Aew Yorker Marlena Fontes was employed as a labor organizer and newly pregnant with her first child when a conversation with a co-worker about the climate crisis stirred something in her that would change her life.
It was 2018 and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had recently released a report warning that world leaders only have until 2030 to make the kind of dramatic emissions cuts that would prevent mass damage around the world.
“I always thought we had more time,” she said. “Hearing an actual number on how much time we had was horrifying.”
Fontes, 35, said she found the report scary and overwhelming. But hearing her co-worker talk about the scale of the crisis at a time when Fontes was about to give birth to a child opened her heart to the seriousness of what was unfolding: to ignoring climate crisis was not an option.
The realization spurred Fontes into action. She used her maternity leave to co-found Climate Families NYC along with about six other mothers who wanted to make a difference. Their goal was to help families find a space where they can take action instead of just watching climate disasters unfold, from rallies to meeting in 2019 with Larry Fink, the CEO of investment management firm BlackRock, hoping to to pressure the company’s financing of dirty fuel.
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 recruit new members. Fontes’ four-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter often join in.
“That’s one goal I have through Climate Families — to not only have an impact on climate change, but also to have my children 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 September 17, which drew an estimated 75,000 protesters.
Fontes attended actions with her brother and her son, who had been there since he was three months old. The contingent moved with wagons and scooters in tow. Their theme was dinosaurs, a nod to the ancient composition of fossil fuels and to the idea that humans could be next to die out. Children sang into megaphones. Her son knew all the words. She smiled. “It was cool to create a space that was family friendly.”
Now Fontes takes her climate advocacy to the next level as the organizing director for the Climate Organizing Hub, which was formed in 2022 and aims to completely shut down the fossil fuel industry through partnerships with community groups. Victory looks like this, she said: “End fossil fuels domestically and [being] part of a movement that is eliminating them worldwide.”
This is a monumental task. almost 80% of US energy consumption came from fossil fuels in 2022. Despite scientists urging leaders to cut emissions to avoid catastrophic climate scenarios, the US government approved extensive fossil fuel development this year, including the Willow project in Alaska and the Mountain Valley pipeline in Appalachia.
Even the annual COP climate conference in Dubai, where world leaders gathered this month to discuss the future of climate policy, was hosted this year by the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Sultan Al Jaber – an appointment that has been widely criticized. .
But Fontes is undaunted. “My intention is to win,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have hope.”
Fonts are only the youngest 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 the janitors’ union. Fontes’ mother is a psychologist, author and expert witness on child and domestic partner abuse.
“We really come from a generation 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. “It was a beautiful setting,” she said. “It gave me a lot of love for the natural world.”
After graduating and interning at the National Domestic Workers Alliance alongside 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.
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 at the New York State Nurses Association, staying there for seven years, fighting for essential protections during one of the darkest times for healthcare workers: the Covid-19 pandemic.
She is in the early stages of her new role at the Climate Organizing Hub. This is her first job organizing on a national level – and her first time focusing full-time on the climate crisis. “This window is closing so quickly 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 they have a livable planet and a livable future.”
This story was produced by the Fuller projecta global newsroom dedicated to groundbreaking reporting that catalyzes positive change for women