This is the 46th article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni.
Danielle Flanagan’s interest in environmental science goes so far back that she “honestly can’t trace it back to any one thing.” At M-A, Flanagan ’12 created an environmental committee to present to other students about sustainability and the environment and played water polo. She then attended the University of Washington and the Yale School of the Environment, where she received her master’s in Environmental Management, Ecosystem Management, and Conservation. Now, she works for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Flanagan summarized her experience growing up in the Bay Area: “After going to college and meeting people who grew up in rural areas with different upbringings, it’s a very unique perspective to have grown up in such a technology-centered region. I didn’t realize at the time, but it was pretty shocking to me to later on realize how many families were so involved with all the huge technological developments.”
Flanagan’s time at M-A was “the most productive time,” in her life. A large part of this was her commitment to water polo. Under head coach Chris Rubin, she said, “The intensity of having morning practice and evening practice kept me busy. I learned a lot of my work ethic from Rubin including respect for people and their time.”
While classes like AP Environmental Science were not available to her, Flanagan still found ways to apply her interest in the field. She said, “I took leadership and with some classmates formed an environmental committee. When I was growing up, it felt like you had to fight your way to talk about the environment. It was seen as uncool to even have a reusable water bottle.” In that committee, she went into classrooms to discuss energy use, and how students could reduce their impact.
Flanagan also took Guitar while at M-A. “At 16, it felt like something all the hippie environmentalists would do sitting around a campfire,” she said. “However, I had no musical abilities and could barely keep a beat. It was a super humbling course and showed me that what I had always thought, if you just try as hard as possible, you could do anything, wasn’t necessarily true.”
Describing her time at the University of Washington, Flanagan said, “I really loved it, and it was a very different experience for me. I had a hard time in the beginning because it felt like basically starting from scratch with new people for the first time because I had basically grown up with the same group from elementary to high school. It was also challenging to, for the first time, not be told what to do in every hour of your day.”
Afterward, Flanagan returned to the Bay Area and worked at Acterra, an environmental justice nonprofit, for three years. She said, “I always knew I wanted to go to graduate school and it was needed in order to really succeed in the environmental field, where a college degree is seen as a high school degree. But, I didn’t really make that strong of connections with professors and knew I needed some good letters. I took the graduate record exam and then started working at Acterra.”
Flanagan’s interest in environmental justice stemmed from her intersection of “always being really into nature and being very strong-headed.” She added, “I think my family definitely has an appreciation for nature. We did a lot of outdoor trips as a child that I think a lot of other families don’t do and a lot of our vacations always had something to do with being outside and hiking. My parents are also both in professions that are trying to help others and improve society and they taught me that no matter what career or field, I should try to give back.”
Flanagan found her niche for environmental justice in college when she realized that the human aspect was so important. “Prior to that, I was all about nature, animals, and open fields. I took some courses around the human aspect of environmental work, including how different communities are affected, how people interact with nature, and why their views of nature are so different. I realized that while being a wildlife biologist would be super cool, I could not be out in nature by myself for weeks.”
Now, at the Environmental Defense Fund, which focuses on tackling climate change from many aspects, Flanagan works specifically in the justice and equity team. She said, “I think people are starting to realize that we need to integrate the impact of climate change on humans, not just look at science and data. We make sure our work is meaningful and take on the concerns of the communities we’re working with and the disproportionate environmental burden certain communities face as the climate continues to get worse. We are working to create durable climate solutions, and not just helping certain groups survive while others take on the burden.”
Flanagan’s advice for current M-A students: “Given that I still have stressful dreams about high school, don’t put so much pressure on yourself to know what you’re supposed to do or who you’re supposed to be. Even though I tried so hard and I think that it was really successful, I wish I had put more effort into being in the experience and not being so worried about the future.
Flanagan’s advice for students interested in environmental studies and justice: “Start talking to people that are doing that work. I was so nervous early on in my career to ask people what they were doing and I think I could have learned more about different jobs. Even today I see job postings that I had no clue were even day jobs at all. Everyone loves talking about themselves and their lives, so don’t be afraid to ask people about their careers.”