Grist 50: 2019: Because the World Needs Fixers
We have more than one reason for you to feel good about the future.
In fact, we have 50.
Tired of hearing about all the world’s problems? You’ve come to the right place. The people you’ll soon meet are cooking up the boldest, most innovative solutions you haven’t yet heard of to fix the biggest challenges that face our globe. Tracking down these people — everyone from politicians to farmers to inventors to lawyers to artists — has given us new hope for the future. Now, we’re introducing them to you, to give you hope, too.
Welcome to the 2019 Grist 50!read more
Every year, Grist scours the sustainability space to find up-and-coming people doing potentially game-changing work. This year, we issued a broad call for nominees, and received close to 1,200 nominations (!) from experts in all fields, our brilliant Grist readers, previous Grist 50 honorees, and our own writers and editors. We also enlisted a quartet of esteemed guest nominators: comedian Aparna Nancherla, justice advocate Rev. William J. Barber II, climate scientist Kate Marvel, and youth organizer Jamie Margolin. The overwhelming response to our call for Fixers (that’s what we call these folks) tells its own story: There are thousands of people out there, across many disciplines, who can inspire us all.
In Grist 50 2019 you’ll meet amazing urban planners and architects, scientists, a behind-the-scenes creator of the Green New Deal, a city sustainability director, a photographer, a podcaster, and an artist using murals and augmented reality to spark new conversations around climate change. These people may look different, come from different places, and take varying approaches to their work, but they have one thing in common: They know that a better future is possible — and they’re making it happen.
We know, we know, just get to it already. Without further ado please dive into the stories of these ambitious, relentless, and brilliant people.
Postdoctoral Scientist, The George Washington University
She’s got climate activism down to a science
Growing up, Ploy Achakulwisut was an introvert. She never thought she’d be rallying in a crowd of 400,000 at the People’s Climate March in 2014 — yet there she was, marching with a contingent of fellow scientists she’d recruited.
Her conversion to activism stemmed from her work studying air pollution and climate change’s effects on human health. She remembers thinking early on: “Is it enough that I’m publishing peer-reviewed papers in this academic bubble?”
For her, it wasn’t. Achakulwisut now dedicates her work — such as research connecting air pollutants in the southwest U.S. to premature mortality — to furthering climate awareness. Although activism and academia are often siloed, Achakulwisut says work like hers makes scientists realize that they’re linked.
Photo: Amanda Kowalski / ClimateTruth.org
Host and Executive Producer, The City
Her podcast talks trash — and listeners love it
What did it take for Robin Amer to create an award-winning investigative podcast on environmental justice? Three years, more than 65 interviews, and one lawsuit against the FBI.
Audio tapes, obtained when an unfulfilled records request turned into a legal fight, provide the backbone for the first season of The City, a new podcast created and hosted by Amer and produced by USA Today. The story explores unjust systems that allowed an illegal six-story mountain of waste to accumulate in Chicago’s predominantly black North Lawndale neighborhood — a tale dubbed the true-crime surprise of 2018 by the New York Times.
“One of my goals for the show was to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that environmental racism is real,” Amer says. She’s found her audience.
Photo: Alissa Pagels
Principal Advisor, Mission 2020
When she’s at the talks, nations and corporations agree
During her time in U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s office, Yassamin Ansari came to understand why it’s essential to address climate before other urgent issues. Refugee crises, war, and terrorism are driven and magnified by climate change.
Ansari worked for a year on the Paris Agreement (no big deal) and co-organized 2018’s Global Climate Action Summit. Now, she negotiates alliances like the Step Up Declaration, a commitment among big tech corporations to reduce their own emissions and use their products and influence to help other sectors decarbonize.
And she doesn’t let the state of current federal climate policy dampen her spirit: “We should look back instead of forward and see how far we’ve come, and how quickly we’ve gotten here.”
Photo: Michael Benabib
Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Austin
He’s mapping a route to better air
We’ve got a lot to learn about dirty air, and Joshua Apte is on the case. His goal: “To know as much as I can about the air that every human on this planet breathes” — and to put that knowledge to work guiding policy to make it better.
With G50-er Davida Herzl, his research group put sensors on Google Street View cars to map air quality on a hyperlocal level in Oakland, finding it can be eight times worse from one block to the next — and his granular maps provide a better idea of where noxious patches lurk and what might cause them. The research is being used in new efforts in California to reduce neighborhood air pollution, and in air-monitoring systems in several Indian cities.
Photo: University of Texas at Austin
Director of Sustainability, Lyft
San Francisco, California
Greener transit? He’ll call a Lyft
Greening a huge ride-share company might sound absurd. These are cars, after all, and transportation is the biggest source of CO2 emissions in the U.S. But that’s exactly why Sam Arons sees a giant opportunity for Lyft: “We can blaze a climate trail for the rest of the transportation sector.”
He has a track record with Big Tech: He co-lead Google’s successful efforts to become the world’s largest corporate purchaser of clean energy. Lyft is now scaling up electric vehicle offerings, rolling out scooter programs, and partnering with public transit to show bus routes in its app. It also acquired the company that operates most U.S. bikeshare programs.
And Arons literally walks the walk. Even though his work is all about making transportation technology greener, his commute relies on the cleanest method of all: He walks to work.
President and Founder, American Conservation Coalition
This young Republican envisions a Green Old Party
In high school, the Wisconsin native scuffled with his liberal teachers, going head-to-head on jobs, energy, and the economy. It taught him a lot about interacting with people who didn’t agree with him. Today, the tables have turned. “Before, I was the only conservative in a liberal space,” he says. “Now, I’m one of the only conservatives fighting for the environment in the conservative space.”
In 2017, as a University of Washington student in true-blue Seattle, he started an organization to rally conservatives around climate change. He founded the youth-led ACC, now on 90 college campuses, to spread the word that there is a way to advocate for the environment from the right. “There are millions of conservatives who feel like they don’t have a home on these issues,” he says. His mission in 2019: Bring them into the fold.
Photo: Brad Konopa
Writer and Founder, Unlikely Hikers
This outdoor influencer blazes trails for everybody
When Bruso set out on her first hike in 2012, she was skeptical. The outdoors had never seemed like a place where she — a self-described queer, fat person — fit in. On social media, women summiting mountains were uniformly young and thin, with flawless hair.
But the excursion was a “revelation,” she says, where she learned to revel in her outdoor self. Bruso began hiking regularly and, seeking connection with others, created the “Unlikely Hikers” blog. It spawned an Instagram account where people typically underrepresented in outdoor lifestyles share stories (it now has more than 50,000 followers). This year, she’ll be traveling to lead hiking troops nationwide. “We all have unique experiences,” she says. “And we all deserve to have space held for us.”
Photo: Meg Baylon for Tanner Goods
Executive Director, GoodLands
New Haven, Connecticut
She’s got the Catholic Church all mapped out
Quick: Who’s the world’s biggest landowner? Aside from governments, it’s the Catholic Church, with holdings probably larger than France and Spain combined. We say “probably” because all the lands have never been fully mapped.
Molly Burhans is trying to change that, building the digital maps the church needs to make good ecological decisions: Some land is critical habitat, some is ideal for growing food, some might be optimal to house the homeless. Her mapping organization, GoodLands — which started as a project she ran off of a computer at a public library — has grown into a small nonprofit.
Burhans was inspired by working with nuns while considering becoming one herself. “There’s no way we will ever achieve E.O. Wilson’s vision of setting aside half the Earth for wilderness, or peaceably deal with climate migrants without the Catholic Church,” she says.
Strategic Initiatives Director, Practical Farmers of Iowa
She’s planting the seeds for a rural renaissance
Sarah Carlson grew up in northern Illinois, the daughter and granddaughter of farmers. She had few neighbors and, in her mind, little chance to find a job nearby. But while interning on an organic vegetable farm in Vermont, she was blown away by the number of people working small, closely clustered plots of land, and the thriving communities that resulted.
At Practical Farmers of Iowa, Carlson hopes to bring that energy to the prairie. She consults with the group’s 3,500 members on practices like cover-cropping and crop diversifying that can reduce their dependence on corporate agribusiness — simultaneously helping farmers improve the land, make more money, and employ people close to home. “It starts with people, and it starts with ag policy that lets people own their own land,” she says; the organization gives her hope that places like her hometown will only get stronger.
Photo: Nick Ohde / Practical Farmers of Iowa
CEO, Sol Sips
Brooklyn, New York
She feeds the people at her vegan café
Brooklyn native Francesca Chaney noticed that most of the restaurants in the borough that promoted plant-based sustainable living targeted elites. Sol Sips was her response — a tiny café in Bushwick where anyone could feel welcome to try out vegan cuisine and afford to feed the family.
“Our focus was around community, and creating an inclusive space,” she says. To that end, her menu includes reinventions of comfort food, such as a “chicken-and-biscuit” sandwich based on her grandmother’s traditional recipe but made from oyster mushrooms. And Saturday brunch has a sliding pay scale, from $7 to $15, she says, “to make wellness accessible.”
Chaney has yet to finish college, but she has big plans for Sol Sips: free cooking classes, donation-based dinners — and maybe expanding to new neighborhoods.
CEO and Founder, Before It's Too Late
This Miami artist paints a picture of the future
While in business school, Linda Cheung came to a realization: We need to change how people feel about climate change, not just pepper them with facts and figures. “I think a lot of us numb ourselves, not because we don’t care, but because we don’t know what to do,” she says.
After school, she moved to Miami and launched the arts-driven nonprofit Before It’s Too Late. The organization’s flagship project, Miami Murals, taps local artists to create climate change-themed murals and augmented-reality videos. Cheung has partnered with organizations like Art Basel — and now receives more mural requests than the org can fulfill.
Originally the businessperson, Cheung is now an artist, too. On painting days in Miami’s famous Wynwood district, she chats with curious passersby — the art opens up conversations that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
Photo: Linda Cheung
President, GC ReVOLT
In Nebraska, he switches farms to solar
If there’s a way to help farmers while also fighting climate change, Graham Christensen’s on it. He founded GC ReVOLT to help Nebraska’s farmers transition to solar energy — and save some bucks.
A fifth-generation farmer, Christensen became interested in renewables over a decade ago. His own farm boasts 25 kW of solar power — enough to provide 90 percent of the electricity needed for his entire operation — and he has outfitted around 30 other farms with solar. He also organizes for RegeNErate Nebraska, a coalition of family farms, indigenous tribes, and urban farmers who use techniques that rehabilitate the soil and help bury more carbon in the ground. Solar is not a difficult sell. “Farmers are an independent people,” he says. “If they can produce energy independently, and they can save money on it, they’re all in.”
Photo: Graham Christensen
Policy Manager, North Carolina Conservation Network
Raleigh, North Carolina
In North Carolina, she’ll help you change the law
Her office is at an environmental nonprofit, but Jamie Cole is often found where decisions get made — the halls of the state legislative building. Her aim is to help folks who often get left out of decision-making to feel at home there, too, by equipping them to shape environmental policies that affect their communities.
One big stinky issue in the state: huge hog farms, and the waste they generate. Twice, the state passed legislation to protect those farms from lawsuits by neighbors; Cole helped organize a coalition that convinced the governor to veto the laws. Although the legislature overrode the veto, Cole says local groups learned how to influence state politics in the process: “The more I make it a normal thing, the possibility for people to really make a difference expands.”
Photo: Jamie Cole
CEO, Coalfield Development
Wayne, West Virginia
In coal towns, he sees a new green future
A sixth-generation West Virginian, Brandon Dennison first understood his ancestral connection with coal country’s mine-scarred land during childhood visits to his family’s centuries-old cemetery.
As the once-proud industry collapses and West Virginia’s unemployment rate hovers at third-highest in the nation, Brandon Dennison is determined to help his state’s people cope. “People knew it was bad to be addicted to coal,” he says. But, he notes, for most there was no obvious answer to the question: “If we’re not a coal town, what are we?”
Coalfield Development hopes to provide an answer. It has certified more than 800 people for work in viable industries like energy efficiency or environmental remediation, converted over 190,000 square feet of abandoned mines and factories into assets like a solar training center, and reminded West Virginia that coal doesn’t define it — people do.
Photo: Kelli Dailey / Third Line Studios
Julia Kumari Drapkin
CEO and Founder, ISeeChange
New Orleans, Louisiana
She wants to hear your local climate story
Living in Washington, D.C., in 2011, Julia Kumari Drapkin was frustrated by climate journalism that always seemed to tell stories on a global scale. She had an idea: What if we could flip the script, and help local people report on the changes in their own backyards?
She started ISeeChange, an online community to help individuals around the world document shifts in their local climate — information that can be used to help adaptation planning. In a pilot program, 300 residents of one New Orleans neighborhood monitored flooding in their streets, reporting back to the city to help shape future planning decisions.
The project is all about empowering citizens, she says: “It allows people to break climate change down in ways that are meaningful, personal, and maybe even manageable.”
Program Director, Conservation Voters for Idaho
In red Idaho, she brings out the green vote
What do a rural rancher and an REI-clad hiker have in common? To Rialin Flores, it’s obvious: They care about protecting our land, air, and water. She is working to broaden Idaho’s conservation movement by finding common ground.
Her organization mobilizes voters and supports conservation-friendly candidates, whether Democrat or Republican. In the 2018 midterm election, it ran a half-a-million-dollar campaign to help Brad Little, Idaho’s new climate-hawk governor, narrowly win a Republican primary against his anti-environment opponent. Conservation Voters–backed candidates won 11 out of 13 Republican primaries in state legislative races, too. “We’re thinking bigger, expanding what’s possible, and dictated less by the partisan politics that happen in other states,” she says.
Photo: Chris Parri
Co-founder, The Urban Arts Collective
He remixes cool beats for new buildings
When hip-hop artists rap about crime and poverty, architect Michael Ford hears a critique of failed urban planning — and a cry for help. “It’s impossible to not talk about sustainability with the lyrics,” Ford says. The words reflect life in the urban environment: Take Mos Def’s track “New World Water” about contaminated drinking water, or Big Sean’s “First Chain,” which mentions taking showers “standing in mildew.”
To make the built environment relevant to city kids and get them dreaming about how to change their neighborhoods for the better, Ford founded the Hip Hop Architecture Camp in 2017. (Only 2 percent of licensed architects are African-American.) It has introduced 1,200 kids to design and urban planning through their favorite beats — they build structures inspired by hip-hop lyrics, design 3D models of their communities, even make their own music videos.
Photo: Bradlee Bertram
Founder and Executive Director, Sol Nation
Charlotte, North Carolina
She’s designing a more just world
Glover was working in the insurance industry and searching for something more meaningful when she stumbled on the concept of climate justice. The idea that some communities are more vulnerable to climate change than others inspired her to join the advocacy group Hip Hop Caucus. Last year, Glover founded Sol Nation, a group that organizes events where artists, preachers, and community leaders talk about taking equitable climate action.
Sol Nation, in league with the city of Charlotte, is designing decorative wraps for traffic signals in an effort to raise awareness about the noxious reality of West Charlotte — an area stewing in a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals. In a workshop event, community members will discuss environmental woes that concern them and translate those into the artwork. Says Glover: “Getting the opportunity to influence the design of a project through our climate justice lens is a beautiful thing.”
Photo: Todd Youngblood
Program Manager, Children & Nature Network
Teaneck, New Jersey
He turns kids into natural leaders
Where CJ Goulding grew up in New Jersey, outside was “simply an area with no roof above your head,” he says. But eight years ago, he started an internship with the National Park Service, and his months in Grand Teton National Park became more than a summer fling. Now he is building his career around giving others the opportunity to have natural spaces charm them, too. “I felt it happen to me when folks invested in me, and now I get to invest back in others,” Goulding says.
At Children & Nature Network, he organizes regional trainings for young adults who want to engage their communities with nature. He still gets outside — and wears his Jordans over all kinds of terrain. The shoes bridge two worlds, Goulding writes: “The outdoors are for people of all creeds, countries, and colors.”
Photo: Kevvin Thaw
Policy Director, New Consensus
She’ll make you a Green New Deal
A Rhodes scholar and former intern for Michelle Obama, Rhiana Gunn-Wright was working on public health official Abdul El-Sayed’s campaign for Michigan governor when she had her climate awakening. Climate change had always seemed like an issue for white and wealthy environmentalists. Now that she was developing El-Sayed’s policy, the links between pollution, high asthma rates, and elevated cancer risks were obvious.
After El-Sayed’s loss, Gunn-Wright joined New Consensus. Her work there has set the agenda for the Green New Deal resolution introduced in Congress in February. Gunn-Wright’s second climate realization: how far green technology has already advanced. She envisions a climate solution that covers society’s most vulnerable, which is why the resolution includes universal healthcare and a federal jobs guarantee. Her next move? “Figure out how it’ll all work.”
Photo: Eric Taylor
Founder and Executive Director, Cyclotron Road
He’ll help you build a startup for that
Newly minted Ph.D.s generally see two obvious career paths: academia or the corporate ladder. With no clear path to give their world-saving ideas a real shot at success, Ilan Gur says, “Amazing talent was falling off the map.”
Since 2015, Gur’s been unleashing the smartest scientists on the biggest problems with his fellowship program, Cyclotron Road. Innovators get lab space to work, mentorship from people who turn academic research into problem-solving businesses, and introductions to potential funders. Fellows include people working on clean energy, creating new materials, and improving industrial processes. (Grist 50-er Etosha Cave, who turns greenhouse gases into fuel, got her start there.)
Of the 41 fellows so far, more than 75 percent have taken their ideas to market, receiving $80 million in funding.
Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt / Berkeley Lab
Design Director, bcWORKSHOP
His designs offer shelter from the storm
Following Hurricane Katrina, Omar Hakeem traveled to New Orleans to help. “I was in the 9th ward and I was walking around and I had a hard time breathing,” he says. Through this experience, the aspiring architect realized he could harness his creativity for good. The hard part was figuring out how to do that and still make a living.
After getting degrees in architecture and sustainable design, he joined buildingcommunityWORKSHOP. He can now be found hard at work on more than a dozen projects — such as Rapido, which is reimagining disaster recovery by offering cheaper, better-designed alternatives to FEMA’s often mold- and pest-infested trailers. The program started in the lower Rio Grande Valley and is expanding to Houston, with a grant to build units for 16 families affected by Hurricane Harvey. Hakeem’s ultimate goal? “Stop responding to problems and start anticipating them.”
Photo: Lisbet Portman
Founder and Chief Growing Officer, The Come Up Project
Her secret sauce: giving youth a second chance
As Atlanta’s Westview neighborhood gentrified, Abiodun Henderson’s neighbors became increasingly nervous about crime. They wanted more police patrols. Henderson had a different idea: offer recently incarcerated youth a career path. So she launched The Come Up Project. Its core, “Gangstas to Growers,” is a three-month-long training program in which youth work on nearby black-owned farms, make and sell a signature hot sauce, and earn $15 per hour.
Teaching self-sufficiency and sustainable practices is important to Henderson, who has a background in urban agriculture. The program also includes financial literacy, yoga, zero-waste principles, and group therapy — and job-hunting help for graduates. So far 10 trainees have finished; Henderson aims to ramp up to 100 per year.
“You can’t just keep on telling young folks what they need to do,” Henderson says. “You need to give them an opportunity, and show them how to do better.”
Photo: Abiodun Henderson
Interim Director of the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop
She shines the spotlight on Appalachia
Born and raised in Appalachia, Willa Johnson has a soft drawl that sometimes elicits snickers from people when she travels. Those snide responses and the stereotypes that come with them have an outsized effect on the region’s young people, she explains. She’s working to change that. “I want them to know and understand that the culture they grow up in is important,” she says. “They should be proud of that.”
Johnson joined the Appalachian Media Institute, which trains youth in documentary skills to probe local issues, as an intern in 2007. She went on to successfully produce films, including explorations of coal’s health effects. She then returned to the region, rejoined AMI, and co-founded the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project (STAY) to help more than 150 young leaders make media and build an economically and environmentally sustainable central Appalachia.
Photo: Lou Murrey
Co-founder, Sironix Renewables
He’s washing the oil out of laundry soap
He hates doing laundry. But Christoph Krumm has dedicated years of his life to making it greener — by formulating an affordable, effective, and biorenewable form of detergent.
Traditional detergents are mostly made from petroleum products. And natural laundry products don’t work as well in hard water — the mineral-rich kind found in approximately 85 percent of U.S. homes.
Krumm and his labmates tried to synthesize the same chemical found in traditional detergents from plant-based materials. It was too costly. They found an intermediary molecule, derived from coconut or soybean oil, that worked 500 times better in hard water — and Krumm co-founded a startup to scale the project.
“Eco-friendly products should be accessible for everyone,” Krumm says. “That’s how to make the biggest impact.”
Photo: Connor Beach
Nsombi A. Lambright
Executive Director, One Voice, Inc.
She brings power to the people in Mississippi
When Nsombi Lambright saw that some Mississippians were spending $500 to $600 a month on electricity, she couldn’t believe it. That’s more than half the monthly income of some residents in the state’s largely black rural areas.
But the longtime organizer and advocate also knew that much of the electricity in rural Mississippi was provided by co-operatives — which means all those customers were also part-owners of the utility.
She started a program to teach community members their rights under co-op bylaws and encourage them to run for positions on co-op boards. Accountable, community-focused co-operatives can lower energy costs and reduce racial inequality, Lambright says: “Once people can get on the board who are not just looking out for profit — but also looking out for the community and the environment — the sky is the limit.”
Founder and Executive Director, Valley LEAP
He shines the LED light on his tiny farm town
Rey León spent decades in environmental organizing, founding a handful of nonprofits in California’s crop-rich but polluted San Joaquin Valley. So it’s no surprise that in 2016, when he became mayor of Huron, a tiny farming town where 98 percent of residents are Latino and 44 percent live in poverty, he set forth to green the place.
Huron has since switched 200 streetlights to LEDs and helped launch a rural electric vehicle rideshare. León also hopes to turn 3,000 acres into a preserve to sequester carbon, provide protected habitat, and train young rangers.
His biggest dream? A beautiful plaza where people can walk after dinner and reconnect, just like in wealthier California towns. Farmworkers deserve the same amenities, León says: “If we can’t provide for the most vulnerable in our society, then what the hell are we doing?”
CEO, Elemental Excelerator
She finds funds for sustainable startups
Sustainable startups need money to make their ambitious projects a reality, and Dawn Lippert wants to bankroll their work. To speed the transformation toward cleaner energy, water, agriculture, and transportation, her nonprofit business accelerator funds startups, at up to $1 million each. It has supported 56 projects since 2013, giving electric scooters, distributed battery storage, and sustainable livestock feed the help they deserve.
Each startup must work closely with partners like grassroots leaders, students, and city staffers, who become co-designers of the project. “The more trust and interwoven relationships you have, the faster you can implement change,” she says. She’s also founded a group that links female clean energy leaders in Hawaii, and she started a “CEO support group” for heads of sustainable businesses.
Photo: Barbara Kinney
Chef and Owner, Kyirisan
His kitchen really watches its waste
When Tim Ma was growing up, cooking with every part of an animal “was always a thing,” he says — his family just couldn’t afford to waste food. Likewise, his creative cooking style at Kyirisan (frying kale stalks, grinding carrot tops into pesto) was inspired by the drive to cut costs. But then it made him a sustainability superstar: Ma now runs food operations for eco-conscious Hotel Eaton D.C., and speaks about food waste at events like the Environmental Film Festival.
Ma has also helped fundraise and teach at nonprofit D.C. Central Kitchen, which offers culinary training to jobless adults — many of whom it then hires. “I want them to stand on my shoulders,” Ma says. He hopes the next generation of chefs gives him a run for his money.
Photo: Under a Bushel Photography
Associate Director, Casa Pueblo
Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
He brings new energy to Puerto Rico
Calling for the “energy insurrection” of an island dependent on fossil fuels is a tall order, but Arturo Massol-Deyá is ready for the fight.
Growing up, he was heavily involved in Casa Pueblo, the community-based organization his parents founded in his small, mountainous hometown. He is now its associate director, as well as a professor of microbial ecology looking for natural ways to clean up contamination.
Casa Pueblo, focused on natural resource protection and management, has run on solar since 1999. After Hurricane Maria, the nonprofit was an energy oasis, distributing more than 14,000 solar lamps, solar refrigerators, and charged-up machines for respiratory therapy and dialysis. That’s just proof of principle, Massol-Deyá says: “We can build a better and more resilient energy reality for Adjuntas — not just for hurricanes but for a daily basis.”
Photo: María Mari-Narvaez
Operations Director, Zero Hour
High Point, North Carolina
She gives youth a voice — and makes sure we hear it
Shortly after organizing an anti-gun violence rally in her hometown, 17-year-old Elsa Mengistu stumbled upon the youth climate movement Zero Hour on Facebook. Group members discussed climate change — and its effects on marginalized communities. “A lot of spaces in the climate movement don’t center my voice, let alone acknowledge that it exists,” says Mengistu, an Ethiopian immigrant and lifelong activist. But this group validated everything she believed in.
She marched with Zero Hour in D.C. last summer. And now she organizes future trips and speaking events for the group, working to boost the efforts of underrepresented activists. “It’s vital that they’re not drowned out,” she says.
Photo: Elsa Mengistu
CEO and Co-founder, Ampaire Inc.
Los Angeles, California
His electric planes could really take off
When it comes to your carbon footprint, taking one cross-country flight is like leaving your car running nonstop for a few months. Kevin Noertker’s solution: electric-powered planes that would make flights cleaner and quieter — and save airlines a bunch of money in fuel and maintenance costs.
At the 5,000 regional airports in the U.S., where short flights take off and land, battery power could open up new routes that are too expensive today. That’s still in the future. Ampaire’s employees are now busy at the Hawthorne Municipal Airport outside Los Angeles, retrofitting planes with electric engines. The hope is to get Ampaire’s first flight airborne this year, and by 2021 have regular short flights carrying 15 to 19 passengers. The long-range goal, he says: “a more accessible world without all the emissions and pollution.”
Photo: Ole Jørgen Bratland / Equinor
CEO and Co-Founder, Sighten
San Francisco, California
He’s building a one-stop shop for solar power
After working as a financial adviser for cleantech companies, Conlan O’Leary was pulled towards solar energy. The promise was thrilling — and the technology was ready. It just needed a boost.
With a co-founder, O’Leary created Sighten in 2013, a program that guides residential solar installation companies through the process of selling arrays, from planning all the way to rooftop. O’Leary thinks that Sighten’s all-in-one packaging makes it easier for new companies to break into the market: “If there’s a solar gold rush happening, we’re selling the digital picks and shovels.”
The product is now being used in 49 states, and this past year, Sighten partnered with nonprofit solar installer GRID Alternative to plan systems for low-income homes. Solar is growing, O’Leary says, and Sighten makes it more accessible.
Photo: Elemental Excelerator
City Planning Associate
Los Angeles, California
Her future L.A. has more housing, less driving
Jeanalee Obergfell, who grew up just 12 miles from the border in Southern California, has no plans to ever leave the region — but she knows it needs to change. A lot. She’s set her sights on transforming Los Angeles. “Very early on, I learned that what happens in Los Angeles has repercussions in the whole region,” she says.
Obergfell will tackle two huge Angeleno problems at once: the lack of affordable housing and the city’s dependence on cars.
Her biggest big-city accomplishment so far? As a policy analyst for Mayor Eric Garcetti, she wrangled state funding for a project that will bring affordable housing, green spaces, electric carshares, and more bus service to the lower-income Watts neighborhood. Construction should start this year, transforming one of Obergfell’s many L.A. dreams into reality.
Photo: Chris Nelson
Executive Director, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations
San Francisco, California
He’s got Big Oil in a pinch
Last fall, Oppenheim’s fisheries trade association sued Big Oil, demanding companies like Shell and Exxon cough up some cash for their climate denial.
His interest in fish politics had begun early; in college, he planned to study marine ecology, then gravitated toward the commercial fishers who know aquatic life so well. By 2016, Oppenheim was working alongside Representative Jared Huffman of California, learning firsthand from crabbers how climate change was affecting their livelihoods. Warmer oceans, for instance, may contribute to crises like the 2015 toxin outbreak that shuttered all California crab fisheries for the season.
He hopes other industries will follow this litigious lead. “We’re the first industry group to sue the fossil fuel industry,” he says. “I imagine we won’t be the last.”
Photo: Layne Gregory
Founding Co-Director, Soul Fire Farm
Grafton, New York
This farmer is seeding social change
In 2011, Leah Penniman started Soul Fire Farm to help people of color reconnect with the land, and to address “food apartheid” — the systemic gap in the food supply between white and non-white neighborhoods. The farm now trains more than 150 people each year to grow crops sustainably and humanely.
Penniman’s new book, Farming While Black, brings those teachings to a wider audience — and is filling rooms on a 35-stop book tour. Penniman is also introducing the gender-neutral Haitian Kreyol pronoun li to American English. “Writing the book was a gift to my younger self,” Penniman says. By reframing sustainable farming as an African tradition, Penniman hopes to reach young people who might otherwise consider giving up on the white- and male-dominated field, just as li once did.
Photo: Neshima Vitale-Penniman
Climate Change Lead, Conservation International
To her, climate action is non-negotiable
As a negotiator of the 2016 Paris accord, Shyla Raghav advised the Maldives and ensured island nations were represented in the agreement. She also represents CI at major conferences such as the past three U.N. climate talks.
The environmental movement needs to start thinking about resilience — and the idea that natural ecosystems can mitigate climate change and help us to adapt to the impacts, she says. At CI, she advocates for policies to support nature-based climate solutions, from a 27,000-acre, carbon-rich mangrove forest in Colombia to the largest tropical restoration in the Amazon.
Raghav’s roots are in India. But she says her experiences living all over the world — and working with island nations in the Caribbean and elsewhere — “really brought the immediacy and the urgency of climate change to the forefront for me.”
Photo: John Martin
Assistant Professor, University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability
Ann Arbor, Michigan
He flips the switch on energy deserts
One day while working with his students at the University of Michigan’s Urban Energy Justice Lab, Tony Reames mentioned a phone call he received years earlier. A tenant in his rental property asked him for light bulbs. Nearby stores, she told him, “only have the squiggly ones, and they cost too much.”
The conversation sparked a pioneering investigation and a study published last year finding that, in higher-poverty neighborhoods, the gap between prices for traditional and energy-efficient light bulbs was twice as large. The research, modeled after similar studies on food deserts, exposed the challenges of going green in low-income communities. And it inspired one of the largest utility companies in Illinois to expand its discount-bulb distribution to underserved neighborhoods. (It also sparked a similar study in the Twin Cities.)
Reames says his lab studies “the connection between energy, race, and place.” He’s applying that blend of environmental justice, civil engineering, and public administration to find other ways to promote clean-energy equity — and, crucially, savings.
Photo: Dave Brenner
Founder, Standing Strong Project
Didn’t make it to Standing Rock? He’ll take you there
For photographer Josué Rivas, going to the Standing Rock protest was not about chasing the news. Through portraits, candids, and some harrowing action shots, his aim was “to really document the humanity of all of us coming together — the darkness of all of us coming together, but also the beauty of it.”
After what he calls “the awakening,” Rivas, who is of Mexica and Otomi heritage, founded the Standing Strong Project, which showcases contemporary indigenous identity in the U.S. through multimedia projects. The first chapter includes his images from Standing Rock, which can be viewed online, through social media, or in print. Next, he plans to display portraits on a large scale in public spaces.
Rivas believes the camera can heal — and the people who are depicted in his images tell him the same.
Photo: Tekpatl Kuauhtzin
Campaign Strategist for Climate Equity, Dēmos
Manhattan, New York
This New Yorker has a climate proposal you shouldn’t refuse
The Green New Deal gets the attention — but in New York State, Adrien Salazar, a campaign strategist and organizer, fights for what’s been called the most progressive climate-equity policy in the country. The legislation would fully transition New York’s economy to renewables by 2050 and direct state energy investments to the communities most impacted by climate change. Now that Democrats control both state legislative branches, the proposal might have a chance.
Salazar has dedicated himself to climate-vulnerable communities abroad, too; the topic became personal for Salazar in 2008, when Typhoon Fengshen devastated his home province of Aklan in the Philippines. Nonetheless, he sees beyond the threat: “Climate change actually poses an opportunity for us to begin radically reimagining what we want society to look like.”
Photo: Adrien Salazar
Alvaro S. Sanchez
Environmental Equity Director, The Greenlining Institute
No smartphone? No problem. He has a better idea for transit
From autonomous vehicles to electric bikeshares: The future of transport is coming at us fast.
Urban planner Alvaro Sanchez is ensuring that this future doesn’t leave low-income people behind.
New scooter-rental and ride-hailing services require a credit card and a smartphone, putting them out of reach for some. So Sanchez and his team created a “mobility-equity framework” for cities developing new transport plans that takes into account local needs and priorities. In San Francisco, for example, they encouraged bikeshare and scooter companies to invest in mass-transit infrastructure and to accept payment methods like smart cards that can be purchased at a drugstore.
In part because of his experience as a first-generation immigrant, Sanchez believes that economic and environmental justice go hand in hand: “We’re addressing poverty and pollution at the same time.”
Photo: Two Dudes Photo
Daphany Rose Sanchez
Executive Director, Kinetic Communities
Brooklyn, New York
She brings solar to public housing
Community has always been paramount for Daphany Sanchez, who grew up in a tight-knit Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn. She and her family lived in public housing until 2012, when they purchased a home in Staten Island. And then, Hurricane Sandy struck. “Once again, what mattered was the community that you surrounded yourself with,” she says, pointing to how neighborhood organizations helped New Yorkers rebuild.
In 2017, she founded Kinetic Communities Consulting, with the goal of bridging affordable housing and energy efficiency. Kinetic now works with Sanchez’s landlord, the New York City Housing Authority, which manages public housing for 400,000 low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. The plan: Create rooftop solar gardens at 24 buildings in eight developments, green jobs for residents, and discounts on utility bills for those with solar-energy subscriptions.
Photo: Raven Walker
Oil Free Organizer, Power Shift Network
She’ll see your pipeline in court
After joining an effort to stop the construction of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in 2017, Akilah Sanders-Reed taught herself law — and wound up making her case against the project in courtrooms. “You don’t have to have a law degree to know what’s right,” she says.
Even without a lawyer, Sanders-Reed and her fellow Youth Climate Intervenors gained “standing” during the oil pipeline’s permitting process, allowing them to make arguments and call on experts to highlight its negative environmental impacts and effects on indigenous communities.
The pipeline was approved and construction might begin soon, but the Intervenors started an appeals process that could take many months. Young voices like hers must be heard in court, Sanders-Reed says: “We’re the best advocates for our own futures.”
Photo: Andy Pearson
Executive Director, Shoals Marine Laboratory
Appledore Island, Maine
Her lab trains future ocean scientists
Hundreds of years ago, Jennifer Seavey’s ancestors fished for cod from an island off the Maine coast. Now, she studies seabirds there, exploring the effects of climate change on coastal ecosystems.
“Humans have a fingerprint on the natural world,” the ecologist and educator says. “If you don’t understand what that fingerprint looks like, then you don’t understand the biology of now, or the ecology of the future.”
At Shoals Marine Laboratory, on nearby Appledore Island, Seavey helps college-age and high school students pursue careers in environmental science and sustainability.
Those students make her hopeful about the future of oceans. “They’re my protein shake of climate change hope,” she says. “I’m helping them learn how to be scientists — and enabling them to take action.”
CEO, Moral Fiber
Los Angeles, California
For him, recycling is a shirt thing
In 2015, Shay Sethi founded Ambercycle as a way to recycle plastic bottles. Then he realized that polyester fabrics in mass-market clothing were actually a bigger source of plastic pollution, since polyester, a form of plastic, is made from oil. He pivoted, rechristening his company Moral Fiber.
With cofounder Moby Ahmed, Sethi developed a chemical process to separate polyester from mixed-material textiles, turning it into new yarn for clothing. Moral Fiber aims to unveil sustainable garments from its L.A.-based pilot plant this year, and begin partnerships with large clothing companies by 2020.
Sethi says that beyond environmentalism, recycling plastics makes logical sense. “You don’t need to be a genius to know this is all going somewhere,” he says. “There’s a better way we can do this.”
Photo: Christina Mauro
John R. Seydel III
Director of Sustainability, Mayor’s Office of Resilience
He’s building a new team of Planeteers
As the oldest of media mogul and environmentalist Ted Turner’s grandchildren, John Seydel always felt a responsibility to be a changemaker. Now the city of Atlanta’s director of sustainability, Seydel calls himself a “planeteer” — referencing Captain Planet, the early-’90s TV show his grandpa co-created — working to make his hometown more resilient. His office has leased city-owned lots to urban farmers, and has teamed up with the nonprofit Recycling Partnership to keep plastic bags and food scraps out of curbside bins.
Recently, the city council unanimously approved a plan he helped devise to ensure all buildings within Atlanta are powered by clean energy by 2035. Hitting that goal would shrink utility bills, making housing more affordable, Seydel says: “By combining our powers in our community, we can do what Captain Planet does.”
Assistant Professor, Washington State University
The weather’s getting wilder. She’ll tell you why
After she lived through devastating monsoon rains in Mumbai in the mid-2000s, this former engineer shifted her focus from aeronautics to climate. Now Deepti Singh studies the human causes of extreme weather events — including the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, aerosols, and agricultural land use — as well as their societal ramifications.
Last year’s U.N. climate report cited her research on the changing Indian monsoon season, and her work on U.S. temperature extremes was widely covered by the press. She’s currently studying the Global Famine — 19th-century droughts that killed 3 percent of the world population. “[It] shaped our society as we currently know it,” Singh says. What would a similar event do to modern food systems? She aims to find out.
Photo: Laura Rider Dutelle
Director of Federal Legislative Affairs, WE ACT for Environmental Justice
In the capital, she speaks for Harlem
One day when Kerene Tayloe was in law school, residents of a neighborhood affected by environmental ills visited her class to describe their plight. What struck her: The residents were black. The lawyers who came with them were white. Why was that?
That question would inform her whole career. She co-founded her university’s first environmental law society. And now, as the legislative affairs director for Harlem-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Tayloe represents Northern Manhattan communities of color in the nation’s capital, lobbying for federal policies that address needs like job opportunities in clean energy.
For Tayloe, it’s important that WE ACT has a presence in D.C., where her position is officially based: “We want to make sure that people of color have a say.”
Photo: Cheriss May
President and CEO, NDN Collective
Porcupine, South Dakota, Oglala Lakota Nation
After the protest, he’s building the movement
When protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline erupted in 2016, Nick Tilsen was the founding director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. He was working to create a “regenerative community” that builds its own sustainable housing and produces its own energy and food on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The development project will be one of the nation’s first net-zero energy communities, with 100-percent water reclamation in 21 single-family homes, a 12-unit apartment building, and a community center.
At Standing Rock, “so many indigenous people were alive again, reborn again,” says Tilsen, who chained himself to an excavator to stop construction. “There was an appetite to fund and support the movement.”
The experience helped inspire him to launch the nonprofit NDN Collective in 2018, which will offer grants and fellowships to indigenous activists and educators to “defend, develop, and decolonize” Native nations — supporting efforts to counter resource extraction, expand access to renewable energy, and return to indigenous traditions.
Photo: Willi White
President and CEO, Solar Home Factory
Geneva, New York
He’s solar-powering the American Dream
The American dream of a two-story, 2,500 square-foot house on a huge lot may be iconic, but it’s not energy-efficient — or affordable. Ryan Wallace sees an alternative: “solar villages” — small neighborhoods with houses and common spaces powered by clean energy.
His company, Solar Home Factory, manufactures fully finished modular homes with net-zero or net-positive energy use. During one year, most of them will produce more energy through solar panels than they take from the grid — which means no heating or electric bills.
“The idea is living smaller,” Wallace explains, but only giving up size, not quality. He is currently building the Lake Tunnel Solar Village in Geneva, New York — a development of 20 homes of 650 to 1,000 square feet each, perfect for millennials starting new families or retirees looking to downsize. The homes sold out in two weeks.
Updated to reflect that the homes are still under construction.
Photo: Solar Home Factory
Rev. Mariama White-Hammond
Pastor, New Roots AME
She spreads the green gospel
Boston native Rev. Mariama White-Hammond recently opened her own church with plans to make climate action part of her gospel.
To this minister, climate change is yet another consequence of a spiritually unfulfilling modern lifestyle. Reckless consumption brings about sea surges and blistering summers, and does nothing to help the mental and physical health of her congregants. “What we really need is deep community and interconnectedness,” she says.
Last year, White-Hammond helped get her friend Ayanna Pressley (a 2016 Grist 50 member) elected to Congress. Now, she’s focused on building a broader, more inclusive environmental movement by including Spanish translators at rallies, for example, or holding campaign meetings in marginalized parts of town.
“We need to do a better job of mobilizing folks who have not been engaged,” she says — and she’s excited to do some serious organizing to make that happen.
Photo: Adam DeTour Photography
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