Kristen Soares on Joy, Empathy, and Identity in Climate Work

Kristen recently joined the Climate XChange team as our newest SCPN Associate, get to know her and some of her goals in joining CXC! 

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Hello! My name is Kristen Soares (she/they), and I am a soon-to-be graduate from UCLA, studying Environmental Science with minors in Public Affairs and Environmental Systems & Society. I was born and raised in New Jersey, but my family moved to Portland, Oregon a few years ago, so that’s my home base for the moment. I’m really big on environmental justice (EJ) and equity — as a queer, disabled woman of color, I understand the effects that social marginality can have on your outcomes in life, and I strive to ensure that all communities, especially those most vulnerable to and burdened by climate change, are empowered to fight the climate crisis through policy, advocacy, and community healing. Aside from EJ, my passions include singing, painting with watercolors, and drinking mugs upon mugs of hot green tea.

How did you first get involved in and interested in climate work?

I always knew I wanted to do something in my life related to science, because it was interesting, and I was good at it (and cultural norms made me think that I would be more prestigious if I went into science). When I was learning about climate change in high school, I realized that this was what I not only wanted but needed to do — climate change seemed like it was clearly one of the most important issues our society would ever have to deal with, because it had caused and would continue to cause so much suffering. When I came to UCLA, I realized that I had misjudged the environmental and climate community — most student organizations and coursework focused entirely on ‘objective’ science, discussing climate change in terms of conservation of species and renewable energy without including topics of justice or equity. They were so removed from the core reason why I cared about climate change (people) and most of them didn’t look like me. Then, I found my home in the Environmentalists of Color Collective at UCLA, and I realized that there was a huge community of environmental and climate justice advocates fighting for the exact future I had envisioned. Since then, I’ve been on a path of disrupting traditional climate spaces by insisting on an intersectional, justice-oriented approach. 

What are some driving forces/values in your life?

Empathy is hugely important in all aspects of my life. I don’t mean the traditional empathy, which is taught through things like ‘put yourself in the other person’s shoes’ and ‘treat others how you would like to be treated’, because that teaches people to think that they could ever imagine someone else’s lived experience. I think true empathy is realizing that you could never understand what it’s like to go through an experience someone else has gone through, yet still giving them support and respect. In the climate crisis as well as every other aspect of society, generations of -isms and -phobias have arisen and become institutionalized because people think they know what it’s like to go through hardships they’ve never experienced, and then whatever set of assumptions they attach to those imagined experiences get translated into social behavior and policy and, inevitably, inequity.

What are you looking forward to right now, in terms of joining Climate XChange, but also in terms of the moment of opportunity as you see it currently? What makes you the most excited?

I’m super excited to see how the past year of increasingly justice-based environmentalism in traditionally non-justice spaces continues to play out and whether it keeps its momentum. If the climate community decides that, post-pandemic, we will go right back to not caring about how identities like race, class, and ability play a role in climate injustices (not that we particularly seem to care about it right now, but there’s a somewhat renewed sense of urgency), then we are doomed. The climate crisis, like most crises, is one which requires an exceedingly strong foundation in justice, equity, and accessibility, and without these pillars we cannot possibly empower communities on the frontline. I really think this moment could be a turning point for climate justice as the new norm.

What are you hoping to achieve at Climate XChange, why were you excited to join the team?

I’m really excited to be joining CXC at a time of growth and change, and I’m looking forward to ensuring that the moving parts that I have power over in the State Climate Policy Network are equitable and accessible and center justice at the heart of this climate work. Especially in the current political climate, it is essential to support and uplift state-level climate policy — after recovering from the whiplash of the change in administration, we cannot be complacent with federal climate action. We must continue pushing for equitable and effective climate policy on all levels, and the SCPN is an amazing space for that. 

What do you think is your superpower? How do you see your skills being the most useful to help us in the transition that we are all hoping to achieve?

I think that the multiple identities I hold allow me to prioritize empathy and accessibility in a unique way. I know that the struggles and joys that lie at the intersection of my many identities are unknowable to those who hold different ones, so I understand the importance of ensuring that we are actively being inclusive and effective for all communities. I cherish my own lived experiences, and I know that the same is true for every other person, and our work at CXC must cater to that diversity of life. 

What does the future look like if we are successful in this work? What is the future you are working for?

I’m speaking a lot about empathy here, but that’s really what’s central to this work. A just future that ensures resilience to climate change is one which has a strong foundation in empathy and consideration — and that’s not where the movement is right now. We need to refocus, ground ourselves in why we really care about the climate crisis in the first place — for me, and for many, that’s ensuring that we can mitigate suffering and create joy as much as possible. That doesn’t mean shaming people for using plastic straws. It means empowering people to become part of the climate movement, embracing them at whatever point in their journey that they’re on and providing them with the resources they need to succeed. That future is accessible to all, and it is the only hope we have for true widespread collective action, which is exactly what we need to fight this crisis.

Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Kristen Soares