“I believed we had additional time”: the catalyst of motherhood inspires a New York resident to battle against fossil fuels.
New Yorker Marlena Fontes was working 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.
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report alerting that global leaders had a limited time until 2030 to implement significant reductions in emissions in order to avoid widespread damage worldwide.
She expressed that she had believed they had a longer time frame. Learning the exact amount of time they had was terrifying.
Fontes, 35, said she had 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 bring a child into the world cracked open her heart to the severity of what was unfolding: ignoring the climate crisis was not an option.
Fontes was motivated to take action after coming to a realization. During her maternity leave, she joined forces with six other mothers to establish Climate Families NYC. Their aim was to provide families with a platform for taking action, rather than simply observing the effects of climate change. This included organizing rallies and meeting with Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, in an effort to persuade the company to cease funding for environmentally harmful fuels.
Fontes has aided Climate Families NYC in expanding to a membership of 1,200 since its inception. Every month, the members meet in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, armed with paint and banners, to reconnect and recruit new members. Fontes’s children, aged four and 18 months, frequently accompany her.
She expressed that one of her goals through Climate Families is not only to make a difference in climate change, but also for her children to develop a sense of control and influence.
On September 17th, a March to End Fossil Fuels took place in Manhattan, gathering 400 participants of all ages, from infants to seniors. As per estimates, the event attracted 75,000 protestors.
Fontes brought her brother and her son, who has been participating in events since he was three months old. They marched with wagons and scooters, with a dinosaur theme to symbolize the connection between fossil fuels and the potential extinction of humans. Children used megaphones to chant, and Fontes’ son knew all the words. She was happy to have created a family-friendly environment.
Now, Fontes is moving her climate advocacy to the next level as the organizing director for the Climate Organizing Hub, which formed in 2022 and aims to shut down the fossil fuel industry altogether through partnerships with community groups. Victory looks like this, she said: “Ending fossil fuels domestically and [being] part of a movement eliminating them worldwide.”
This is a significant undertaking. Fossil fuels accounted for approximately 80% of the United States’ energy usage in 2022. Despite experts advising policymakers to decrease emissions in order to prevent disastrous environmental outcomes, the US government has recently authorized further development of fossil fuels, such as the Willow Project in Alaska and the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Appalachia.
The recent Cop climate conference in Dubai, which brought together global leaders to discuss the future of climate policy, was organized by Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. This decision has received widespread criticism.
Fontes remains determined despite the challenges. She confidently states, “I am determined to emerge victorious.” She also adds, “I wouldn’t pursue this if I didn’t hold onto hope.”
Fontes is only the latest 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 in a janitors’ labor union. Fontes’s mother is a psychologist, author and expert witness on child and domestic partner abuse.
Gabriel Fontes, the 27-year-old brother of Marlena, stated that their family has a history of standing up against oppression.
Marlena mentioned that her family resided on a dirt road located in western Massachusetts, approximately 30 minutes away from Amherst. The area was considered rural and their water source was a well. She described it as a lovely setting that fostered her appreciation for nature.
Following completion of her studies and completing an internship at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Fontes joined the airport workers’ union 32BJ SEIU. It was during this time that she crossed paths with Monica Cruz, a fellow organizer who would later become a dear friend.
For four years, Fontes worked in this position, playing a key role in increasing the minimum wage for airport employees and successfully recruiting thousands to join the union.
After some time, she departed to work for the New York State Nurses Association, where she remained for seven years. She actively advocated for essential safeguards during one of the most challenging periods for healthcare professionals: the Covid-19 pandemic.
She is currently in the initial stages of her position at the Climate Organizing Hub. This is her first experience organizing on a national scale and her first time dedicating herself fully to addressing the climate crisis. She expressed a sense of urgency, stating, “The time to take action is rapidly dwindling. I feel a responsibility to my children to assure them that I am doing everything in my power to ensure they have a sustainable planet and a promising future.”
This story was produced by the Fuller Project, a global newsroom dedicated to groundbreaking reporting that catalyzes positive change for women