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Environment & Climate Change , US

How motherhood spurred one New Yorker to take on the fossil fuel industry

by Yessenia Funes December 19, 2023

Co-published with The Guardian.

New Yorker Marlena Fontes was working as a labor organizer and newly pregnant with her first child when a conversation with a co-worker about climate change stirred something in her that would alter the direction of her life.

It was 2018 and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had recently released a report warning that world leaders had only until 2030 to make the sort of dramatic emission cuts that would prevent mass harm around the globe. 

“I always thought we had more time,” she said. “Hearing an actual number about how much time we had was horrifying.”

Fontes, 35, said she had found the report scary and overwhelming. But hearing her co-worker talk about the scale of the crisis at a time when Fontes was herself about to bring a child into the world cracked open her heart to the severity of what was unfolding: Ignoring climate change was not an option.

The realization spurred Fontes into action. She used her maternity leave to co-found Climate Families NYC with about six other moms who wanted to make a difference. Their goal was to help families find a space where they could act instead of just watch climate disasters unfold, from holding rallies to meeting in 2019 with Larry Fink, the CEO of investment management firm BlackRock, with the hope of pushing him to stop the company’s funding of dirty fuels. 

Since launching Climate Families NYC, Fontes has helped the group grow to 1,200 members. Once a month, they gather in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park with paint and banners to catch up and find new members. Fontes’s four-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter often join.

“That is one goal that I have through Climate Families—to not just have an impact on climate change but to also have my kids grow up with a sense of agency and power,” she said.

They brought together 400 people—from babies and toddlers to parents and grandparents—at the March to End Fossil Fuels in Manhattan on Sept. 17, which drew an estimated 75,000 protesters. Marlena took her brother and her son, who’s been attending actions since he was three months old. The contingent marched with wagons and scooters in tow. Their theme was dinosaurs, a nod to the ancient make-up of fossil fuels and to the notion that humans could be next to die out. Children chanted on megaphones. Her son knew all the words. She smiled. “That was cool, to create a space that was family-friendly.” 

Climate activist Marlena Fontes protests alongside fellow Climate Families NYC activists at the March to End Fossil Fuels in NYC on September 17, 2023 (Ismail Ferdous for The Fuller Project)

Now, Fontes is moving her climate advocacy to the next level as the organizing director for the Climate Organizing Hub, which formed in 2022 and aims to shut down the fossil fuel industry altogether through partnerships with community groups. Victory looks like this, she said: “Ending fossil fuels domestically and [being] part of a movement eliminating them worldwide.” 

That is a monumental task. Nearly 80 percent of U.S. energy consumption came from fossil fuels in 2022. Despite scientists urging leaders to cut emissions to avoid catastrophic climate scenarios, the U.S. government has this year approved expanded fossil fuel development, including the Willow Project in Alaska and the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Appalachia. 

Even the annual COP climate conference in Dubai, where world leaders gather this month to discuss the future of climate policy, is being hosted this year by the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company Sultan Al Jaber—an appointment that has been widely criticized. 

Yet Fontes is undaunted. “My intention is to win,” she said. “I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have hope.” 

Climate activist Marlena Fontes shouts through a megaphone at the March to End Fossil Fuels in NYC on September 17, 2023 (Ismail Ferdous for The Fuller Project)

Fontes is only the latest in her family to tackle issues of injustice and oppression and to confront authority. One of her grandmothers helped found the National Organization for Women. The other grew up under the Portuguese dictatorship, where she rebelled against abusive bosses and working conditions and helped organize in a janitors’ labor union. Fontes’s mother is a psychologist, author and expert witness on child and domestic partner abuse. 

“We really come from a lineage of people who fight against oppression,” said Marlena’s 27-year-old brother, Gabriel Fontes.

Marlena said the family lived along a dirt road in western Massachusetts about 30 minutes from Amherst. It was a rural community where their water came from a well. Sometimes, Marlena and her brother would stack wood in the winter. They’d walk their dog through the woods. 

“It was a beautiful environment,” she said. “It gave me a lot of love for the natural world.” But she went to a small school where she wasn’t exactly popular; she was nerdy and quiet. She remembers eating lunch with her teacher in the fourth grade. She longed for connection. “It was also a bit isolating and hard to find your place and hard to find your community and friends.”

Her father, a communications and global studies professor, recalls how his daughter would get lost in her books. “She would spend time in the closet of her room in a world of her own,” he said. Reading would feed her imagination—but she always craved more. She knew from a young age that she wanted to be an organizer. In middle school, she gathered signatures for a petition she wrote against Nike’s sweatshops. “I’ve always loved this type of work,” she said. That’s where she said she found her calling. 

After graduating and doing an internship with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, working with one of the labor movement’s most beloved figures Ai-jen Poo, Fontes joined the airport workers’ union 32BJ SEIU. There she met Monica Cruz, a fellow organizer who became a lifelong friend. Cruz said Fontes was younger than many of the other staff, but they all respected her because of how she treated them. She was strong, dedicated, and passionate, often working 14-hour days, said Cruz. “She was there all the time, no matter if it was 2 a.m. or 4 a.m., and with great energy. That was important for our team.”

Fontes spent four years in this role, helping to raise the minimum wage for airport workers and bring thousands into the union. She eventually left for a job with the New York State Nurses Association, staying there for seven years and fighting for crucial protections during one of the darkest times for healthcare workers: the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic left hospitals understaffed with nurses having to work without personal protective equipment despite contracts that required otherwise.

Fontes predicts that climate change will “reshape all this other organizing work that happens.” 

“I wanted to make sure that I was on the frontlines of addressing this ongoing crisis that is climate change, which is going to transform every aspect of our society, including healthcare and education,” she said.

She’s in the early phases of her new role with the Climate Organizing Hub. It’s her first job organizing at a national level—and her first time focusing on climate change full-time—but Marlena said she is excited. After all, she has an entire global movement to lean on. 

Gabriel still remembers those early days of his sister’s climate anxiety. They came at the tail end of her pregnancy. Marlena would struggle to fall asleep as the thoughts of her son’s future crept in. Those negative feelings still surface, but Marlena has learned how to channel them. 

Once a week, she heads to a field in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn to play soccer after her children have gone to sleep. And when they wake up, she spends as much of her free time as she can with them. They’re why she does this work, she said.

“This window is closing so fast to be able to do something,” she said. “I owe it to my children to tell them that I am doing absolutely everything I can to make sure that they have a livable planet and a livable future.”

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