"Collaboration with Local Communities and Institutions is Essential"


Will Schwartz saw how we are destroying our environment for short-term profit and decided to do something. He explains why inclusivity is vital for social movements.

headshot of will schwartz

This interview is part of our Labor & Climate series.

How did you get started with climate or labor activism? What convinced you to take action?

I have always had a special place in my heart for the environment, nature, and of course, the climate that shapes all the natural beauty around the world. I have spent the past five years or so traveling the world and experiencing firsthand not only the beauty of nature but also the damage humans do to the planet to fuel our capitalistic society. Witnessing all of this firsthand drove me to go back to school and complete a Master of Development Practice. Through these studies, I have been able to critically examine our society's current development paradigm and begin working towards changing the ways in which we interact with our environment to form a more symbiotic relationship with our planet.

Why do you think it’s important for climate and labor to work together?

I believe it is crucial for climate and labor to collaborate because they can create a vital intersection between an environmentally conscious society and industrial society by establishing a communication bridge with strong foundations in both camps. While a sustainability and climate-focused ideology is invaluable, adopting this stance without tact or leverage for its effectiveness when dealing with industry will yield limited results. When capitalism and industry are involved, monetary considerations are paramount. An efficient way to engage traditionally climate-ignorant industries in climate activism or change is to relate it to an aspect of their work they deem invaluable. Often, this connection can be made through labor activism or workforce development. As new technologies emerge, public opinion leans toward sustainable solutions, and government funding supports green practices, successful and adaptive industries will also shift their stance. They will strive to adopt these technologies, gain public support, enhance their image through ESG practices, and leverage funding opportunities. An essential component of these strategies is a workforce not only trained in these "green" fields but also one that is inclusive, bringing diverse perspectives to the table. Effectively communicating these necessities to businesses underscores the significance of climate and labor collaboration. Given the lengthy timeframe for comprehensive societal change, finding bridges that connect historically opposing narratives like environmentalism and industrialism is paramount for tangible transformation.

What can the labor movement learn from climate activism? And vice versa – are there any lessons from the labor movement’s history that are relevant for climate activists?

A significant lesson that labor movements can glean from climate activism is the importance of inclusivity. Although labor movements may have become more inclusive, their history of exclusivity is challenging to overcome. In my work, I have encountered individuals who perceive labor groups as "old boys' clubs," predominantly composed of white members. These individuals are either disinterested in joining such groups or, even if interested, feel they won't be welcomed. Many labor groups and unions need to work on destigmatizing their organizations and highlighting their inclusiveness and acceptance. Conversely, climate activism is recognized for its inclusivity and historically seen as open to all who prioritize environmental interests.

Conversely, climate activism could benefit from the labor movement's organizational skills and ability to align their needs with industry goals to bolster support for their cause. Labor movements have a longstanding tradition of unity in their demands, presenting a strong front to negotiate better terms. Climate activism, often less unified, struggles with aligning on specific objectives, leading to communication gaps and reduced bargaining power. Climate activists also face challenges in illustrating how their needs align with industry benefits, making it difficult to communicate mutual advantages. Learning how to contextualize arguments and frame benefits will be pivotal in achieving alignment.

Both the climate movement and the labor movement face challenges that seem insurmountable at times. What do you look for in terms of inspiration that your goals are achievable?

When I am looking for inspiration and tangible accomplishments, I prefer to focus on local changes rather than fixate on national or global shifts. Both the climate and labor movements rely heavily on smaller, grassroots campaigns worldwide to initiate meaningful change, gradually intertwining for greater impact as they grow. When challenges appear insurmountable, narrowing the focus to one's local sphere proves beneficial. Researching local organizations addressing climate change, workforce issues, or climate justice and contributing where possible can yield significant results. Participation could involve community garden involvement, native species planting, neighborhood cleanups, supporting local government workforce surveys, or enrolling in courses to expand environmental knowledge. These small steps positively impact your mental well-being, and your communities, as well as making significant challenges appear more manageable.

Activism – both professional and as a volunteer – can be draining. How do you recharge, and what tips for “activist sustainability” do you have?

To recharge, it is vital to avoid spreading oneself too thin. While the activist spirit in us struggles to decline calls for assistance, prioritizing personal well-being during periods of exhaustion is important. Personally, I engage in non-work-related hobbies, often involving physical activity or sports to clear my mind. Movement, such as hiking, kayaking, or exploring local parks, proves particularly invigorating, especially when enjoyed in natural settings. Additionally, traveling acts as a reset for me. Experiencing diverse cultures, meeting new people, forging connections, and discovering unfamiliar environments revitalizes my energy. This year, I am looking forward to exploring Namibia in autumn and Costa Rica in winter!

Is there something happening in the climate or labor space that you think isn’t getting the attention it deserves?

I believe a significant oversight in climate and labor activism, as well as activism in general, is the neglect of intersectionality when devising solutions. Depending on context, climate change and labor issues affect diverse intersectional groups uniquely, resulting in varying privileges and inequalities. Individuals with distinct social and political identities experience climate change and labor differently based on their living context, often overlooked in the rush to implement successful solutions from elsewhere. This oversight is particularly evident in climate disaster preparedness and response. Western organizations impose blanket solutions during disaster response, regardless of local considerations. Failing to consider local needs and the impact on different groups and environments does more harm than good. Collaboration with local communities and institutions is essential to ensure the absence of harmful practices and provide resources for self-guided implementation.