Just a few weeks ago CCAN had the pleasure of welcoming our new Northern Virginia Organizer, Zander Pellegrino to our team and we are very excited to introduce you to him!

From Harrisonburg, VA Zander has spent the past few years working in climate resiliency and planning. He comes to CCAN with a fresh perspective and a deep commitment to helping people where they are. 

We sat down with Zander to chat about his journey in climate activism and his road to CCAN, his role in the climate movement, and what he sees as his most exciting challenge moving forward!

Check out the full transcript for the episode below:

Charles Olsen  0:04  

Hi, my name is Charlie Olsen and this is upside down the podcast from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

You grew up in Harrisonburg and you have been working in climate stuff. You went to school for biology and policy. Can you tell me about, like, the first time that you can remember ever being worried about climate change? When was it? When did it first pop into your head?

Zander Pellegrino  0:34  

This is probably a pretty relatable story, a familiar story for Virginia to Maryland people who grew up at the time I did, but it was on Tangier island with a Chesapeake Bay foundation trip. That was really the first time that I thought about climate change, in really tangible, impactful ways. Yeah, I remember a lot from that trip. And really credit my high school teacher, Mr. Blosser, and the Chesapeake Bay foundation for making that happen. 

And what I remember in terms of climate change is really the the sense of, the sense of loss for for humans and people that have been living there and the sense of loss for ecosystems. Because when you’re,  when you’re there, you can see, you can see, the island being washed away, so quickly. And it’s a smaller scale than ice caps melting, but it was so much more of an impact, it was so much more close to home, than the ice caps because you can see people pointing 40 feet out into the water and saying, this is where the coastline used to be. And then you can take a night walk and see bioluminescent bacteria on the sand and think that that’s going to be gone in two years.

Charles Olsen  2:07  

So how did you go from that experience to working in climate activism in college? And now being a full time organizer for climate advocacy?

Zander Pellegrino  2:18  

I’m not sure, is the short answer to that.

Charles Olsen  2:22  

Let’s let me frame it another way. Let’s, let’s do what I like to call running down your resume. Can you walk me through the steps, you know, college, first job, first time organizing, and then get build, build the framework that will talk through

Zander Pellegrino  2:43  

When I’m telling this story I want to focus on, really the importance of emergent strategy. I like it a lot, about agent Barry brown and those types of ideas. And I don’t really want to tell my story in a linear, concrete way because it wasn’t planned. And so much of our lives and activism aren’t planned. And so I’ll tell you what happened. But know that it could have gone a lot of different ways. And this is the way that it did go. And in terms of climate, I studied biology as an undergrad because, I’ve told this story before. But I just wanted to know what was underneath my skin. I looked at my skin and just felt Wow. I can’t not I can’t not learn that there’s blood and organelles and bacteria and that potassium channels change electricity currents and make me go. Like I can’t not know that. And then that really shaped why I wanted to study biology and then through that, you move really quickly to courses and wetland delineation and ecosystem services and outside of the classroom really thinking a lot about carbon emissions from, from our school, from William and Mary, I helped with the greenhouse gas audit for a while, for years there. And one of the early stories there was thinking about how we can have some better decisions and better funding for climate action because something that really was exciting that happened years before my time there was students wanted to generate funds for climate action. So they released a survey and said, you know, we want to pay an additional $10- $15 per semester and use those funds to go towards climate action projects. But with some of the professors and AI on the committee, we realized that we didn’t have any the projects were going towards broad research and some on a track and infrastructure improvements which was great but we really needed and kind of some long term endowed funding to do climate action so we started thinking about how we can set up activities that are actually going to allow us to to reduce emissions on meaningful scale long term and that was a lot of what was happening in undergrad it was very ambitious focused and very ecosystems focused and and towards the end of it i started thinking even more about adaptation and the human costs and the disproportionate human costs for, for communities around the world who are going to get hit first versus most by climate change but that really was towards the end of undergrad and thinking about that i applied to jobs throughout the world to work on climate adaptation and community level greening and environmental projects and just went with the first job that that accepted which was in Cairo, Egypt. 

Charles Olsen  6:09  

I’m interested in the path you took from your experience in undergrad- can you tell me a little bit about the work that you did on that school committee and how that work influenced your desire to go into planning for your jobs right out of undergrad and to study planning in your grad program?

Zander Pellegrino  6:36  

I could but I don’t think it did. I think what really influenced that decision was, was looking around my peers and seeing the people that I was interested in were going towards DC to work on things that I was doing- either as like international development subcontractors and I just didn’t want to try and participate in a climate adaptation project- this isn’t necessarily how I think now- but this is what I was thinking about my really the extent of my thinking then was if I’m going to be working on projects related to climate adaptation and environmentalists throughout the world, I don’t want to do it from DC I want to do it where the projects are being implemented and so that’s why i applied on more of the implementation and project management side. On pencil that included some jobs in DC, some jobs around Virginia, and some jobs within international development. 

Charles Olsen  7:36  

I saw that while you were pursuing your graduate degree at Yale you published some papers talking about community resiliency and trust during the planning process and just from listening to you talk for the past couple of minutes I already see how a lot of those values have been instilled in you through your education and like just through your experiences- I’m interested in connecting that to the work you do today. How do you view your experience working in those community resiliency projects to your job currently as an advocate?

Zander Pellegrino  8:14  

Yeah one thing that I think I really took away from, I can talk and give examples of this, but really so much of public participation and community advocacy and community outreach and all these words we use to describe talking to people who are going to be impacted by development at the end of those processes, oftentimes proposals and what actually happens it’s no different than what planners and leaders and often white male architects and engineers propose at the beginning. I was talking to committee members and I saw that in New York City with the east side coastal resiliency project, and get the drawbacks of relying so heavily on contracting to do community outreach work and I saw that in Egypt with some Jazz Edson driven development corporation projects, both focusing on urban greening and within both projects, there was tons of community outreach meetings people had no shortage of opportunities to chat they just weren’t listened to because their comments were either out of scope because they were focusing on the actual lived experiences and issues that they were facing, which in the community in Cairo, were a sewage system which flooded and was so backed up that the NGO couldn’t solve that. That was out of their control and so they just heard what they did and said “hmm I guess we’ll do some urban guards because they couldn’t solve what people wanted them to solve” and then in New York City it was really the current plan is to bury the east river park under 10 feet of topsoil and that’s not at all what people said they wanted. And so the way that that relates to my work is I’m very aware that one way this job could go, could be to bring out community members, get them to public hearings, have them get public comments, share their experiences, their stories, and then at the end of the day, none of that will make a difference. And the planning agencies will be able to say, because we held a public hearing, we are participatory, we are community based, we have committed by it, even as they don’t listen, or rule. community members frustrations as out of scope, economically infeasible, or say that we’ll get to them in further implementation. And that’s something that I’m aware of, as I step into this space.

Charles Olsen  10:48  

I’ve heard a story about your work, organizing at Yale, can you tell me a little bit about that?

Zander Pellegrino  10:54  

Well, you probably heard was that I was one of the participants who shut down the Yale Harvard game, and demanded that those universities divest from both Puerto Rican debt that they’re holding, and from fossil fuel companies. 

Charles Olsen  11:08  

What are some of the takeaways from that experience?

Zander Pellegrino  11:12  

My role in that was very much as a body and as a recruiter. And I feel like that was an appropriate role for me in that space. And something that was really important, I think, was that a lot of the organizers had coordinated with the leadership of the football teams, before they shut down the event. They kind of anticipated the argument of “Oh, yeah, sure. We want to divest from climate, but why are you harming these these young boys future, let them just, let the boys play. And we don’t need to do this here.” But so much of the point of direct action is to make an existing crisis visible. And by reaching out to the leadership of the football teams and having them record pre record comments that say, we support this action, we don’t want our schools to be invested in fossil fuels or holding debt from a colony. Either, it kind of anticipated and prevented some of those arguments, which was, I think, very smart. And kind of interesting takeaway.

Charles Olsen  12:18  

You mentioned before that you wanted to approach your story with an emphasis in emergent strategy. And I know that that is a concept that is really popular in advocacy circles. But can you tell me a little bit about how that informs the work that you hope to do in Nova?

Zander Pellegrino  12:39  

There’s an essay on that subject, and in the collection, or we can say and one thing that I took from that essay was that I want to be like, like, like either migratory board or a monarch who is who is going someplace that their parents came from, but who they’ve never been themselves, and they don’t know that there’s a plan, they just feel a need to go. And that’s what we do is we go where we need to be. And we find our people there. And we connect with them. And we continue to support them on that path. And maybe we know we’re going to Canada, but we probably don’t know where we’re going to stop. And we definitely haven’t been there before. And we won’t go back to our home ever again. That’s the cycle. And and so I think that oftentimes, activists and organizers can obsess about and focus on the most impactful strategy or tactic. And I think that that is a very white idea that we can control the world. And I don’t necessarily think that that’s the case. And that’s not to say that I’m not going to be strategic, and I’m not going to employ strong tactics, but in the back of my mind, and in the forefront of my relationships are going to be a recognition that, that we’re all just one little butterfly, and it’s nice when we can move in the same direction together.

Charles Olsen  14:19  

You mentioned something about, you know, the emphasis on tactics and strategy being a very wide idea, and I want to explore that a second. Can, can you kind of explain your logic behind that?

Zander Pellegrino  14:38  

I think sometimes: That we’re not always going to win. I think that in order for us to imagine a new unjust world, we have to take on fights where we’re not going away. I mean, right, right. Before this, I was I was collaborating with a group Tennant organizers and flushing New York and in Queens and what we were focusing on was, was the fight that was going to be really hard for us to win it was advocating against a rezoning, that was going to rezone an area right along the flushing Creek for to make it able to be developed for luxury apartments that were just going to be there, we’re gonna be somewhat even past the height restriction. And we’re in the pathway of planes applying to LaGuardia, there’s giant towers that did not need to be there, but the developers already own the land. They even if the rezoning failed and we won,  that we could still develop it as of right and do whatever they wanted to do with it, we weren’t. But we organize and we fought, and we held rallies, and we submitted public comments, and we connected with each other and built connections from housing organizers too. We’re focused on displacement and anti gentrification with environmentalists who have done bio blitzes and surveys of flushing Creek and know about the wetlands and about how polluted that area is, and came together to tell a story that says you can’t hold development over people’s heads and hold a clean environment over people’s heads. And say that the court said that a clean environment is the price of, of development that you have to accept this, because they were promising to clean up the creek and provide a prominent and provide a publicly accessible water access, even if it would retain be privately owned by the developers. And that was the argument and we came together to say, That’s not enough, even when there wasn’t a really strong legal or political pathway for us. 

Charles Olsen  16:56  

Do you know in Northern Virginia, suburbs of DC, there are similar patterns of development to parts of New York, can you talk a little bit about what you see as some of the fights on the horizon for you organizing in this area?

Zander Pellegrino  17:14  

I, I imagine they’ll follow similar patterns, but I can’t talk about them in detail yet. I’m still learning, still getting to know the area and I’m continuing to meet with activist members who do you know?

Charles Olsen  17:30  

What are some of the aspects of CCAN that brought you to the organization? Why do you apply? Why do you want to work for us?

Zander Pellegrino  17:42  

When people ask me where I work, I tell them I work at CCAN and the link I send them is not the, like the CCAN homepage, it’s the link to the “Our wins” page. I know this seems a little inconsistent with what I just said about fighting no matter what. But I’m excited and proud of beating the ACP and other work that CCAN has done and a strong coalition of others. And I think that that is something that really enticed me and excited me. And I was coming from an NGO background and really seeing the limits of working on an isolated project and wanted to combine some of that knowledge and some of those community connections and some of that framework with focusing on changing loss.

Charles Olsen  18:27  

Climate advocacy is tough work, working in a nonprofit, there’s a ton a myriad of issues and stuff that we have to face all of the time, and it is tiring. So the question that I like to ask people, when I’m trying to get to know them a little bit more is, how do you deal with it? What are the, what are the things you do to manage the stress of working on such a big and complex issue? I know you love poetry?

Zander Pellegrino  18:59  

I do. I can, I can talk about that in a second. But my girlfriend too, she said that I could mention her name in the interview that we make. We’ve just started growing microgreens and so that’s something that I do is, that we do that together. And that’s been really fun. Oh, she said her full name people.

Charles Olsen  19:20  

Get the shout out.

Zander Pellegrino  19:21  

Yeah. And so we, we have our little microgreens together, but I also I really, I do like poetry. And I like feeling things that I can’t put into words. And that’s one thing that I do. Podcasts isn’t the best way to explain or share that information. But I like, I like it.

Charles Olsen  19:45  

If you could enact one policy to solve a problem at any level B local, federal, international, state level. What policy would you enact and why?

Zander Pellegrino  20:02  

I put an act of fossil fuel moratorium because I’m sick of talking about an area that we need natural gas to talk about it anymore. I’m sick of hearing it as a transition tool and as an integral component of the world, because sure, but that’s the world that we’ve made. And we can change it. And we need to imagine a new one. And I think a fossil fuel moratorium may give us a little bit of oomph to, to stop listening to natural gas enthusiasts and start reading Octavia Butler and start thinking about what this world could be, instead of being constrained by the pipes, and the toxins and the compressed gas that does currently make up part of it.

Charles Olsen  20:45  

What are you excited about moving forward?

Zander Pellegrino  20:49  

I’m really, I’m really excited that what my job is now is to call someone up and listen to them. I think that’s the best. I’m really thrilled about that. And I’m excited and encouraged, because CCAN and our coalition members have participated in so many ways of making a new world, whether it’s whether it’s direct action that is about personal divestment, or whether it’s direct action that is a rally or a blocking of fossil fuels, infrastructure, or just so many different ways to use our minds and our bodies and our friendships.

Charles Olsen  21:37  

Before I let you go, I always like to leave a couple of minutes for my interviewee for any final thoughts that you may have anything that you want the people listening to this to know about you?

Zander Pellegrino  21:54  

Yeah, I want people to know that I, that I don’t have all of the answers and that, and that that’s not a reason that we shouldn’t work together. That’s the reason that we should work together. Because, because we can figure it out together. And that I think that’s one reason I had trouble answering your question before, if one person in human history who I would want to meet or who would surprise people that I admire is because the past couple months, I’ve become maybe too comfortable but even more comfortable with the idea that that we are moving away from the model of just a mover and shaker that influences policy and cuts the backroom deal and galvanizes the masses to lead a protest just as that’s that doesn’t have to be the way things go. It can be, it can be all of us and it can be all of us that I may not even know and that the people that I probably admire in history I may not have heard of and they probably worked with their friends and in Coalition’s and that’s okay.

Charles Olsen  23:03  

 Zander, thank you so much. Your, your worldview is beautiful. I admire it and a lot of it resonates deeply with me. And I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me for this today. I’m super excited to be able to share your story with all of the listeners and CCAN supporters. So glad to have you on the team.

Zander Pellegrino  23:28  

I’m glad to be here. Thanks a lot.

Charles Olsen  23:29  

Thanks for listening to Upside Down. This podcast is produced by me, Charlie Olsen with incredible support from the entire CCAN staff. Check out the show notes for links to all the things discussed in this episode. If you want to know more about how you can get involved with CCAN and the climate fight, check out our website at Chesapeakeclimate.org. If you want to get in touch with us, follow us on instagram and twitter @CCAN. And if you enjoy the work we do, why don’t you share us with your friends. Sharing the show is a super easy way to help spread the word about the work we’re doing in the fight for bold climate actions. Thanks again for listening. I’ll see you next time.

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