How Michelle Romero Of Dream Org Is Helping to Promote Sustainability and Climate Justice

An Interview With Monica Sanders

Monica Sanders
Authority Magazine

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Equity voices are desperately needed so when you have the chance, say the thing that needs to be said.

According to the University of Colorado, “Those who are most affected and have the fewest resources to adapt to climate change are also the least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions — both globally and within the United States.” Promoting climate justice is an incredibly important environmental responsibility that is slowly becoming more and more recognized. In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who are helping to promote sustainability and climate justice. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Romero.

Michelle Romero is the Chief Strategy Officer for Dream.Org, a national nonprofit on a mission to create a world beyond poverty, pollution, prisons, and polarization. Michelle has developed and oversees strategies to build a more inclusive green economy, and works on pathways to scale social impact. She is one of the few national leaders working at the intersection of racial equity and social unity.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area until about middle school. We spent summers at the lake and weekdays riding bikes in the street with neighbor kids. It was one of those neighborhoods where everyone knows everyone, a real close-knit community of first and second generation immigrants. Sundays were reserved for family get-togethers and abuelita’s casita (my grandmother’s house).

My dad was a garbage man and my mom worked as a dental assistant. Actually, my grandpa, my dad, and all his brothers were garbage men. Some were drivers, some mechanics, and some worked in recycling. My dad would bring us home things from “the big store,” basically the massive garbage pile at work. He’d say, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” He couldn’t believe some of the things that would get tossed.

Growing up, I never considered myself an environmentalist. My parents would remind me to turn off the lights, use both sides of my napkins, and put things in the recycling bin, but it wasn’t to save the planet. They wanted me to not be a wasteful person, to save money, and to show respect for workers on the other end of that bin. My abuelita turned empty containers from the store into tupperware for leftover food and salsas. She had an entire drawer full of plastic bags folded into little triangles. But again, we didn’t think of this as environmentalism, it was just our way of life.

After my parents divorced, my mom moved us to Spokane, Washington where I lived for six years before returning to the Bay Area. It was far less racially diverse in Spokane. I was one of only a handful of people of color in our public schools. And from that point on, I experienced a series of encounters over the years that taught me so many things about what my brown skin color meant to other people, and what it meant to me.

It was around the age of 17 or 18 years old when I really started noticing just how different people’s lives could be from one town to the next. I started to notice how race played a role, and how what zip code you were from affected access to opportunity. Once I learned how policy works and what could be done to fix what I saw was a flawed system, I dedicated my career to strengthening opportunities for underserved communities and working class families.

Everyone has a cataclysmic moment or marker in their life which propels them to take certain actions, a “why”. What is your why?

For me, because of my background and personal experiences, I became passionate about racial and economic justice. I thought environmentalism was for white, hippie tree huggers. I really didn’t understand the appeal of those Save the Whales and Polar Bear advertisements. I considered myself more of a people person than an animal lover.

When I started a new job at Green For All back in 2016, now a program of Dream.Org, my boss sent me to Flint, Michigan in the midst of the Flint water crisis. This was a community that had been dealing with lead-poisoned water for more than a year at the time. Lead poisoning had led to health issues in pregnant women, cognitive and developmental issues in children, and major disruptions to the lives of people who lived there. As I sat down to talk with mothers in Flint, I heard the story of Denettra Brown. She was recounting one day when her 3 year old son had a potty training accident and she needed to rinse him quickly in the bathtub. By now, the government had admitted the lead poisoning and notified residents not to drink the water, but she didn’t think there was any harm in a quick rinse. Within seconds of the water touching his young skin, her son yelled, “Mommy! Mommy! It’s burning!” As she pulled his body from the water to take a look at him, she could see that his skin was cracking and bleeding. Experiences like these led the community to believe it was more than lead, and the authorities still hadn’t done enough. Residents largely felt they were on their own, and nobody cared. Property values completely tanked because no one wanted a house with no access to clean water and corroded pipes. Even if they wanted to leave, many couldn’t.

Then I recalled something that had happened just a few years prior back home in California. I was sitting in my apartment watching the news when reporters called for Richmond, CA residents to shelter in place. They were instructed to use towels, bedding and other items to seal up cracks in doorways or windows. The Chevron oil refinery had a gas explosion and the air outside was unsafe to breathe. Like Flint, Richmond was a predominantly low-income community with significant Black and Latinx populations. And that’s when I connected the dots. These environmental injustices don’t happen to everyone. They happen to poor people and people of color because we as a society have devalued their lives. Our systems and institutions that are meant to protect us, are not designed to protect them. Climate and environmental justice is racial justice, and it is economic justice too

You are currently leading an organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change?

Dream.Org dreams of a world beyond poverty, pollution, prisons, and polarization. We work at the intersection of racial justice, the economy, and social unity to create a better future for all of us. Our Green For All program is specifically focused on building a more inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.

Many climate solutions will help struggling Americans save money on energy, transportation, and healthcare. And everything that is good for the planet is a job, a contract, or a business opportunity. The communities who have been hit first and worst by pollution and climate change should not benefit last and least from the solutions. So, that’s why we focus on bringing the benefits of the green economy to the people who need it most.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Yes! I’ll never forget the time our CEO Nisha Anand and I had a chance to speak to the world’s richest person at the time, Jeff Bezos. Jeff had committed $10B to fight climate change through the Bezos Earth Fund, and he was interested in learning more about the incredible work we were doing at Dream.Org. It was wild.

How does the daughter of a working class family, the first in her family to go to college, impress the world’s richest person? More importantly, what does she ask for? I wasn’t sure at first, but I knew immediately that I’d call him “Jeff” when we talked — and I did.

The call led to a $10M gift to help scale our Green For All program to build a more inclusive green economy. It was the single largest gift our organization had received at the time. On a personal level though, the experience forever transformed my sense of possibility. It’s not every day that a nonprofit like mine or people like me from communities like the one I grew up in, have an opportunity to dream about what we’d do with $10M-100M. With a slim to zero chance we’d ever see that amount of money, thinking about what we’d do with it could seem like a waste of time. But when you allow yourself to dream bigger and to actually consider how you’d tackle climate justice and systemic inequities at scale, it fundamentally changes how you think about the solutions.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I’ve been privileged to have many mentors throughout my career, including many women of color. I credit Vien Truong for bringing me into climate and sustainability work. Vien is now the senior director of engagement for Nike global sustainability. In 2016, she hired me to help direct Green For All campaigns when I had zero experience working on environmental issues. We had worked together in the past so she knew what I could do, but it’s fair to say I learned almost everything I know about climate and environmental equity from her.

I also credit Dream.Org CEO Nisha Anand for sustaining me in this work. When you work for an organization founded by a big personality like Van Jones, there’s pressure. Pressure to perform, pressure to succeed, pressure to do things a certain way. Nisha became CEO at a critical point in my career with Dream.Org. I started to feel the pressure to become a certain type of leader and run things a certain way — there was only one leadership model that was regularly praised as the model for success. And while that model worked fine for others, it was not my leadership style. I considered quitting. After discussing my concerns with Nisha, I found she supported my desire to have a healthy work-life balance and lead in ways that were authentic to who I am as a leader. She actually thought it’d be good for staff to see more than one way of doing things. Nisha’s decidedly feminist leadership style made room for me to contribute to the success of our organization and the communities we serve. It also strengthened the culture of the organization, and serves as a reminder to me that when we don’t see the examples we wish we had, we need only courage to be those examples for others.

Thank you for that. Let’s now move to the central part of our discussion. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms so that everyone is on the same page. What does climate justice mean to you? How do we operationalize it?

The impacts of climate pollution and climate disaster disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. This is due in large part to a long history of discriminatory land use and facility sighting decisions that placed the dirtiest sources of pollution in these communities. Climate justice recognizes this disparity and focuses solutions on meeting the needs of the communities hit first and worst.

This requires setting different metrics altogether. A climate advocate looks at overall greenhouse gas reductions as a measure of success, for example. A climate justice leader looks not only at overall emissions reductions, but the distribution of emission reductions. For instance, is the gap between those who live in areas with the best air quality and the worst air quality closing or widening? Are toxic emissions being reduced in the most pollution-burdened communities? Climate justice is about creating a green future for all.

Science is telling us that we have 7–10 years to make critical decisions about climate change. What are three things you or your organization are doing to help?

Dream.Org’s goals for the green economy are to direct at least 40% of the $369B authorized by the Inflation Reduction Act for climate to the people and places that need it most. We also aim to increase contracting with minority-owned green businesses by at least 5% and strengthen pathways into green sector careers.

To do this, we advise federal, state, and local governments on equitable implementation of climate funding. We provide technical assistance to disadvantaged communities to support the identification and development of shovel-worthy projects and train them to compete for federal funding to bring those transformative community-scale climate projects to life in their communities. We run an accelerator program in partnership with Village Capital for Black and Latinx founders of climate tech startups, to help strengthen the pipeline of minority-owned businesses ready to scale. And we partner with private sector companies to diversify their suppliers to achieve their own sustainability goals. Last but not least, we provide scholarships and fellowships that support diverse talent in starting or advancing careers in clean energy and climate tech.

If we are successful, over the next 7–10 years, our work will help accelerate U.S. climate progress. The fact is, the U.S. is past the stage of early adopters. Reaching hard to reach communities and achieving mass scale adoption of climate solutions is the way to accelerate progress. Our work at Dream.Org squarely supports that, while simultaneously helping to narrow the racial wealth gap and preserve access to middle class jobs of the future economy.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you in your mission?

Communities can learn more about how to bring climate solutions to their neighborhood and get a slice of the $369B that was authorized for climate investment over the next several years at Dream.Org. We provide many ways to learn about what funding is available, support our work, and get involved locally through our recently launched Transformative Communities Program.

I encourage people, in whatever capacity they are working on climate and sustainability issues, to foster community conversations and build alliances with people who look and think differently than you. The biggest social issues require the greatest effort. It’s a mistake to think one stakeholder group or another has all the answers. We need to listen more to different people’s perspectives, expertise, and lived experiences to find common sense solutions and enact durable, lasting change. Dream.Org has a toolkit available for free download called 5 Steps for Dialogue Across Difference to get you started.

As for policymakers, investors, and leaders in finance, there is so much more that is still needed to truly unleash the full power of American ingenuity to tackle climate. Minority-owned small businesses and climate start ups continue to face significant barriers to capital that would allow for the development and growth of their companies and bring their solutions to scale. I have met some of the most brilliant thinkers, innovators, and technologists — one even created the most energy efficient solar panels on the market by quite a large margin, and best of all their panels are cheaper to produce and manufactured here in the U.S. But companies like these can’t compete for Department of Energy loans. We have to come together to find solutions, or we’ll continue to be fighting climate change with one arm tied behind our back.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

The GenZ population is more racially and ethnically diverse than older generations and the majority of GenZ shoppers prefer to buy sustainable brands. A Nielsen study found that most are willing to spend up to 10% more for sustainable products with sustainability being cited as more important to them than brand names. Between the GenZ and the Millennial consumer base, it’s clear that consumers today expect companies to include sustainability as part of corporate social responsibility to their generation and the planet. Companies that don’t prioritize this will suffer in the long run as they lose trust with the majority consumer base. But companies that tackle both sustainability and equity can multiply their impact and simultaneously address the increasing employee demand for more inclusivity and racial equity action after George Floyd’s murder.

This is the signature question we ask in most of our interviews. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started promoting sustainability and climate justice” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Equity voices are desperately needed so when you have the chance, say the thing that needs to be said. As a person who didn’t know anything about environmental issues when I started this journey in 2016, I remember sitting in dozens of rooms with climate activists and experts, often as the only person of color, wondering if I should speak up to say the thing that to me, seemed obvious but had not been discussed. I held back initially wondering if it was so basic that it hadn’t come up in discussion because it was commonly understood already. But, every time I did speak up, it became clear that what was simple and obvious to me was an “Ah-hah” moment for others, a thought or idea they had never considered. The truth is, no one has all the answers and no one is better equipped to lead than you. Resist the urge to maintain professionalism in meetings by going through the motions. Instead, say the thing that needs to be said. Move the conversation, and shape new ways of thinking and being.
  2. A lack of experience on climate issues can be a communication superpower. When I started my environmental journey, I was unconstrained by the industry specific language and jargon of the climate movement. I absorbed information in simple terms I could understand as a non-environmentalist and that actually made me a better communicator for reaching new audiences. I would encourage people to hold on to that as long as they can, or at least practice describing their work to a parent or grandparent to make themselves a better communicator.
  3. There’s a difference between doing good work and work that changes the world. At Dream.Org, we’re focused on systems change, and this impacts how we evaluate our effectiveness. In direct service work, you only have to consider the impact a program has on its participants. In systems change work, we consider not only the impact on participants, but the impact of the program overall in the context of the larger societal problem it aims to solve. Those are two very different things. For instance, in direct service work, you can feel very good about the 20 people you helped train and place into green jobs. It’s a lot harder to be satisfied with helping 20 people when the size of the societal problem is in the millions because 20 people then doesn’t make a dent. The exciting thing about systems change work though, is that it’ll have you striving to get to the root of the issues that stand in the way of progress, and thinking about solutions in the context of scale.
  4. Unlikely allies are everywhere. One of our goals at Dream.Org is to fundamentally change the way people come together to solve tough social issues like climate change. This means building bridges, fostering trust and understanding, and working toward mutually supported solutions with unlikely allies. To find unlikely allies, you have to suspend your own judgment and bias about other people long enough to discover what there is to discover. We all think it’s the other problem or ‘the other side’ that has the problem. But in a world as divided and polarized as the one we have now, we’re all a part of the problem. People are complex. Let them surprise you. For what it’s worth, when I was doing bridge-building work between liberals and conservatives on climate change, we learned one of the Republicans in the group from one of the most conservative think tanks actually frequented the same vegan bagel shop as our policy director. What are the odds, a vegan Republican? Isn’t that reserved for liberals? The reality is we’re all more than a single label. By starting human and staying human when discovering new people, you’ll be able to connect with people you don’t always agree with and perhaps even gain their support on a few issues you never thought possible.
  5. Philanthropy follows trends, they don’t create them. If you’re doing cutting edge social impact work, you’ll always be ahead of the philanthropic sector despite needing their support to power your work. Plan accordingly. Diversify revenue streams, find ways to monetize within your programs, and maintain a reserve that can be used to launch and support new initiatives in the early stages before the philanthropic sector finally comes around.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I would love to sit down with President Biden and VP Harris, the heads of the major financial institutions, and Black and Brown founders of climate tech companies to figure out what we can do collectively to support minority-owned green business and climate tech start ups. It’s the only way we’re going to really unleash innovation and create major economic opportunities for all. We cannot pass up this opportunity to address economic disparities, as we transition to a green economy.

How can our readers continue to follow your work online?

Visit Dream.Org to learn how to get involved and follow my journey at @michelledreams2 on Instagram.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

About the Interviewer: Monica Sanders JD, LL.M, is the founder of “The Undivide Project”, an organization dedicated to creating climate resilience in underserved communities using good tech and the power of the Internet. She holds faculty roles at the Georgetown University Law Center and the Tulane University Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy. Professor Sanders also serves on several UN agency working groups. As an attorney, Monica has held senior roles in all three branches of government, private industry, and nonprofits. In her previous life, she was a journalist for seven years and the recipient of several awards, including an Emmy. Now the New Orleans native spends her time in solidarity with and championing change for those on the frontlines of climate change and digital divestment. Learn more about how to join her at: www.theundivideproject.org.

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Monica Sanders
Authority Magazine

Monica Sanders JD, LL.M, is the founder of “The Undivide Project”, an organization dedicated to creating climate resilience in underserved communities.