After graduating, Graf wants to head to Washington to move climate legislation forward.

Nora Delaney
April 26, 2021

Growing up in the former gem-mining community of Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania, Raven Graf MPP 2021 went to Swarthmore College—just 20 minutes away—as an undergraduate. Studying biology and chemistry at Swarthmore, Graf became increasingly engaged in the fossil fuel divestment movement. “That was probably the biggest wake-up call for me, that opportunity to learn about the climate crisis,” says Graf, who identifies as nonbinary and uses them/they pronouns.

During spring and fall breaks, Graf and other members of the climate campaign spent time with coal mining resistance activists in West Virginia, an experience that was eye-opening. Graf describes learning about “dozens of stories” of the damage caused by coal extraction, “and when communities expected a modicum of support, the companies declared bankruptcy; wrote off their healthcare, pension, and environmental remediation responsibilities; and paid massive incentive bonuses to the executives. And then the very same people could continue to profit off the same extraction under a new company name.” 

Another motivating moment was attending the 2015 UN climate talks in Paris and seeing firsthand the power inequalities in global climate negotiations. Graf was struck by how much sway larger countries had while small developing nations, who could afford to send far fewer representatives to the talks, were fighting for an agreement “that wouldn’t leave them underwater in so many years.” And when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president a year later, Graf realized that it would be an especially tough climate policy landscape, requiring “all hands on deck.”

Raven Graf.

 

Starting in 2016, Graf volunteered with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an organization that aims to build support for a federal carbon fee and dividend (a measure to tax carbon and then redistribute that revenue among Americans), and served on the board of directors of Our Climate, which empowers young people to meet with elected officials and push for equitable climate policies. This experience gave Graf exposure to the way citizens can engage with congressional offices and a sense of how legislation is crafted and passed. Graf was especially inspired by the role that high school and college students can play in getting climate change policy on politicians’ agendas.

After completing their undergraduate degree, Graf started working in Swarthmore’s Office of Sustainability. “That also sparked my policy interest,” Graf says. “I wanted to learn how one builds policies to scale sustainability and climate work beyond a single institution.”

To develop this thinking, Graf came to Harvard Kennedy School as a Master in Public Policy student with the ultimate goal of serving in Washington as a congressional staffer focused on advancing climate and environmental justice policy. The Kennedy School, Graf says, is a great place to learn about “improving good climate policy design and to think about complicated intersections in the technological-political-policy landscape.”

Graf, whose second year at the Kennedy School was supported through a prestigious Switzer Fellowship, took the opportunity to learn about the nuts and bolts of legislative process and sought out coursework on negotiation and social movements. Faculty member David King’s course DPI-120, “The U.S. Congress and Law Making,” made a particularly strong impression with its culminating simulation that gave students the chance to step in the shoes of legislators trying to get a bill passed. Graf played the role of party whip, frantically corralling votes in a six-hour marathon Zoom session with classmates. “It was a really powerful experience,” Graf says. 

“As bad as the prognosis is, we can still prevent a tremendous amount of human suffering.”

Raven Graf MPP 2021

Other memorable moments include learning from Joe Aldy, a professor of the practice of public policy at the Kennedy School, who worked on climate legislation as a special assistant on energy and environment for former President Obama. Faculty member Richard Parker’s course DPI-132, “Presidents, Politics, and Economic Growth: From FDR to Donald Trump,” also helped Graf understand the assumptions underlying the shifting political landscape and gain a useful framework for thinking about U.S. politics.

Graf will take a host of policy and organizational skills forward after graduation, ideally working in Washington. Reflecting on the future of climate change policy, they find hope in the power of social movements and the speed with which mobilized communities can bring unexpected change to society. “As bad as the prognosis is,” Graf says, “we can still prevent a tremendous amount of human suffering.”

Acting on climate change is a responsibility we all share, Graf argues. They especially urge people who have institutional resources or a degree from a place like Harvard Kennedy School to leverage the accompanying knowledge and advantages to make a difference.

“Resigning oneself to hopelessness is an indulgence,” Graf says. “We have to do what we can.”


Portraits by Natalie Montaner