Born in Minnesota, Maria went to Macalester College and graduated in 2014. There she majored in environmental studies and applied math and computer science.
Since graduation, Maria has done a whole heap of amazing organizing and electoral work: from the mayoral runoff in Chicago, to the senate race in Iowa, to the People’s Climate March in NYC. This past December, Maria co-led the SustainUS COP21 delegation to the Paris climate negotiations.
SustainUS is a youth-led organization that, among other things, sends delegations of young people to the UN climate negotiations every year.
How are you feeling? Have you recovered from the intensity of Paris?
After a few weeks of thinking and decompressing, talking with organizers and non-organizers, I think I’ve come to a good place. Obviously, after COP, it was pretty challenging to come back to the US not knowing what I was supposed to do with the information and experience I had from Paris.
One of the main things I’ve come to is that nothing surprising came from Paris. We knew going into it that the agreement was not going to be something that completely changed the trajectory of the climate or how we get our energy – so that wasn’t a surprise in terms of the actual agreement.
In terms of the mobilization and movement presence around COP and how we used that, I think, honestly, it could have been done a whole lot better. There were a lot of reasons why that didn’t happen, including the terrorist attacks, which made it really challenging to do the large-scale mobilizing necessary to have a real presence on the ground in Paris.
There were a lot of things that happened that were out of the control of organizers, but I also think there wasn’t enough coordination between organizations within the climate movement about strategy in the lead-up to Paris. There was lost potential there.
But I also think one of the prevailing messages that we knew going into Paris – that sets us up well for the coming year – is that we can’t be burning any more fossil fuels. If we’re consistent with the decision that was made to stay below 1.5 degrees, then we need the US to decarbonize by 2025. If it’s 2 degrees then we have to decarbonize by 2030. These dates are based off of an emphasis on historical responsibility. Either of these mean that we can’t be building out any more fossil fuel infrastructure and must halt the projects that are in progress or shut down those that are already built.
So, in terms of domestic organizing, the Paris outcome reaffirmed the notion that we can’t be building out fossil fuel infrastructure anymore and need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
What was your role at the talks? What were you up to these past few months?
I started working to organize the SustainUS delegation in May – at that point the delegation was myself and Dyanna Jaye, the other co-leader of the delegation. It was our job to put together a vision of what we wanted our team to be able to do and our shared theory of change around COP.
From there we went through interviews and put together a team we thought would be able to execute the vision we had. For both of us, a key part of that was wanting to make sure that the people who were on the team valued domestic and international work – and that their work actually embodied an appreciation of the relationship between the two.
The other part of that was having a theory of change that recognized the importance of not just traditional advocacy work, but also actions and media work – a more holistic approach to effecting change at the negotiations.
Those were the things we looked for and we put together a team. From then until September it was a lot of online conversations and phone calls. A lot of what Dyanna and I were doing was just trying to wrangle people because working with people remotely in a primarily volunteer run organization is a challenging place to be in.
One of the things we did this year that was slightly different from prior years – and was really helpful in having more consistency and accountability – was splitting people up who wanted to focus on media, advocacy, and actions. We wanted to focus on where people wanted to place their energy first.
In September we had a gathering where we changed our structure and organized into groups based on priority areas we picked for our delegation. Those priorities were based off of what we saw as strategic in terms of where there was room to influence policy internationally. We also wanted some piece of our work that could be tied back to the US – we wanted the issues we worked on to be engaging and help build a movement. We wanted to work on issues that would resonate with people without being super wonky.
Those priorities ended up being: the long-term goal of zero emissions by 2050; intergenerational equity and human rights language in the text; and loss and damage – which we often referred to as human impacts or ‘climate reality’.
Those groups were what we used from September through the end of COP. I think it worked really well. We were intentional about having someone who specialized in media, advocacy, and actions represented in each of the issue areas, so each of those teams had people with those skills.
Going back to how I supported that, a lot of what I was doing was just jumping into those conversations – each of those groups were having weekly meetings. I also convened full-team calls, wrangling everyone and facilitating those.
One of the best decisions we made was transitioning those team calls from being audio-only to video calls – which was also overwhelming. Having 20 people on a video call is a lot, but it’s also a lot better than having 20 people on a phone call. Being able to see everyone’s faces and getting to know each other a little better in that way was really good.
Another part of my role outside of coordination was as one of the two leads for our mobilization and actions team. I mostly filled that role during Paris instead of taking a lead on it beforehand and helped support a lot of the actions SustainUS, YOUNGO [the UN youth constituency], and CAN [a large coalition of non-profit organizations] were doing more broadly. I really tried to focus on how we were using actions creatively to put pressure on our priority areas.
You answered my second question, which was how the delegation was structured. It was 22 people in total?
You touched on this, but were there one or two things that worked really well in the lead-up? Are there lessons to carry into the future?
I mentioned this before, but further breaking down our teams and having coordinator positions. We had someone leading on media, leading on advocacy, and leading on actions. Having those point people took the responsibility off me and Dyanna so we could focus on how we were functioning overall and team dynamics. Having smaller teams work together was a lot more effective in terms of accountability and effectiveness.
On the flip side, what was something that didn’t work in the lead-up to Paris? Was there something that you tried that didn’t pan out?
[laughter] This is not a very concrete thing, but I think it’s a very challenging task to articulate a theory of change for a group that’s working together for a few months.
Being able to take everybody’s individual theory of change into consideration while recognizing that there are going to be pieces of our personal theories of change that don’t directly overlap with what our delegation is doing. I think being able to let go of some of that was the biggest challenge.
Working remotely with each other and having most of our communications done digitally was another challenging piece – most of us didn’t know each other that well before hand. All the people on this delegation were brilliant at what they do, but they all had very different talents and ways of working. So trying to wrangle a group that doesn’t know each other very well, is very talented (and fairly hard-headed sometimes), is a hard thing to do.
We all wanted to be the most effective we can be and had very different understandings of what that meant. That was one of the biggest questions I still have: how much articulation of a shared theory of change does there need to be to function well as a team?
One of the times that came up was around how we engage with the State Department because there were a lot of people on our delegation who thought that working with the State Department directly and having a more friendly relationship with them was strategic and we could gain more information and intel that informed our actions and media.
Maybe that’s true, I don’t really know one way or the other. But I know for me, and this is true for others on our delegation, it’s really hard to have a positive relationship with the State Department with the Alberta Clipper going through northern Minnesota. It’s illegal and they’ve allowed that to happen. So knowing that this is the same State Department that’s holding itself up as a leader on climate change at the talks and is putting out ambitious numbers and is a part of the ‘ambition group’ and all of that. It’s really hard to balance what we could get out of the relationship with everything they’re doing elsewhere. That was a big point of tension.
So, similar questions but more specific to the two weeks in Paris. What did the team really excel at during the two weeks and where did it run into problems? Maybe it’s the same answer on that second part…
In terms of things that worked well, our media team had a badass leader, Aly Johnson-Kurts who’s fantastic at what she does and is good at supporting a team and doing media work herself. She was just a fantastic media lead. So having her in that position was great.
What really stood out was how she supported the team. They had a morning meeting every single day of COP at 7am and she made sure that happened and that people were there. That set up their team to do extremely well and have a clearly articulated focus each day – both as a team and as individuals within that team. I think our media was by far one of the strongest pieces of our delegation’s work.
Were there any other problems beyond the theory of change one that came up?
There were a lot of problems [laughter]. Something that we as SustainUS have not done well in the past, and we continued to struggle with this year, is figuring out how to support a team inside the negotiations and an outside team.
We had an outside team of just 3 people each week and it was really challenging to know what that team should be focusing its energy on because there were so many different ways to engage from outside: they could be continuing to support media work doing a lot of writing or social media, that team could be going to support actions happening around the city, it could go to speaking events — there were so many different options.
We didn’t have an established notion of what effective outside advocacy could look like, in part because it’s a newer aspect of how we do our work at SustainUS. A more specific challenge for us was communication between the group inside and outside due to the spotty wi-fi, due to the physical separation, and figuring out where we could have full-team meetings because we wanted to have those during the day. Just a lot of communication challenges, which exacerbated the challenges of not knowing where to focus energy or how that team could best be supporting what was happening inside.
That was definitely one of the weaker parts of our work and something that, if SustainUS continues to have some presence outside of the negations, we need to try to figure out.
What’s your favorite memory from Paris?
The first action that we did which was the zero by 2050 action. We made a beautiful banner, the media team was on point, effective, and a beautiful press release written. Overall that action came together really really well. [See lead image!]
It was an action that was coordinated really closely with a lot of other work that was happening and wasn’t tied up in the negotiations or the wonkiness. It was something that we could both send to media and something that people who saw it back in the US could be like ‘fuck yeah, we need decarbonized by 2050 and we need to have 100% renewables’. Those are things that you don’t need to be in the weeds of the negotiations to understand.
Next question, do you think you’ll be heading back to the UN anytime soon?
That’s a great question [laughter]. I’ve joked with some people that ‘Maria, that’s the only way I’ll see you, if you come to Morocco [the next conference location]!’ Of course, the relationship part of it is… ‘Of course I want to come see you again’. I… I… [laughter]. I think it depends.
I would be interested in going again next year, but a few of the things that I’m specifically interested in are, for some wonkiness, pre-2020 ambition and how we’re using this time between now and 2020 when the INDCs come into effect to actually be doing something right now, but also to increase the ambition of the INDCs. So I’m interested in how we can do that. I’m intrigued by the mechanisms that were suggested in Paris around ways to increase ambition over time and I want to be help make sure that actually happens.
And on the not at all wonky side, wanting to just push – this is a reflection on broader movement stuff too – but really wanting to figure out how to do more strategic actions at the UN because there are a lot of constraints, but.. most of my organizing was with youth during COP and we tended to feel very limited by the constraints put on us by the UN. But a few of the times when those limits were tested they weren’t actually the limits that we assumed they were.
So just continuing to push on what actions are used inside the negotiating space and thinking more creatively about what those can be.
I had some really good conversations with a guy who was leading on actions for CAN who is actually a mime from Lebanon – he was one of my favorite people.
We talked about how to make actions more theatrical. I think this came from his interest in miming. What small groups of people can do that aren’t actions at a location, but how you can present yourself in a physical space. Like the painting of the eye for our zero by 2050 campaign was kind of like that. There were actions that were slow walks which were making fun of decision makers moving really slowly. Things like that which aren’t as orchestrated and not just about bringing as many people as you can, but continuing to have a presence in all different parts of the venue.
So that was a rambling answer, but that’s something I’ve been thinking about. Different sorts of actions that aren’t just ‘here’s our banner and here’s our speakers and maybe we’ll have a little theatrical piece to it and now we’re done.’
Yeah, there is a formula that exists now and it’s kinda boring. Because it’s just the same thing. Not that it isn’t useful in its own right because media understands it, but at the same time I think there’s a lot of space for more creativity.
And obviously actions depend a lot on media and that dependence on media changes the circumstances. But yeah, I think thinking more about actions that are less dependent on media and more about trying to influence decision makers in interesting.
Here’s another quick question – and this is departing from Paris a little bit – but what do you wish you knew when you were just starting out as an activist and when was that?
There are so many different answers I could give to that… and honestly I don’t like giving credit to divestment, but that is the first actual organizing that I did. A lot of what I do now stems from working in Macalester’s Sustainability Office because that was my assigned work-study position and I was working in the sustainability office the entirety of my time at Macalester.
I started out as just a program assistant and ended up being the student coordinator for 2 years which meant that I was supervising the student workers in the sustainability office – which was a lot of what I was doing in Paris.
I’m trying to figure out how not to make my answer sound super cheesy. Because it really is just about – and this is not my answer – how no one knows what they’re doing and everybody is trying really hard to do what they’re doing and everybody is learning. I think Collin Rees, a member of our delegation, has said it before – we’re all just winging it and doing what we feel is best.
The scale that we’re talking about isn’t something that any one person or any one movement has tackled before. I think it’s important to bear that in mind, but not allow that to limit what we see as options for how we tackle things.
I think, often, we get stuck in organizational theories of change or personal theories of change and are like ‘oh that’s not how we’re going to change things’ – the truth is no one knows how we’re going to solve climate change! No one knows how we’re going to change our economic system. No one knows any of that and we’re all doing the best we can and using all the information we have and the relationships we have. Thinking that we have figured it out is fairly absurd.
So that’s part of it and I think – this is the part that gets into very cheesy land – it really is just about relationships. I had no idea what I was doing going into leading the SustainUS delegation. I had never done any sort of work with international policy and really, for the most part, any sort of policy work that wasn’t a very specific policy.
Looking at broad policy was not something I had done at all and being able to feel very confident in doing my work over the last months was surprising, but was really just a lot of me being able to talk to people who had been at the negotiations before and that I trust a lot. Both people who are very involved in the movement, and those who are less involved but do a lot of organizing – being able to talk with people and work through that was good.
Something that’s important to remember is when we’re doing our work we’re not expected to do our work by ourselves. We shouldn’t do our work by ourselves.
Yeah, it’s been an interesting learning process for me too – just the importance of relationships and how they move the movement in a lot of ways. So, departing even further from Paris, a couple quick questions…. What’s your favorite book?
My favorite book… ooo! I just read Assata and The Dark End of the Street. Assata is the autobiography of Assata Shakur and The Dark End of the Street is about women, the civil rights movement, and rape culture. A very very interesting book. The main focus is about women’s leadership within the civil rights movement and how much that story isn’t told.
I’m definitely checking that one out – I’m always interested in the stories that aren’t told from other movements. We have this sanitized version of how things happened and how great everything was. And sometimes they were, but it’s much more interesting to know the struggle within the movement rather than the ‘made for hollywood’ version.
Just really quick, I’m not sure how much you know about this, but one of the stories is about Rosa Parks and her role in the civil rights movement before it was the MLK civil rights movement. She was organizing for 10-15 years before the boycott and was doing a ton of research work to inform campaigns and a lot of really hard work leading up to the story everyone knows about.
One, she was not the first person to do that – it was a very strategic choice to blow up her story of inequity on the buses. There were two people before that were women from poor communities who were young, but the mostly male leaders were like ‘nope we’re not going to use those two girls, but Rosa parks is this really well put together older lady who’s been this glowing face during these last years.’
Also, the night that they chose to announce the boycott, Rosa Parks was asked to come stand in front of this group of thousands of people and was asked to be the symbol of what was happening, but she wasn’t even allowed to say a single word. It was all the ministers who were like ‘nope we’re running the show and you’re just going to stand up there and we’re going to talk about your new role and you’re just going to stand up there and be our symbol.’
So, anyways, those 2 books.
So, similar question, what’s your favorite or outdoor space.
Oh my gosh, the north shore of Lake Superior. The Superior Hiking Trail.
Done, I’m going. I don’t think I’ve been there yet. Any good movies or TV shows you would recommend?
I’ve been watching murder shows recently, which is weird. But I just watched a bunch of How to Get Away With Murder and Scandal. I don’t know what’s going on.
But I don’t watch much TV or movies because by the time I have the time to do that, I’m like, OK time to go to sleep. If I have time to watch a movie I’m out.
Last random question. Where do you want to travel right now. If you could travel to one place, where would it be?
I’ve been to Brazil before and I really want to go back to Brazil. I really like the city of Curitiba, which is in the southernmost part of Brazil.
I would love to go there too. The very very last question is kind of an open one, but hopefully not too abstract. Why do you do what you do? And you can answer that succinctly or however you want to do it, but what is it that compels you to keep fighting?
I think the thing that resonates most closely with me and feels right when I talk about the reason why I do what I do is my mom. She’s a therapist who works, primarily, with girls who have different forms of anxiety and depression. That’s what she’s done for most of my life.
The way that I’ve always seen her work is really her supporting people and working through shit that they’re dealing with and being really clear and honest about all the things that stand in the way of them doing what they want to do, no matter what those things are. Working through the very real barriers to figure things out, to have power and do what they want to do.
That’s actually a very similar way in which I think about, especially, roles that are coordination roles supporting others in the work that they want to be doing. I think that’s a lot of the work I honestly feel the most… I don’t want to say comfortable, but the most effective at doing. It often feels like trying to solve a puzzle, it’s like ‘ok, recognizing the shit that we’re trying to fix right now, what are the resources that we have, what are the relationships that we have amongst you and I or the team that were a part of.’
A lot of it is that same process of ‘OK, this is where things stand and there’s a lot standing in our way, but there’s also a lot that we could change and there’s a lot that we want to be able to do, so how do we re-establish and grow power even considering the circumstances that we know that we’re in.’