Why I Organize for Climate Justice

(Originally written as a guest post for MIT’s admissions blog)

Hi there!

My name is Amber Houghstow, and I am an organizer, nonprofit co-founder at Peace Rising, and MIT alum from 2011. I wanted to share my journey here both because my time at MIT shaped my career plan significantly, and because my path is pretty unusual for an MIT alum. MIT students are known for going into tech industries. We have the highest social mobility among students at elite schools, and an average income of about 100k by age 34. Instead of choosing to make the big bucks at a private tech firm, I decided to start a nonprofit and organize around politics and climate change. I made this choice because I want to make the greatest possible positive difference in the world and because of what I learned while I was at MIT.

Learning how to make the biggest difference

Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to help people and, hopefully, change the world. First I planned to become a doctor. After spending some time in high school shadowing doctors and volunteering at a local hospital, I realized the American healthcare system is reactionary in treating illness and often perpetuates social inequality, while doctors, by nature of their direct work, must treat patients one by one. Feeling frustrated by the limitations of a career in medicine, I decided to try epidemiology instead and signed up for a class on it at my local university. Despite learning a lot about environmental justice issues and their health impacts, by the end of the term I felt isolated, poring over statistics and still unable to address the problems I’d learned about.

At MIT, I felt a lot of pressure to discover a “personal passion” involving science and technology, but I couldn’t find one. I just wanted to make a difference. I didn’t care how. I also felt that any child with the same opportunities could accomplish as much as me, so I decided the highest impact approach would be to focus on tackling inequality. After taking tons of fun classes through D-Lab, J-PAL, and Sloan’s System Dynamics program to try and figure out how to address the problem, I realized that governmental institutions are much more important in determining prosperity than individual technologies themselves because each technology needs institutions to be disseminated. I also learned that, to analyze a complex system and its outcomes, it’s important to look at feedback loops.

I had an amazing time designing new technologies with communities as part of the MIT D-Lab program. In talking with communities, though, I realized that a lot of challenges are institutional, such as getting access to a good education or sharing designs and materials when roads are poor. Top left: Casserdy Magaya, a member of my International Development Design Summit (IDDS) Ghana 2009 team, showcases an early prototype during our community design review. Top right: My D-Lab Ecuador 2010 team shares ideas for a low-cost drip irrigation system with a community in Atapo Kichalan. I am pictured looking on in the red jacket. Bottom left: Two friends and I from IDDS 2009 take a selfie. I’m the one in the middle. Bottom right: My D-Lab Ecuador 2010 team travels by boat to visit a community accessible only by water.

Looking at global issues as a complex system, I realized the following:

If we don’t do something to change that feedback loop, the world will become a giant dumpster fire of suffering, one with more chaos than humanity left in it. Fortunately, many environmental peacebuilding approaches can simultaneously address conflict, help communities become more resilient, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Pursuing environmental peacebuilding strategies through community organizing is one of the most cost-effective means of doing this work, and it has the added benefit of improving democratic participation. It can also reduce the potential for authoritarianism, which can be both a reaction to instability and a cause of further conflict. (You can learn more about these issues and about my nonprofit organization, which focuses on better targeting environmental peacebuilding work in vulnerable areas, at peace-rising.org.)

How I became an organizer

I didn’t start this work right away, though. As much as I would like to think facts and reasoning are my primary motivation for organizing around climate justice, a few things happened after graduating that made climate change, conflict, and organizing for change as personally important as I knew they were intellectually. I lived and worked in Sri Lanka on and off over three years, teaching and building friendships. Right after I left in 2014, drought struck the island, devastating rice crops. Food prices increased, and my close friend and sister-by-declaration struggled to make ends meet. Back in Boston, I began working in international development and looking for ways to help my friends more effectively.

Living and working in Sri Lanka was an unforgettable experience! I worked with MIT Global Startup Labs (MIT-GSL) as an entrepreneurship instructor, helping student teams launch their own tech companies. Top left: MIT-GSL 2013 teams officially launch their startups in front of 200+ business leaders and investors. Top right: After MIT-GSL in 2011, the GlassCube startup team invited me to go hiking and swimming with them. Bottom left: MIT-GSL 2011 instructors pose with Google Country Consultant Rohan Jayaweera. Bottom center: GlassCube CEO Samith and I go for a walk on the beach with other members of the team. Bottom right: MIT-GSL 2014 teams visit Brandix Lanka for a factory tour.

After a year of fulfilling work, I was raped by an acquaintance. He tried his best to silence me from talking about what happened, and I flew home to Texas to avoid antagonism. Once in Texas, I found myself becoming ill. A fracking boom had just begun in my hometown, and benzene levels in the air were high. My youngest sibling began experiencing life-threatening anemia and periods lasting as long as seven weeks, likely caused by toxic levels of benzene, a hormone disruptor. We spent the holidays together, huddling indoors under a simultaneous tornado alert and hailstorm followed by days of heat, while the “snowpocalypse” dumped record levels of snow on my friends in Boston. Inspired to read more about climate change, I soon learned it had also sparked the Syrian Civil War. I decided to return to grad school as soon as possible and immediately began a master’s program at Harvard, where I began researching climate change and conflict, focusing on the Syrian Crisis.

Photos showcasing the unseasonal weather in early February, 2015. Left: Unseasonal heat caused the flowers in my front yard to begin blooming. Center: I am studying outside my house in Texas, where highs today reached the mid seventies. In my town, February highs are usually in the forties. Right: Back at Simmons Hall at MIT, students slide down Snowpocalypse Mountain.

Returning to Boston, I confronted the circumstances that had forced my departure. After several unpleasant encounters with the rapist, who I learned had gaslit some of my friends while I was away, I took out a restraining order. After experiencing setbacks in the legal process, I began applying the organizing methods I had read were so effective to my own life, building relationships and advocating as part of the #MeToo movement. The results were powerful. After a team effort in advocacy, an older man who had raped two of my friends was banned from entering their former cooperative home. Additionally, my gym began investigating the behavior of my rapist. Soon after my advocacy efforts began, he left for Germany, and the gym extended my membership gratis for three months.

During my own legal process, I had thought briefly about returning to law school and focusing on related case law. Then I learned about women who are raped during increasingly long walks in search of water, as well as the systematic rape and torture of Yazidi women in Syria. Learning about the experiences of other women, I saw an opportunity to link the fight against climate change to my own experience. After realizing that reducing climate change and conflict can have a powerful impact in preventing gender-based violence, I was even more inspired to pursue political and climate organizing, and to found Peace Rising.

Campaigning for climate justice and founding Peace Rising

Organizing around climate change proved no less powerful than it had been as part of the #MeToo movement. I joined the campaign to elect Quinton Zondervan, a climate justice activist and fellow MIT alum who was running for city council. Working as his field director, and in solidarity with good friends from Fossil Free MIT and other climate organizations, we turned out canvassers across the city and helped him get elected in November 2017. Since then, Quinton has pushed for progress on our city’s Net Zero Action Plan, appeared in many environmental podcasts and events, and co-sponsored resolutions to reduce water consumption and push for environmental justice at the state level.

Left: Six of us pose with Quinton at a canvassing event. Our entire front row is MIT students and members of FFMIT! I’m on the right in the sweater. Right: Five of us pose together after after a night of preparing letters to mail out to potential voters.

After the election, I co-founded a nonprofit, Peace Rising. The idea for it came out of my master’s thesis research. In my thesis, I tried to show a connection between climate change, migration, and conflict in Syria. At first, I didn’t find any statistically significant results. Then, I realized that Syria’s drought, migration, and conflict might only be connected in certain places, for example, ones where there was more farmland, or a higher population density. This turned out to be true: In places where farmers were used to getting a lot of rainfall, extended drought pushed them off their land. When they moved, they moved to nearby cities that already had high population growth, ones that were good to move to for work.

Left: I present about Peace Rising at the PKG Center’s Community Climate Conversations event. The photo is from the MIT Tech. At the event, I met an MIT Tech reporter named Sheila who wrote this news article. Now Sheila and I are working together at Peace Rising! Right: Here is a map that illustrates our work. The circles represent active conflicts, and the colors from green to red represent a country’s vulnerability to climate impacts. Climate vulnerability and conflict often go together.

Using this information, which is all possible to derive from satellite data, I was able to predict where migration and protest would occur. Now at Peace Rising, we are combining data sources to expand these predictions to the whole world. My hope is that we can help find where conflicts are most likely in time to prevent future crises like the one in Syria. Our newest teammate, an undergrad at MIT, will be travelling in the Middle East this month, building partnerships with local environmental and peacebuilding organizations there. Our next steps are fundraising, combining data, and creating our first machine learning algorithms. I couldn’t be more excited.

Commit to making a difference, and doors will open

I have found that working to make a difference is a powerful way to overcome roadblocks in life. Whether you are working to overcome a difficult experience, struggling with self-doubt, trying to remember what you’ve studied, making new friends for the first time, or finding a job, when you are working to create a positive change, things click. Life becomes filled with power and meaning, and people will rally to support you. This is because forming and nurturing relationships around shared values makes life feel meaningful, while generosity and social support are contagious: When you help your friends, they are more likely to help you return and to pay it forward.

Right now, many of my friends in Texas, Sri Lanka, and other places are struggling because of the impacts of climate change. It is humanity’s greatest existential risk. Fighting for climate justice is a race against time that demands we all do our best, learn as much as possible, and work as strategically as possible.

You have a great mission in life, one that may be connected in any number of ways to making the fight against climate change possible. I am sharing my experience with you now because you are about to go to MIT: You are about to cross the threshold of what, if you choose to accept it, will become your hero’s journey. Over the next four years and onward, you will capture the elixir of knowledge you need to build the world you hope to see.

Whatever struggles you encounter, please do not forget the ones we all share. Because if you are well-informed, strategic, and organize with others, you will win. And when you win, you will lift up the world.

In solidarity,