By Claire Greenburger
Claire Greenburger is the 350Vermont Media and Communications Fellow for Summer 2022. Claire is a Middlebury College student, studying environmental justice and creative writing. The following interview with Natalee is part of a series of 350VT volunteer profiles that will be published on the blog. Claire hopes that sharing the diverse ways that volunteers are supporting the organization and the climate justice movement will inspire more Vermonters to get involved.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where in Vermont do you live, and how long have you lived here?
I live in Essex, Vermont, and I’ve been here for about eight years.
What do you do for a living?
I’m a school psychologist.
What’s something that you love about Vermont?
Hiking would absolutely be at the top of the list.
Any favorite hiking spots?
[I love] the Butler Lodge area, the Marsh-Billings Preserve, the Hartford Forest, and the Long Trail. A lot of the back country roads are [also] a real joy.
How is climate change impacting your life in Vermont, whether that be on an emotional or psychological level?
For me, it would mainly be psychological. And, I couldn’t fairly limit it to Vermont because the psychological impact is really the worldwide impact of climate change.
[There is] certainly more extreme weather in this area––abrupt and large temperature changes, etc. But the local physical and psychological impact aren’t nearly as significant as my comprehension of the global situation, which is certainly not comprehensive by any means.
What motivated you to first get involved with 350? Why did you feel like you needed to take action on climate change?
I’ve spent my lifetime being very passionate about the natural world and our connection to the earth, [but] I really came to the worlds of activism and organizing much later.
I had been involved in [climate justice], in a small way, in Cincinnati––which is my hometown––and in South Carolina––where we lived for four years. But when I came to Vermont, it finally locked in for me that it was critical that, rather than just giving donations and other small things, that I begin working in a more systematic, organized way.
Also, it was a time when I had not yet found a job in Vermont, so I had a bit of extra time to [get involved]. And 350Vermont was one of the first tables I arrived at at an event on Church Street. I put my name on a list, and that was the beginning of a much larger scale activism role than my previous efforts.
So, what exactly is your role in 350Vermont?
I provide some leadership for the Burlington node and try to offer some structure to our local community of activists. I work to develop the agendas and help facilitate the meetings, etc. I try to make it as much of a community and team conversation.
Can you tell me about a specific project or action you are working on or have worked on for 350?
We just concluded the Rewild Campaign, [or more specifically,] the grant-related tree planting component of Rewild.
Currently, we are building a movement [calling for] Chase Bank to divest from fossil fuel infrastructure. There are at least two new Chase Bank offices in the Chittenden County area. We are planning actions that involve talking to customers, managers, and writing letters to the editors. While we are still formulating these plans, that’s going to be the next area that we’re really focused on.
There’s also our Bike Blast events that we host in the warmer months. [The purpose] is to give people an opportunity to come together in community and to do so in a way that encourages people to get out of their cars and have joy in people-powered, non fossil-fuel-using transportation. The rides are about 40 minutes, and we also include messaging; at the last ride, at the end of May, the messaging was about divesting from Chase Bank, specifically, advocating for closing or not opening an account with Chase.
We are also hoping to hold weatherization events because I know that transportation and thermal are the two main greenhouse gasses in Vermont. I happen to have a neighbor, who’s not in the 350 circle of volunteers, but who is extremely knowledgeable about weatherization. And the node is interested in thinking about how we can continue to use people’s expertise––in this case, my neighbor––to build momentum for people to weatherize.
What do you see as the most important direction or point of focus for the climate justice movement right now? Where do you think 350 should be directing its attention and efforts?
Certainly, influencing policy at the state, local, and national level is extremely important. I [want to] get people elected who are willing to push and make very wise choices about the climate crisis.
And from a psychologist’s perspective, I think it takes a particular mindset to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I think for many people it’s very difficult. It’s easy to feel very hopeless and overwhelmed.
So, [I think it’s important to] help people have a portal of hope to walk through, [which requires] building our skills to help people overcome that sense of helplessness.
There are people who are informed about [climate change], then there are people who are willfully ignorant, and also people who just really aren’t following, etc. But there are a number of people who are concerned, but [are looking for] an entry point for being part of the solution. [350Vermont could provide] that “on-ramp” because I think, for so many people, [the issue] feels so big, so complex, and so overwhelming, that they don’t even know where to start.
What keeps you hopeful and wanting to stay involved in the fight for climate justice? Considering all of the bad news and setbacks that we are faced with––like the recent Supreme Court decision––how do you stay motivated? What keeps you moving?
This is not something I’ve really articulated before, but there’s something that I can’t really explain: you’ve heard artists and writers talk about the fact that there’s no way they cannot do what they do––it’s like a serious need for them to write or to paint or to sculpt.
For me, I came from a childhood very connected to nature: parents who revered it, you know . . . So, it’s ineffable, but I have this drive within me where I cannot imagine not being involved.
It’s sort of just this internal engine of needing to do something. Regardless of how bad the news gets, [I ask myself,] “Ok, what’s the next step?” It has made it possible to look at the buildings crumbling around me [and keep moving forward.]
There’s also the tremendous community I work with. If I stepped away from this, which in a million years, I cannot imagine doing, I would also let down the people who also do what I do. The fact that I’m not by myself is compellingly helpful. We sustain one another.
And then there are those small victories, like the passing of the Environmental Justice Bill: those things really help me sustain hope.
I think some personalities can kind of tolerate “the building’s burning down all around them” and still say, “I wonder what the next step is”––that kind of thing is part of my work as a psychologist. Much of my time is spent with students in counseling and therapy. And so, we’re used to the long game. You don’t see the fruits of your labor right away.
So, [I’ve realized,] having a tolerance for knowing that you are one link in a long chain is helpful. I’ve gotten a lot of practice doing that sort of thing for my work. With my students and clients, I’ve gotten to practice not seeing the end result that we may be hoping for, and knowing that I’m not necessarily ever going to see that but [still knowing] what we’re doing at that moment has value helps a lot with not having big, instant results. The world doesn’t tend to work that way––unless you’re washing the dishes––and these are not problems that yield instant results.