionals and scientists with indigenous people and frontline communities to “build power” together. “It can’t just be outside strategies,” she says. “We also need inside strategies to win.”


Jerome Foster II


This activist will get a million young people to the polls

As a child, Jerome Foster II loved exploring the Maryland forest. Then he saw Avatar — and understood that the natural world he loved was in trouble. His middle-school classmates scoffed, dubbing him “the climate kid.” Foster didn’t care. “It’s an impending crisis and no one’s talking about it!” he says.

Then Trump was elected, and people began listening. In 10th grade, Foster started The Climate Reporter, a blog that connected him with other young environmental leaders. He helped organize the 2018 Youth Climate marches and started striking in front of the White House every Friday morning before dashing to his internship with U.S. Representative John Lewis.

Last year, Foster started the advocacy organization OneMillionOfUs with the goal of mobilizing 1 million young people to vote in 2020. The campaign will ask for a “vote pledge” and, hopefully, offer free rides to the polls. “We need politicians to talk to young people,” he says, “and see us not just as victims of gun violence and climate change, but as voters who can sway an election.”


Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru


She’s shaping food policy — and she’s still an undergrad

Photo: Xingyi Chen

In high school, Wawa Gatheru became interested in environmental justice. Growing up in a rural and predominantly white town in Connecticut, Gatheru — the daughter of Kenyan immigrants — wanted to explore the role of racism in climate. For her final project, she researched the geographic overlaps between events such as police brutality against black people and the locations of toxic waste sites or fossil fuel infrastructure. She saw a trend, and noticed barely anyone was talking about it. “I was really frustrated, because I was getting all this information, but the conversations just weren’t being had in the community,” she says.

As a college senior, she cofounded the UConn Access to Food Effort (UCAFE), a campus initiative that helped launch the first assessment of food insecurity at the university. Soon she’ll be off to the University of Oxford as UConn’s first Rhodes Scholar. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in environment and political science, and hopes to run for Congress someday. “We need people who are representing us who understand that climate embodies everything,” she says.


Cam Hardy


His destination: a better transit system for Cincinnati

When Cam Hardy first took the bus alone at just 7 years old, it was love at first ride. “The views were amazing,” Hardy says, and, over time, he made friends with drivers and other riders.

The love affair soured years later, when, en route to work, Hardy’s dated and overcrowded bus broke down — again. After Hardy posted his grievances on Facebook Live, the local transit CEO called him. The problem, the chief explained, was that Cincinnati’s Metro bus system, a lifeline for many low-income riders, was out of cash.

Hardy’s solution, in his words: “Cause a ruckus” to fight for more money. Today, he’s the president of the Better Bus Coalition, a grassroots organization that got a motion to raise the earnings tax on the county ballot this March 17. It could translate into $100 million for new buses and $30 million for infrastructure. “If we want people to be prosperous, we have to provide a way for people to get to their jobs,” he says.


Michael Hennessy


He’s got bright lights for the big city

Photo: Sara Annis

Having worked in finance, Michael Hennessy knew a solid business proposition when he saw one — and he saw one in LED lighting. New York City had been slow to adopt the technology, on account of obstacles: tons of red tape, old buildings, unions that must be negotiated with. But the upside was too bright to ignore. If every old light in NYC was changed to an LED, he says, the energy savings would equal the output of a nuclear power plant.

So Hennessy got himself a ladder and some lights and pounded the pavement. He hit up local coffee shops, selling them on the idea that over time, they’d be greener and save lots of money. Business took off. In 2013, he launched the Brooklyn-based Wavelength, which has helped over 75 properties — including Barclays Center arena and two major city universities — transition to LED tech. “It’s as high an impact as anything we can do in this city,” he says.


Maeve Higgins


No joke: She knows the climate crisis is no time for despair

Photo: First Look Media

For years, Maeve Higgins felt paralyzed about the climate crisis. As a writer and comedian, what could she do? When she heard that Mary Robinson, the former Irish president and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, was starting a podcast to highlight women across the world creating climate solutions and was looking for a cohost, Higgins jumped at the chance. For that show, Mothers of Invention, the duo interview people like a Vietnamese eco-fashion designer and Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres. It’s definitely not stand-up comedy, but it is lighthearted. Comedians can show the full array of emotions, says Higgins: “That’s how I can help.”

Higgins is also an opinion writer for the New York Times, where she frequently discusses immigration — and the climate chaos that will, undoubtedly, increase the difficulties and number of refugees. But wallowing in despair won’t get you anywhere, she says: “It’s part of being human, that in dark times you’ll find camaraderie and something to giggle at.”


Jeremy Hoffman


This scientist wants to improv the world

Photo: Amber Parker

As a child, Jeremy Hoffman was enthralled with the natural world and always knew he’d be a scientist. But he discovered another love at age 12, when his mother (“bless her heart,” he says) brought him across town to his first improv comedy class.

Now, as a science communicator, Hoffman does research and takes the mic. His role as chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia might find him designing interactive exhibits or toting an air-quality sensor around his neighborhood for a community research project. The next day, he could be beamed into a university classroom or record a zany YouTube video.

“I think we’ve really raised the literacy around climate change here in Richmond,” Hoffman says. When this reality is connected to everyday life — the parking lot down the street, the storm drain in front of the house — he says, “it really blows people’s minds.”


Mateo Jaramillo


His new batteries could really have staying power

Inspired by his father’s legal work representing farmworkers, Mateo Jaramillo wanted to do something meaningful with his life. After a dispiriting stint in software development during the tech bust, he switched to divinity school. But a question lingered for him: How might tech contribute to economic justice?

Jaramillo left school to work for a clean-energy startup, and then landed at Tesla in 2009, where he built the company’s energy-storage business. He saw Tesla scale from 300 to 30,000 employees, and left in 2016 to explore an idea that worked on paper, at least: a cheap and long-lasting electrochemical battery based on unconventional chemistries that has the potential to store energy for months. That idea became Form Energy, where Jaramillo and his cofounders have raised $51 million to date, and are building and testing a prototype in Boston. If successful, Jaramillo says, “it will replace oil and gas.”


Grist 50 is supported by:

Kyle Kempf


He’s getting powerful companies to clean up their work

Photo: Courtesy of Green Century Funds

When Kyle Kempf evaluates a company, he sees beyond its product line. Instead, the communications strategist takes a hard look at how the corporation in question could become a steward for the environment — and what it might take to get them there. “We invest in companies that are leading on sustainability,” says Kempf of his employer, Green Century Funds, a mutual fund company with a focus on socially responsible investing. “But even these companies have room for improvement.”

Not only does Green Century invest in sustainable enterprises, it also leads strategic shareholder advocacy campaigns that help companies adopt climate-friendly policies. Kempf highlights a recent success with Aramark, the food-services giant, which recently committed to a rigorous deforestation-free strategy thanks to Green Century’s advocacy. “Absent governmental action, getting corporations to proactively improve their practices is one of our best shots at avoiding the most catastrophic effects of the climate crisis,” he says.

Learn more about how you can invest responsibly — for yourself and for the environment.


Jackson Koeppel


His group lights up the streets with the sun

Photo: Angela Lugo Thomas

It was at a mountaintop-mining protest in West Virginia that Jackson Koeppel had his awakening. Coal, he saw, “does awful things to people at every step of the process.” The experience led him to found Soulardarity, a membership-based nonprofit.

In Highland Park, a post-industrial nabe completely surrounded by Detroit, one of the nation’s largest utilities, DTE, had repossessed two-thirds of the street lights by 2011 — literally ripping them out of the concrete — due to a $4 million light-bill debt. The city went dark. But in 2012, Koeppel got bootstrapping and helped raise funds for solar-powered streetlights.

Today, seven lights have been restored, and Soulardarity has a citywide plan for solar street lighting. But Koeppel’s goals are bigger, including a “Blueprint for Energy Democracy” that proposes state-level advocacy and a member-led energy cooperative. “Globally, the clock is ticking on climate change,” Koeppel says, “and the political power of impacted communities like Highland Park is central to advancing solutions.”

This profile was updated after publication to correct the amount of debt owed by the city of Highland Park.           


Tim Latimer


His plans for geothermal energy are really heating up

As a drilling engineer, Tim Latimer pumped oil and gas out of the ground with cutting-edge technology that he knew would only make climate change worse. “I had one skill, which was poking deep holes into the ground,” Latimer says. Then he had a realization: That skill could be adapted to clean energy in the form of geothermal power, which taps into the Earth’s natural underground heat and steam to generate electricity.

In 2017, he cofounded Fervo, planning to apply new methods of horizontal drilling and fiber-optic-sensing techniques to locate and use geothermal hotspots. The company plans to launch a clean energy project by 2021.

Latimer hopes that geothermal will someday produce 20 percent of U.S. electricity (it generates a scant 0.5 percent today). It has a long track record of safety, he says, and unlike solar or wind, it’s not dependent on weather or season. “We can be that missing piece of the puzzle to get us to a completely clean grid,” he says.


Audrey Lee


This engineer has a new kind of power

After earning a PhD in electrical engineering, Audrey Lee modeled global energy systems at the U.S. Department of Energy. She came to appreciate how things fit together at the largest scales — and how policy can shape whole systems.

After she left, she joined a startup where she developed tech to help replace Southern California’s retiring San Onofre nuclear power plant with a network of large batteries on office complexes and other commercial buildings. This setup depends on a flexible model in which extra power can flow from customers back to the grid again — a two-way energy street.

At Sunrun, Lee leads a group that creates partnerships with utilities, grid operators, and energy markets to enable this kind of dynamic energy flow. Lee was instrumental in a recent deal, the first of its kind, to provide around 5,000 homes in New England with electricity derived from a home-battery- and solar-rooftop-driven network by 2022 — competing head-to-head with power plants and, she says, “replacing them one at a time.”


Lilian Liu


For her, sustainability is totally in fashion

Fashion and sustainability haven’t always gone hand in glove, but according to Lilian Liu, that’s changing. “Sustainable fashion has exploded over the past couple of years,” she says, as manufacturers move toward “circular,” low-waste systems and pay more attention to workers’ rights and product longevity. She helps some of the world’s biggest brands clean up their acts.

Fluent in four languages, Liu also co-launched Fauna, an eco-friendly fashion company in Brazil. But Liu’s work goes beyond apparel. Earlier, she helped companies in various industries on sustainability planning with the U.N. Global Compact. Now she’s building a sustainable water strategy for one of the largest tech companies in the world (she can’t say which).

Liu believes that changing businesses, which wield titanic economic power, is the best way to make a difference on a global scale: “Sustainability shouldn’t just be about less-less-less, it should also be about better.”

Member's Pick

Michael Malcom


This pastor keeps the faith with climate justice

Photo: UGA

At a conference three years ago, Reverend Michael Malcom heard a speech that “took his blinders off” regarding how climate change was already affecting his congregants. Another pastor, Reverend Dr. Gerald Durley, described the disconnect he’d experienced preaching to his congregation in Atlanta: How can I preach in the pulpit, shout them in the pews, but they can’t breathe in public! Inspired by these words, Malcom launched the People’s Justice Council (PJC) in 2018 to “answer the prophetic call of speaking truth to power.”

The council unites faith leaders from many different organizations — Fridays for Future, — in the fight for environmental justice. Malcom runs the local chapter for Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, raising awareness around renewable energy from a perspective of faith, and he is also the U.S. liaison for the Climate Action Network, organizing climate strikes throughout Alabama. His efforts are just part of his faith, he says: “I hear God clearly in this space, so for me it’s a form of worship.”


Anthony Myint


This chef-activist puts climate solutions on the menu

Photo: Alanna Hale

Chef Anthony Myint made his name with the eco-tastic “restaurant of the future,” Perennial, which opened in 2016. The restaurant, now shuttered, might’ve been too ahead of its time — but the same idea flourishes in the Perennial Farming Initiative nonprofit, which Myint runs with his wife, writer Karen Leibowitz. Its Zero Foodprint project helps restaurants reduce their carbon footprint by, for instance, switching to renewables. Another recent program gives restaurants a way to add an optional 1-percent surcharge to diners’ bills to support regenerative agriculture.

Myint’s gastro-activism garnered him the 2019 Basque Culinary World Prize for impact beyond the kitchen, but his ideas are (literally) very grounded. “Buying seeds so farmers can plant cover crops, paying for compost to be [delivered] to farms,” Myint says, “it’s literally just sustainable farming practices for which a lot of farmers don’t have funds.”


Corina Newsome


For her, a more inclusive green movement is just natural

Photo: Katherine Arntzen

When she was in her first year of college, a zookeeper gave Corina Newsome a peek behind the scenes. Newsome, who grew up in urban Philly, had never even visited a zoo before. That visit opened her eyes to the joy of a career with animals, and the realization that she could do it, too — the zookeeper was a black woman, just like Newsome.

As a zookeeper in Nashville, Tennessee, she created a Pathway to Animal Care Careers program for underrepresented high school students to get the chance she got. Now a graduate student studying sparrows, she’s also part of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, which mobilizes the faithful on the issue. But she might be best known for her strong Twitter game, exploring issues involving systemic racism and conservation: “Social activism is very central to my faith,” she says.


Jenna Nicholas


She has a capital idea: linking investors and communities

Funders and companies often have little personal connection to the people and places they want to invest in. So Jenna Nicholas founded Impact Experience, a hybrid nonprofit/for-profit, to forge new kinds of partnerships between philanthropists, investors, and communities — and redirect more of the trillions of dollars invested annually toward women and people of color, who usually see little of it. The challenge, as Nicholas puts it: “How do we unlock more capital in historically underinvested communities and companies?”

The organization’s goals include improving equity, community participation, and climate resiliency. In West Virginia, for instance, it has fostered relationships between entrepreneurs, impact investors, and a local health-care clinic to tackle a range of projects: retraining former miners, building a hotel for ecotourism, and supporting the clinic’s work. The collaborative process ensures that local people have a say in what happens. Nicholas’s broader aim: to reshape the culture of investing, so that it becomes second nature for investors to consider community engagement and justice in their decisions.


Ron Nirenberg


He’s turning this red state a little greener

Texas: land of oil, gas … and progressive climate action? Ron Nirenberg thinks so. As mayor of San Antonio, Nirenberg mustered support for a climate plan that follows Paris recommendations and would achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. A climate-equity committee advised on the plan, which overwhelmingly passed the city council last October.

What can one blue dot do in a sea of red? Plenty, according to Nirenberg, who reports that, as Texas is rapidly urbanizing, constituents are more active on climate issues. And when young people and frontline communities are “reflected” in the climate-planning process, he says, this change will accelerate. “On the doorstep of the largest fossil-fuel reserves in the world, with an energy utility that has largely relied on coal, we [passed this] climate-action adaptation plan,” Nirenberg says. “And if we can do this, so can the rest of the world.”


Julian Brave NoiseCat


This writer explains the past — and heralds a better future

Photo: Dante Garcia

As a policy analyst who also “does words,” Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwépemc and Stitlimx’) helps run a think tank called Data for Progress. There, he researches and stitches together policy ideas for projects like the Green New Deal and legislation to retrofit and decarbonize aging and highly polluting public housing. NoiseCat also wields words in essays that explore the power dynamics that underpin our collective “natural history” for the Natural History Museum, an arts and activism nonprofit (the group’s founder is also on the Grist 50 this year).

When he’s not doing policy work, NoiseCat writes articles for outlets like Harper’s and the New York Times. “Indigenous communities have faced the loss of our world before,” NoiseCat says. “That positions us uniquely to make a broader contribution to humanity, in the context of a climate crisis that requires us to rethink our relationship to the planet.”


Tara Pham


Her data makes streets safer for bikers and walkers

In 2013, Tara Pham’s eureka moment about the failures of transit planning literally knocked her off her bike: She was hit by a city bus. That accident crystallized a problem: Planning traditionally focuses on vehicles, but cities tend to neglect low-income areas where roads can be dangerous for bikes and pedestrians. On top of that, residents in those areas tend to walk and bike more — and are thus more likely to be killed by cars or other vehicles.

Her company, Numina, levels the playing field by using sensors to measure all forms of street activity, from bikes to pedestrians to dogs to bags of trash — anything that moves through public space. (The device doesn’t save or transmit imagery, so cannot be used for surveillance, Pham says.) The resulting data provides planners and designers detailed information that can feed into better policies, like planning the best places to put bike lanes or create pedestrian zones. “Cities should be for everyone,” she says.


Nathan Proctor


He wants to help you fix your broken tech

Photo: Kimball Nelson

Our electronics create a mountain of junk, says Nathan Proctor — when the iPhone 6 was being manufactured, for example, each one required more raw materials than a dishwasher. And then they become junk themselves: Americans toss 416,000 cell phones in the trash each day.

One solution? Make those gadgets last longer by allowing people to repair their own. Yet most tech giants have made that impossible, citing safety or cyber-security risks. Proctor is pushing for state and local laws that would ensure customers have the right to fix their stuff without having to use official (and often pricey) company channels like Apple’s Genius Bar.

Legislation has been introduced in 22 states. While tech companies, collectively worth trillions of dollars, are pushing back, if just one law passes, Proctor says, “the dam will burst.”


Emily Rice


She’s building a more efficient Midwest

Photo: Nicole Trower

Shiny solar panels and fields of wind turbines get most of the attention, but fine-tuning old building stock and ensuring new structures are built as energy-efficiently as possible are also powerful buffers against carbon emissions. “The connection between building infrastructure and climate change is pretty profound,” says Emily Rice. Plus, upgrading buildings improves the economy.

At The Energy Group, which offers energy-savings services throughout the Midwest, Rice manages an evaluation process that focuses on how people actually use the buildings in question. Then her team comes up with solutions to lower costs, such as recommending new, more efficient equipment that can also boost the bottom line. “Sustainable practices have often been at odds with business,” she says. “But with energy efficiency, we know that’s not true.”


Catrina Rorke


Want to burn fossil fuels? She’ll make you pay

When Catrina Rorke first joined former U.S. Representative Bob Inglis as a fellow on a six-month rotation, she “didn’t understand a lick of [politics],” she says, laughing. But she caught on quick and wound up sticking with Inglis for two more years, writing the first Republican-sponsored carbon tax bill — a policy that would make polluters pay for burning carbon-emitting fuels.

The bill failed and Inglis was later voted out. But something clicked for Rorke, who has dedicated her career to making carbon-pricing policy real. She sees it as the most straightforward way to reduce emissions. “If you price something, you get less of it,” Rorke says — plain and simple.

Now, Rorke and her team at the Climate Leadership Council advocate for carbon dividends, which would be distributed to the taxpayers who ultimately bear the cost of a carbon tax. Because the CLC is backed by oil companies and recommends regulatory rollbacks, some environmentalists distrust the plan. But, says Rorke, it enables individual choice to address a problem that affects everyone. “We’re all stakeholders in the same climate,” Rorke says. “We want households to be best equipped to make the right decisions for themselves.”


Vic Shao


His plans for the future are downright electric

A tinkerer as a kid and a mechanical engineer by training, Vic Shao founded Green Charge Networks in 2009, combining batteries and software to allow companies to keep their energy costs low. His next challenge: find a way to make renewable energy work for fleets of commercial vehicles such as trucks and buses, with a pay-as-you-go electric-charging service, tied to miles driven. His new company Amply handles all the behind-the-scenes complexity — acquiring charging stations, networking with utilities, managing the software automation system — while smoothing out prices, which can skyrocket during peak-demand hours.

Amply recently struck a deal to demo charging for an all-electric school bus fleet in Brooklyn, with an eye to a fully electric school fleet for NYC by 2040. The goal is for Amply “to set the template for how it’s going to get done,” Shao says.


Ian Skor


He’s planting a new idea on solar fields

About five years ago, Ian Skor started Sandbox Solar out of his car, with zero dollars and a plan to become the local go-to for all things solar. Now, one of his big ideas is playing out in partnership with Colorado State University.

“Land is so difficult to find here that’s affordable for solar and affordable for food production,” Skor says. His brainwave: Combine the two. Cropland is ideal for solar panels, since wide-open fields soak up plenty of sun without getting so hot that panels overheat. Meanwhile, the partial shade furnished by panels can conserve water (and make cool-loving plants like kale and spinach happier).

Now the leading rooftop-panel installer in Northern Colorado, Sandbox Solar also dabbles in off-grid solar, battery backup, smart grids, and electric-vehicle charging stations. Yes, it’s a lot, Skor admits: “We have a knack for picking the most difficult projects.”


Stacy H. Smedley


This architect drafts plans for a more sustainable world

When Stacy Smedley was 8, developers razed the forest around her grandparents’ house, laying waste to the five acres where she used to play. “I told my mom I was going to build buildings that didn’t destroy nature,” she says.

Now an architect, she has notched several green-building “firsts,” and is helping others in the industry to up their sustainability games. Working at the U.S. office of the multinational construction giant Skanska, Smedley recently led the development of EC3. This open-access tool allows designers, developers, and contractors to estimate all of the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with building and unbuilding a project, from the creation and transportation of the building materials to the effort that goes into actually erecting it — and, eventually, tearing it down.

As of March, 4,000 people have registered to use the tool — including the people at Microsoft in nearby Redmond, who will use EC3 when modernizing the company’s corporate campus.


Leah Stokes


This prof will school you on climate change

Photo: Elaisha Stokes

As a professor of political science, Leah Stokes probes the intersection of climate change and energy politics. In her new book, she reveals how interest groups have derailed clean-energy progress, abetted by utilities promoting climate denialism. On Twitter, Stokes also analyzes every Democratic candidate’s climate platform, breaking them down for her more than 24,000 followers. “I talk a lot about how to talk about climate change,” she says. “It’s really important to be hopeful.”

Stokes’ message is brass tacks. The best way to reduce atmospheric carbon is the simplest: Stop burning fossil fuels. Other “unpopular” topics include the upside of nuclear power and the hard truth that individual behaviors don’t amount to much. People think if they recycle they are doing their part, she says — or worse, they feel guilty for driving their kids around in a minivan and so take themselves out of the fight. “The goal is not self-purification,” she says. “The goal is institutional and political change.”


Geoffrey Supran


This activist scientist turns up the heat on Big Oil

Photo: Audrey Eyring

As a scientist, Geoffrey Supran always knew his renewable-energy research was important to humanity’s future. But it was a 2012 article about the moral consequences of climate change that shook him to his core. He realized he had to act.

So began Supran’s journey from academic to activist. That meant on-the-ground protests — among other actions, Supran co-led a campaign to get MIT to ditch fossil fuel investments. It also meant research, such as a 2017 paper that blew the lid off ExxonMobil’s climate-change misinformation campaign, and was so widely covered that it reached an estimated half-billion people worldwide.

Supran has testified as an expert witness on the oil and gas industries’ history of denial and obfuscation for policymakers and helped organize the first science marches against Trump. Now, he wants the rest of his peers to get involved. “Orthodoxy says there’s a firewall between academia and activism,” he says. “I’m focused on mobilizing scientists and scientific institutions to be braver.”


Phil Taylor


He’s planting the seeds for a new farming future

Academia wasn’t working for Phil Taylor. Even at places like Stanford and Duke, even studying ecology and environmental science, he yearned to focus on what inspired him: love, compassion, and restoring our connection to the Earth.

So in 2018, he cofounded the nonprofit Mad Agriculture. Named loosely after a poem by writer-farmer-mystic Wendell Berry, the organization helps farmers “design their way out of the industrial food system,” Taylor says. Depending on the place, that could include using ag techniques like cover-cropping, finding new markets for the harvest, making introductions to like-minded people, and helping farmers get paid to sequester carbon in cropland soil. His newest project, The Perennial Fund, will provide assistance and loans structured in farmer-friendly ways to ease the transition to organic.

“Be joyful though you have considered all the facts,” Berry wrote in his Mad Farmer manifesto. Taylor has — and, now, he is.


Brian Vadakin


In rural Ohio, he’s growing a new green economy

After finishing a Fulbright scholarship, Brian Vadakin planned to go to D.C., center of the U.S. policy universe. Instead, Rural Action, a community-development nonprofit focused on Appalachian Ohio, offered him a job. He took it, and to his surprise, fell in love. The group aims to help the region leave behind the fossil-fuel industries that once supported it, and move toward a more sustainable, diversified economy, Vadakin says, “lifting up alternatives to the extractive, boom-and-bust cycles of oil, gas, and coal.”

Today, Vadakin oversees the group’s three mission-driven businesses: a bulk produce auction; a company that handles waste and recycling at festivals; and True Pigments, which creates paint pigments from iron-tainted waters around an abandoned coal mine. The aims are different but the approach consistent, Vadakin says: Solving big problems in Appalachian Ohio, using “what we have right now.”


Evelyn Valdez-Ward


This scientist is working on a new formula for justice

It wasn’t until she applied for college that Evelyn Valdez-Ward, a self-described “nerd” who arrived in the U.S. as an infant, learned she was undocumented. Thanks to DACA and hard work, Valdez-Ward got through undergrad and to a PhD program at UC Irvine. But funding for her research, on how microbes help plants cope with climate change, was hard to get. Most research dollars are handed out at the federal level — to citizens only.

Frustration bore fruit in the form of Reclaiming STEM, a workshop Valdez-Ward cofounded for scientists from diverse and underrepresented groups. Hundreds of participants have attended so far, discussing topics like social justice, identity, and how to use social media to advocate for change. There are more sessions coming in the Bay Area and in Boston later this year. Her driving question: “How can we change policies that are making science so exclusive?”


Gabe Vasquez


For this local official, conservation is a family tradition


In the mountains of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Gabe Vasquez’s grandfather would spend days hunting wild game for the dinner table — a family tradition. “He and my father taught me about conservation from a very cultural perspective,” says Vasquez; they lived in the city, but their culture was tied to the land.

Vasquez decided to run for local office following the 2016 elections — and won. That same year, he founded the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, with the goal of connecting kids of color with outdoor-recreation experiences like fishing and rafting. Starting this spring, the nonprofit will provide microgrants to organizations throughout New Mexico to cover outdoor equipment and park entry fees for underserved youth, potentially reaching over 100,000 kids. Says Vasquez: “I want to connect [them] to the land that we are all trying to collectively protect.”


Alexandria Villaseñor


This youth activist wants the world to go on strike

Prior to November 2018, when smoke from the Camp Fire curled into her hometown of Davis, California, Alexandria Villaseñor was basically an average tween. Now, the life of this 14-year-old has been transformed. In one recent week, she attended a leadership summit, hopped on a red-eye, protested in front of the U.N., and starred as a keynote speaker at a Model U.N. conference. In between, she coordinated with fellow activists for Earth Uprising, the climate-education nonprofit she founded in 2019, which now has members in 30 countries.

Villaseñor, along with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and 14 other young people, also filed a human-rights violation complaint to the U.N. against five countries for failing to uphold Paris-Agreement pledges. “We’re going to continue finding new ways of putting pressure on those in power,” Villaseñor says. “2020 is going to be a big year for climate action.” Meanwhile, she’ll have another big challenge to face: starting high school.


Gloria Walton


In South Central, she’s shaping policy for the people

Growing up in a household of minimal means in Jackson, Mississippi, Gloria Walton had her sights set on law school and the “traditional” path to success. At UCLA, a class on U.S. grassroots protest movements knocked her off that path and into an internship at community-organizing nonprofit SCOPE (Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education), in South Central L.A. There, Walton learned that she could be part of the decision-making processes that shape the lives of South Central’s 900,000-odd residents.

Today, 15 years later, she’s SCOPE’s president and CEO, orchestrating a new climate agenda for the nonprofit by investing in community-led plans that tweak policy levers. One plan diverted millions from a state/local cap-and-trade bill to a fund benefiting regions bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. SCOPE was also involved in the creation of the nation’s first climate-emergency mobilization office, which will be advised by indigenous and frontline residents. Cities tend to invest more in neighborhoods as they gentrify, Walton says, “but they should invest in the communities that are there now.”


Courtney Williams


She’s a spokes-person for more inclusive transit

As a kid growing up in Gary, Indiana, Courtney Williams loved riding bikes. But it wasn’t until she moved to New York City, at the height of cycle chic, that she found her calling on two wheels: bringing more people of color into the bike community.

Williams organized a group of black women to ride together, eventually founding a one-woman bicycle-advocacy consulting business called The Brown Bike Girl. The name, she says, reflects how she often felt — like “the one brown person in a room with these other cycling advocates.”

She’s now trained a dozen other leaders to spread the bike gospel and plan rides of their own that are exciting, inclusive, and safe. In 2020, Williams plans to tackle another accessibility issue: language. Misunderstanding a road sign could put her neighbors in harm’s way, so she wants to develop and teach bike-safety vocabulary in other languages, starting this year with Spanish and a dialect of Chinese. “I’m a forward-motion person,” Williams says. “That’s really the only direction bikes go.”


Desirée Williams-Rajee


Her vision: a government you could actually love

In her last job, Desirée Williams-Rajee helped the city of Portland develop its climate policy with equity squarely in mind. She ran every aspect of the new plan past the people most likely to be affected by climate change. It was the first to center those communities in the process, she says, and other cities soon followed suit. The project got a lot of media attention, and recognition from the Obama White House.

It also involved a good deal of “loving on people in government,” Williams-Rajee says, by which she means: investing in these workers, who are devoted to serving their community. “Equity work is really an expression of love and reclaiming humanity in government,” she says, “which is not designed to be a very humane experience.”

That idea of investing in people informs Kapwa, Williams-Rajee’s independent consulting agency. Kapwa advises organizations on how to center communities of color or low-income people in their work, and in the process correct broken systems, so that a person’s destiny is not dictated by their ZIP code. “My belief is that equity work is about reclaiming this human connection,” she says.


Thanushka Yakupitiyage


She brings migrant might to the climate fight

Photo: Tavish Timothy

After college, Thanushka Yakupitiyage was a researcher for Rinku Sen’s book The Accidental American, which details how families of undocumented workers in the Twin Towers lost out on 9/11 compensation because of their immigration status. It was later, when she was hired at the New York Immigration Coalition, that she joined the climate fight. “Climate and immigration are inherently linked … with black and brown communities the most vulnerable,” she says, “and yet the U.S. climate movement is still very white.”

Now, as U.S. communications director at, Yakupitiyage focuses on multi-racial coalition-building and ensuring the climate movement considers migrant rights. She mobilizes protests at climate summits and mentors young people of color to be the “best spokespeople they can be.” She’s also an artist and DJ, for the same reason she fights for immigrants and a healthy climate: “People power.”

Note: As of February 2021, the 2020 Grist 50 has been updated to remove an individual whose alleged actions and behavior are inconsistent with Grist’s mission and values.


DIRECTOR OF LEADERSHIP PROGRAMMING Andrew Simon // PROJECT EDITOR Kat McGowan // PROJECT MANAGER Jaime Buerger // DIRECTOR OF INNOVATION AND GROWTH Tony Stasiek // ART AND DESIGN Mignon Khargie, Amelia Bates // WEB DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT Michael Weslander // PROGRAM ASSISTANT Claire Thompson // PROJECT INTERN Morgan Copeland // VIDEO PRODUCER David Albright // LEAD WRITER Adrienne Day // CONTRIBUTING WRITER Rachel Ramirez // SOCIAL MEDIA AND ENGAGEMENT Annelise McGough, Myrka Moreno, Sean Watkins