Phil Aroneanu; Campaign Strategy and Organizing Consultan; philaroneanu.com
Interviewee: Phil Aroneanu
Campaign Strategy and Organizing Consultant
Interviewer: David Corsar, NWFPhil was one of the founders of 350.org and is now a Campaign Strategy and Organizing Consultant (philaroneanu.com). Phil was a member of the 2004 NWF Emerging Leaders Fellows group.
David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as a Fellow help shape your career?
Phil Aroneanu: I would say that it gave me an opportunity to test out some ideas that were a bit outside the normal realm of what students might do in college. For the campus ecology fellowship, some friends of mine and I started a worm composting program, and while that’s pretty small-scale - addressing only a fraction of the food waste that was being generated on campus, it gave me an opportunity to practice the skills of learning how to write grants and selling an idea and many of the skills you need to be a successful entrepreneur. So that was the first piece, and a lot of the learning that happened around that project I took to other areas of work, from building up a successful campus climate action group to encourage our campus to go carbon neutral, to everything after that: being on the founding team of Step It Up and then on the founding team of 350.org.
DC: What was the top thing that you learned in your professional development at NWF? PA: It was useful to know that you had people behind you – people invested in your success. I learned how to deal with multiple stakeholders – from the folks at NWF who were supporting the project and had certain outcomes that they wanted to see to also the head of our dining services, who wanted to see us take the food waste that he was having to throw out, to the folks running the organic farm on campus that wanted fresh compost. It’s sort of a microcosm of the kind of stakeholder engagement and outcomes-oriented work that I’ve done for the rest of my career. It was really useful getting people who might be a little skeptical to get invested in the project even though it may seem like crazy or implausible.
DC: National Wildlife Magazine recently profiled your path from an Emerging Leaders Fellow to co-founder of 350.org. What are you up to these days? PA: I actually just left 350 about a month ago – after almost 10 years with the same crew, and even a few years before that. It’s been a tough transition; like my baby is out in the world and doing its thing (laughs). I think one of the things that I learned over the roughly a decade of work that I’ve done since college on building up the grassroots climate movement is that there’s a lot of work and a lot of different strategies and different ways of working. Unless you challenge yourself to look for them and take part in them, it’s really easy to get stuck doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
And so, one of the things that I’m looking to do in the next couple years is explore other movements - #blacklivesmatter, labor movement, movements for economic justice, and still do some work with the climate movement as well. Really, it’s an opportunity challenge myself, to take the next step, and to develop skills that I wouldn’t otherwise develop staying on the executive team of 350 for the next 5 years or so. So, that’s where I’m at right now, in what I hope to be a couple years of learning before I jump into another solid job somewhere.
DC: So, can you tell me a bit about what it’s like working in the consulting business that you just started up? PA: I think the consulting world is a skills game – you need to have the skills – but also, if you’re ready to actually listen to stakeholders, which I learned through the NWF project, and ready to learn about how they do things and learn what they need and really try to meet their needs, and you’re smart and you know how to work with people, then I think you’ll go far – even if you don’t have all of the skills that are necessary directly for the project that you’re doing.
I know people who are jumping on, for example, the Bernie campaign who’ve never worked on elections or politics before, but they know how to do volunteer training and development. And that’s a really important skill, and the rest of it you can learn, but the idea that you’re committed, the idea that you’re ready to learn, the idea that you work with people well – those are things that aren’t really learnable. Those are the things that, you really just need to feel confident in yourself. Part of what I’m learning in the consulting world is that confidently putting out your skills – not overstating where you’re at – but confidently putting out your skills and really listening is really more important than having been at a particular organization.
DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability – whether that focus is environmental or on the other pillars of sustainability – social and economic justice?
DC: Looking back, what motivated you to begin on this path? PA: It’s hard to say, exactly. One moment that comes to mind – I remember a very eccentric, sort of crazy, physics teacher that I had in high school who would get up on the desk and jump up and down just to get the students’ attention and focus on how greenhouse gas emissions are heating up the planet. Our problem sets were, for example, about the internal combustion engine and how it’s really inefficient, and all the calculations about how long it would take for the planet to heat up. That was sort of a tripped wire for me – something clicked. I want to say I was 15 or 16, so climate has been an issue for me for almost 20 years at this point.
DC: Do you remember the teacher’s name?
PA: Yeah, Mr. Thomas; he taught at Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
DC: That’s great, so nowadays, who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
PA: I mean, obviously Bill McKibben is a great friend and colleague; he wrote the first book on climate change for a public audience back in 1989, so he is a towering figure both in my personal life and also in the movement.
There are folks who are working at the community level that I’ve met along the way who are doing really incredible work. One who comes to mind is Elizabeth Yeampierre, who runs an environmental justice organization called Uprose in Brooklyn, and she’s doing incredible work at bringing a huge diversity of young people into the climate justice movement through community outreach and engagement. It’s really unprecedented – the work that she’s doing.
And people like Naomi Klein have had a lot of influence in the movement and show up with a lot of integrity and do pretty amazing work.
And then one person that I think is becoming a really incredible leader is Tara Houska. She’s an attorney from Minnesota, and she’s currently one of Bernie Sanders’ Native American outreach coordinators, but she has also been a longtime advocate for indigenous justice and climate justice.
DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability?
PA: I think it’s easy to get stuck in one place. There’s nothing wrong with exploring more of the sustainability field, both from the behavioral side of the situation – like what we’re consuming or how much we’re consuming – and the institutional side of the situation – corporate social responsibility and, say for example, getting Wal-Mart to reduce their emissions. I think that’s all interesting and necessary.
But, the thing that I’m most excited about is helping develop a new politic around climate and around sustainability. It’s not the sort of “feel good” thing that’s easy to rally around. But it’s something that is actually fundamentally different about how we’re organizing our economy and our communities. And to me, that takes a lot more creativity and also a willingness to stick your neck out and take risks, because it’s not always going to be popular.
But we’ve seen from our work at 350 and from other folks who are building social movements, like #blacklivesmatter and the occupy movement, the power of radically changing the narrative and inserting new ideas, and I think that’s where a lot of change can happen rapidly. On climate, we at 350 have cast our lot with that theory of change largely because we’re running out of time, we don’t have time to incrementally reduce the emissions. We have to reduce emissions radically.
I think there’s space for everybody – including folks that really want to be inside the institutions and work from the inside, but I feel as though sometimes universities, and particularly environmental studies programs, sort of push people in that direction. I want to maintain the sense that this is actually a historic moment and outside the box thinking is absolutely necessary – whether that’s inventing new ways to use solar energy, or finance solar energy, or even starting a political revolution.