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Alumni Series: Kady McFadden, Deputy Director of the Illinois Sierra Club

Graduating Washington University in 2011 with a BA in environmental studies and political science, Kady McFadden has worked in environmental advocacy with a variety of different groups, including the Sierra Club and, most recently, as a board member of the Illinois Environmental Council.

Through network made up of grassroots movements and partnerships with local advocacy groups, the Sierra Club organizes and promotes policy that protects the local environment and inspires long-term sustainability. Its work with activists and community members helps unite different groups within the sustainability field and create campaigns that educate the public on contemporary environmental issues within the state of Illinois. Her work as the Deputy Director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra club is focused on organizing volunteers to promote candidates who support progressive environmental policy to all levels of government.

In conjunction with her work in the Sierra Club, McFadden serves as a board member for the IEC, a nonprofit organization that advocates for environmentally progressive policy. Not only does the IEC vet and support policy, but it also helps develop the next generation of environmental policy leaders to take on the challenge of producing change-oriented policy.

Natalie Snyder, a communication intern with the Office of Sustainability, spoke with Kady McFadden to learn more about her professional career and gain further insight into how WashU has helped bring her to where she is today.

How did your years at WashU prepare you for a career in sustainability?

I majored in environmental studies with the social science track. That was helpful because I think it gave me a sense of a lot of the science behind the policies I get to work on now, but I also majored in political science, so I was also able to learn about state policy, policy making, and legislative process and campaigns– which also intersect a lot with my work. The flexibility to do both of those was great.

Additionally, I was very active in organizing around environmental issues, which is also extremely applicable to the work that I do now. When I was a student the university put the fossil fuel executives on the board of trustees and that spurred a lot of campus organizing that I helped to spearhead.

What is it like to work for such a visible organization as the Sierra Club? Do you face any specific challenges as a representative of a group with such a famous legacy?

I like to joke that I work for a 125 year old hiking org, and I make that joke but it’s serious– that is what the Sierra Club started as. Now we are on the forefront of, I would say, the social justice movement and we are increasingly integrating racial justice and equity as a lens to all the work that we do. I am really proud of that. That is what has kept me at the Sierra Club for this long, because in order to fight climate change, in order to protect our waterways, in order to protect our precious open spaces, we have to be building and winning campaigns that put equity at the center– that is something that the Sierra club recognizes as well. That is so key to the work that I get to do everyday.

One challenge for working in a group like the Sierra club is we kind of have our foot in both camps. We both engage in the legislative process, we lobby, we make endorsements in elections, but we also are really tied to the grassroots. We are more than four million members across the country, so we are constantly juggling this role of being in the rooms where it happens, but also wanting to stay true to the needs and the demands of the grassroots.

Are there any recent projects that have been particularly successful?

I am really proud of the efforts in Illinois to pass the Future Energy Jobs Act – it really is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that moves Illinois to a clean energy future in a way that also centers the needs of marginalized communities. It had provisions for environmental justice communities that are groundbreaking when it comes to energy policy and I am here to build upon that effort.

We now have introduced a bill called the Clean Energy Jobs Act which is helping to get Illinois towards a 100% clean energy future, again centering equity and justice along the way. I am really proud to get to be a part of passing these landmark pieces of state climate legislation when we are completely stalled out at the federal level. I think working in states that are ready to take action is really the place to be right now.

What hardships do you encounter while working in a field currently undervalued by the current president?

I would say knowing there is a huge disconnect between public opinion, polling and the clear need for and desire among Americans for us to act on climate. That is so contrasted at the federal level, where we have a president who is systematically– one by one– rolling back every single bedrock environmental law we’ve had on the books for decades. Knowing that that is not what the public actually wants means democracy is failing. That is my job– to bridge that disconnect to use the tools of democracy to correct the gap between public opinion and environmental policy. I do that at a state level right now. So much of this is not about crafting the perfect policy, but crafting the conditions, building the precedent and electing the people who are ready to get this done.

As we move into a major election year, how do you see your work changing?

I run our political program for the Sierra Club in Illinois, so I oversee all the endorsements that we make. Our chapter in 2008 made over 110. We endorse a number of candidates and then get involved in elections to try to make sure the ones that are good on the environment actually win. So this will be a pretty busy year for us to make sure that we elect environmental champions up and down the ballot, not only in the presidential race, but also in congressional races all across the country. Ballot races in states like Illinois, where we have to change out tax system in order to actually fund our state agencies, as well as local city and county board races are of the utmost importance. The Sierra Club is going to be involved in all of those races because it is an election unlike one we have ever seen before and it is critical that the environment, and people who care about the environment, play a role.

How do you keep sustainability and environmental protection a priority in elections? How do you make sure that candidates will continue to center their policy around the environment after they get elected?

Showing up matters a whole lot. And making sure that people, when they are working on campaigns, know that the environment is an important voting issue. And then our work is not done– we have to make sure that, as legislators, they know there are people in their district who care about these issues. We need to keep them honest when critical votes come up along with organizing year round, not just when its election season.

What is your advice for WashU students interested in pursuing careers in advocacy?

I would say get involved. There are endless opportunities and places where you can put your advocacy for the environment to use. There are political campaigns in every state and there are organizations like the Sierra club in many communities. No job or task is too small. Just get involved and then you will learn from that experience. Then enlist your friends and your neighbors to do the same because the world needs you right now.

 

Interested in connecting personally with more WashU alumni involved with sustainability work? Join the WashU Sustainability Network LinkedIn Group – an online networking and resource group that brings together alumni, students, parents, staff, and faculty to network, explore, discuss trends, and share technology, business, and market information in all areas of sustainability.