Jessica Haller: Alum, Climate Activist, and City Council Contender

by Greg Hopper |April 24, 2020

Jessica Haller is a  climate activist and mother of four from the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and she is running for the 11th District seat on City Council for New York City. She has been an entrepreneur, data and technology consultant, and is an alum of the Environmental and Science Policy master’s program (ESP; Class of 2008) at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA).

Tell us about yourself.

jessica haller

Photo courtesy Jessica Haller

I’m a New York City kid.  Born, raised and still live on the 1 train, in the Bronx.  I’m a mom and an entrepreneur with a background in data and technology.  In 2006 I left my job with MasterCard to  pivot to environmental sustainability, I just didn’t know where I would end up.  So I was trained by Al Gore for the Climate Reality Project, which was brand new at the time and then went to SIPA that May.

After graduating, I partnered with two NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies scientists to create a startup to bring data from global climate models at NASA to the private sector so that businesses could understand how climate change affects them. Unfortunately, this was happening during the country’s last recession, in 2008. It was the worst time to ask for money, and the venture didn’t get funded. Nobody understood the importance of climate data the way we were presenting it in the years before Hurricane Sandy. There was a sense that climate would not affect their businesses.

I did work in the environmental not-for-profit field and was senior staff at Hazon. Hazon means ‘vision,’ and the organization is the largest faith-based environmental organization in the country. Hazon works to create healthy and sustainable communities, and is now focusing on the climate crisis and food. We built the Hazon Seal of Sustainability for Jewish institutions across the country, which now has 75 institutions and a wait list. Thousands of people have been touched by this movement to create more sustainable communities, institutions, and homes. I remain on the board of directors.

After Hazon, I returned to my tech roots and ran Itemize, a financial technology startup until last summer. Before I left, I said to myself “the next thing I do is absolutely going to be focused on environment and sustainability — that’s the only thing I need to be working on.” I spent about a year figuring out how I could make that happen, and it wasn’t until a friend said to me, “You’ve always worked on things 10 years before their time. What can you do in the sustainability and climate sphere? Look ahead to 2030 and see what the world will need by then.”

It was then that I realized that the global climate targets, my time horizon and the local City Council race all lined up to 2030. By 2030, the climate experts say we need to be at zero carbon emissions — all the shifts in society need to have happened by then. The 2021 New York City elections are for the first of two four-year terms, ending in 2030. I want to work on making those changes happen now.

Around that time I met Margaret Kline Salamon, who established The Climate Mobilization [a nonprofit organization], and is responsible for getting cities, countries, and states to declare a climate emergency. When we met, I asked her, “If you had a foot soldier in this emergency, where would you put them?” She responded, “Absolutely politics.” So, in the fourth quarter of 2019, I decided that I was going to run for the 11th District seat of the New York City Council and announced in January.

Wow, I didn’t realize you had such a deep background in sustainability and innovation. As you’ve stated, you are also an alumnus of the ESP program. How do you feel like the program supported your experiences prior to and after the program?

Well, I have an undergraduate business school degree. I had the marketing, management, statistics, and finance, but I certainly had never done hydrology, climatology, toxicology, or chemistry. To this day, I continue to utilize each of these science courses to understand, and help others understand, questions like “Why are there algal blooms in the Great Lakes?” I get it now, and why it matters to the people and the economy. Epidemiology, population studies, ecology and understanding all of that is what helps me today to realize the power in knowing that everything is connected. When someone asks me what I learned from graduate school, I tell them, “Everything is connected.” There are certain threads we can tug that have the potential to solve our ecological and human inequality problems all at once. I always imagined there is a golden thread that tightened or loosened all the right things at the same time — that it is not a decision between the economy and environment; the choice between saving the owls or having industry is a false choice. This is the basis for my campaign platform of “Sustainability. Resilience. Equity.” At the Earth Institute I learned that everything is connected.

With such a strong history in sustainability, it’s understandable why you’ve made that part of your campaign platform. What about “Resilience” and “Equity”?

“Resilience” I define as how prepared we are for disruption and, well, here we are in the middle of a pandemic. Do we have strong communities that can rely on each other? Do we have places where we can get together and help each other? Do we have a redundant food supply? Can we grow food locally? Are there enough trees on the street to keep people cool as the summers get hotter and hotter? Do we leverage technology so that when our human systems breakdown, we can still thrive?

Then there is “Equity.” If we succeed at being sustainable and resilient, we will lift everyone up in the process. Otherwise, as we see in the pandemic, and in climate impacts,  people will die in disproportionate numbers because of their skin color. We know climate change disproportionally affects low-income communities, and communities of color — they’re on the front lines. If we build resilience into the communities and integrate sustainable practices and systems, then we’ll improve outcomes. If we invest in green jobs that pay everyone a fair wage, and locally, then people will be well paid and they’ll have jobs that are investing in a sustainable future. If we make sure everyone has healthcare, then we can catch and equalize health disparities. If we teach children in school about what I call “the other,” then when things get really hard we can turn in and help each other, not divide and turn against one another.

Again, here we are, anyone who looks of Chinese descent is being discriminated against because of misperceptions perpetuated by some of our elected officials. My kids’ school was the first in the country to shut down because of coronavirus, and it’s a Jewish school. Neighborhood people were complaining about having to avoid the Jewish kids, when in fact the school was the most responsible perhaps in the country. If we learn about “the other” and put faces to “the other” then it’s a lot harder to do that. Again, everything is connected, and nature will always win.

It seems like a lot of officials in politics lack earth-science knowledge, or have a lack of understanding of the science, which you have — you understand the cycle, what is affected. Do you feel like having that background helps you understand what changes should be made in order to help these communities?

It’s part of my decision-making process. We’re not going to know every answer to everything but if you understand how to evaluate a decision based on science, and based on history, then you will make a better decision for the city.

You’re also the first female candidate for the 11th Council District. What does that mean to you and what do you hope to accomplish with that type of title?

That’s a really important question. I get all bogged down in my “Sustainability. Resiliency. Equity” conversation, I almost forget about that. I think a shocking reality for most people in the city is that there are 51 people representing us in the City Council, and of those 51, only 12 are women, and only 2 are mothers. I think, in a city like New York — a progressive city, a democratic city, all of the above — the fact that women don’t have equal representation on the council is crazy. It’s not just that I want to see people like me up there, but it’s important to ask, “What do women in leadership bring?” In my entrepreneurial days I learned, from studies, that putting a woman on a corporate board improves the company’s performance. So why do we want equal representation in our government? 1. To improve rights, to have a woman on every committee, to have half the body of the council. 2. Women in leadership bring compassion, a focus on family, a focus on the long-term thinking — which is exactly what we need for sustainability — a focus on health, on childcare, on all sorts of things we are clearly underinvested in.

After New York State passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, Columbia Law School hosted a “How are we going to implement this thing” event. One of the woman panelists said, “We always talk about not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) but the only way you are going to achieve the aggressive goals set at the state level is by turning NIMBY into YIMBY – yes-in-my-backyard.” Look out the window wherever you are, whether it’s the street with a bodega, a street full of cars, or a park and say, “Yes, those cars have to change. Yes, please put up those solar panels. Yes, give me a bus lane. Yes, to micro-mobility.” We have to say yes at every level.

Recently you testified at the Bronx Bus Redesign hearing. Can you tell me a little about that testimony?

The bus redesign is a hugely important step. We need to keep evaluating what we have and find the most efficient and equitable way to get to work and school. The challenge with my district is that there was no redesign to the “redesign” — it was not inclusive enough, it was not innovative enough — it did not do what it needed to. The goal is to get people out of their cars and onto public transit, and this redesign did not achieve that. We need to think about ways to get people to the buses. When I was sitting there I heard a lot of testimony, one talked about how the redesign moved the bus stop that was in front of the senior center up a steep hill. It was blind to the realities on the ground.

Do you have a big audacious goal for the City?

At a Rider’s Alliance meeting, I once heard someone say that all transit should be free, and I thought What? No. But the more I think about it, I think that if I had one magical wish that I could make happen in the city, it would be the combination of zero combustion engines on our streets and free public transit for all. Unfortunately, I don’t think either of those are a reality, but I do think it is something we can work towards over the next 10 years. An example of this is congestion pricing — I think it’s wonderful, but it’s obviously only focused on Downtown and Midtown Manhattan. We need it in Uptown and in the Bronx. What if we started by addressing emissions where we have the sickest children? What if we put extra tolls on large trucks on the Cross Bronx Expressway — an “air quality toll” of some sort? These are the sort of things I’m thinking about. Another initiative could be optimizing parking meters. People are emitting significant amounts of pollutants while driving around looking for a place to park. When meters are optimized, people are only parked long enough to do their business and leave, opening more spaces, more frequently, for other drivers to conduct their business.

You’ve also testified against the use of pesticides in city owned and leased parks. I, for one, completely agree and was extremely excited about the Parks Department’s use of goats in Riverside Park last summer to reduce invasive species growth. What other initiatives would you propose?

I love the idea of goats — they keep growth down, they fertilize, and they’re sustainable. I think we need to learn how to enrich the soil.

Part of the use of pesticides in this district is for invasive species management, yet a good method for invasives management is to remove them by hand — another “green job” idea. Train people to know what the invasives are, so we can augment and enrich the soil and boost the ecosystems. Those invasives are themselves a sign of weakness. Use the whole notion of everything being connected. Use green jobs funding to train and employ people to work at keeping the park land healthy. There is the thread: lift people up with healthy, good jobs, and improve sustainability and the resilience of the park land.

It’s all about “Sustainability. Resiliency. Equity.”

Absolutely! And it’s all connected.

If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact assistant director Stephanie Hoyt (sah2239@columbia.edu) with any questions or to schedule a campus visit. MPA-ESP is currently accepting applications for summer 2020 with an application deadline of February 15, 2020.

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