Hope Where It Counts: How a 25 Year-Old Activist Moved Into Local Politics
Coming on the heels of the 2016 Presidential election and the Women’s March, 2018 has seen a record number of women running for political office at local, county, state and federal levels. Recent primary victories by Stacey Adams in the Georgia gubernatorial race and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the 14th District in NYC have made headlines. These are national races but the same movement is taking place down-ticket at the local and state level, where policy decisions that often impact people the most on a day-to-day basis are frequently made. In June, Chloe Maxmin won the Democratic primary race for state representative in her home district in Maine. Maxmin is all of 25, a young woman running for office while many of her peers are beginning graduate school or trying to sort out a career. For Maxmin, however, who began organizing at 12, this is simply the next logical step in her mission to build a social movement that speaks for her generation.
Bioneers was honored to host Chloe Maxmin as a Youth Keynote Speaker in 2014, fresh off receiving a Brower Youth Award. She discussed her leadership of the Divest Harvard campaign, a complex effort that marked a major turning point in the overall Divest/Invest movement, which now counts nearly $6 trillion in assets divested, thanks in many ways to passionate organizers like Maxmin who pioneered the movement on college campuses.
Bioneers caught up with Chloe earlier this spring to discuss this latest step in her powerful journey to change the world by empowering youth to lead the way.
CHLOE: My name is Chloe Maxmin. I’m 25 years old, and I’m from a small town in Maine. I have been a climate justice organizer for 13 years, since I was 12 years old, and that journey has brought me to a lot of different places. Where it’s brought me right now is to an understanding that we need profoundly effective and powerful social movements to influence our political system, and we need really strong politicians in office to respond to those movements and enact the kinds of policy changes that we need.
BIONEERS: Can you give us a little insight about how that path led you to where you are now?
CHLOE: It’s been a long, winding road. This has been in the back of my mind for a while, but only in the front of my mind very recently.
When I first started out with youth activism and organizing, my focus was very local and it was based in my hometown. I did a lot of work in my high school to get my peers involved with climate justice work and talking about climate change and environmental issues in our community. I started the Climate Action Club at my high school. We did very individual-based work, looking at questions like, “How can you as an individual change your habits and how can we as a school and as a community change our habits so that we’re reducing our impact on the environment?” I learned a lot. It was my first foray into organizing.
But when I got to college, I went through the traditional radicalization process and began to understand that this is a system problem and it’s hard to blame an individual for a system problem or for an individual to confront a system problem. The way that we do confront system problems are with mass movements that build collective power around an issue, and calling on our politicians to respond to that political energy.
I worked on the fossil fuel divestment movement for a long time. I started Divest Harvard, which began with three people and grew into 70,000 strong by the time I had graduated. Divestment was very formative for me because I see it as a more systemic form of organizing. The theory of change behind divestment is that you’re divesting from the fossil fuel industry because you want to increase the stigma so that politicians are less likely to interact with that industry to take money. Divestment is trying to create a new political space and then the idea is that people will then infiltrate that new political space and push forward climate policy. [Editor’s Note: see Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone for a deeper dive into the current state of divestment.]
One of the things I noticed as the divestment movement progressed is that the movement was really strong, but we weren’t really pivoting to take advantage of that new political space that we were creating. I wrote my thesis on why the climate movement wasn’t being effective politically in the way that we wanted and the way that we needed, because whether we like it or not, we need politics to solve this crisis.
I learned a lot about how social movements are structured, and how we don’t really like to engage with political systems or with electoral politics. This is a big discontinuity to me because, as I just said, we really do need politics to catalyze the systemic change that we see and need.
I moved back to Maine after I graduated from college to build political power for climate justice because I really think that Maine can be a powerful, bold climate leader. We’re the most rural state in the country. The county that I live in (and is part of my district) is the most rural county and oldest by age in the nation. We have a lot of really unique challenges here which means we can also be a leader in developing really unique solutions for rural places that are confronting climate change and being impacted by climate change.
I still organize and I’m still a grassroots organizer as I campaign. But there’s a really big part of me that is just really tired of begging people in power to listen to me, to listen to my generation, to listen to everybody in my community who are struggling to heat their homes, to feed their families, to ensure that their farms will survive as the weather gets more and more chaotic. I think that we need a new kind of politics that is responsive to the people and always stands in solidarity with the community that politicians come from. And I think that young people are perfectly poised to lead that new wave of political energy.
BIONEERS: What is the dialogue that you use to move your community and help them shift themselves on a personal level?
CHLOE: Organizing in Maine is a very unique experience because it is such a rural place. Organizing is built on connecting the people and building relationships and it’s just a lot harder to do that when you have to drive every place or you don’t have access to transportation. A big part of what I try to focus on here is developing new models for rural organizing in a place like Maine.
I think one of the key messages that I talk about, which I truly believe in, is that this is about our shared love for our home and our community, the land and our way of life, and the people that live here. It’s not about believing in climate change or not. It’s about, “Do you care about where you live?” People do because they live here. How can we use that as a shared foundation to move forward and build your work together?
BIONEERS: It’s so important to connect with the community. I think a lot of times politicians and policy makers don’t take the time to connect with community, and they don’t recognize that each community is unique, has its own culture and own approach, and its own way of getting in touch with the people.
CHLOE: If I could add one addendum to that, based on the conversations I’ve had with people in Maine and in my community. There’s so much disillusionment around what we can do at the federal level to stop all of this destruction that we’re seeing. In Maine right now, our governor is a very right-wing Republican who has also championed a lot of destructive policies in our state. For us there is also little hope at the state level.
For example, Governor LePage has almost completely decimated the solar industry in Maine through his policies. Luckily we’re getting a new governor this year, so we can right that ship and not all hope is lost.
But there is hope at the local level and I have found that to be a constant source of inspiration for me and folks that I’ve been organizing with because we can tangibly see the difference that we’re making, the movements that we’re building. We can interact with the people who are in positions of making decisions, build really meaningful relationships with them and really change the way that our community operates and thinks about different issues. So it’s all about the local.
BIONEERS: Among other past achievements, you spoke at Bioneers and won a Brower Youth Award. What did you gain from those accomplishments?
CHLOE: The biggest thing that I gained from those experiences were meeting incredible young people who are doing incredible work in their communities. Their vision and their energy, it’s just so inspiring.
One of the things that I really admire about so many of the young people in the Brower and the Bioneers networks — and so many of the young people doing change-making work right now — is that we’re growing up in an age where everyone who we’ve been told are our traditional authority figures, whether governors or presidents, are failing us. They’re not doing what’s right and they’re not fighting for the people. As young people, we could say, “Oh, but they’re the people in authority, we should defer to them because they know what’s best.” But instead this entire generation of youth is saying, “No, what you’re doing is wrong, and we know what’s right. And, yes, we’re young, and, yes, we’ve lived less years than you have, but we have our own type of expertise, and the foundation of our expertise is a moral clarity that cannot be shaken by anybody.” I think getting into spaces where you can experience that kind of passion and purpose is incredible, and I definitely experience that with Brower and with Bioneers.
BIONEERS: Along those lines, how has being a young woman, aspiring to get into local politics, shaped you on a personal level and have you encountered any resistance?
CHLOE: I think what really grounds me in the work that I do and has been the constant throughout my whole life is that I so deeply love and care about my home and my community. That is my core motivation. No matter what happens or who doesn’t want to vote for me or who doesn’t agree with my tactics, that’s okay. It takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round and we need all different kinds of perspectives. But I know in my core what my purpose is and that can’t be shaken.
I feel really lucky to know that about myself. All of us have things, people, places, ideas, causes, pets that we love and care about and are willing to fight for as well. This is something that I talked about when I was at Bioneers. If this is the core motivation of our work, then it’s hard to get sidetracked because we know what we’re fighting for and what our purpose is and it’s coming from a place of love, not from a place of anger or fear.
It’s still early in the campaign, and there’s been some resistance and skepticism, and that’s okay, but I know what I stand for, and I know what I care about, and I know that I will devote my life to this community no matter what happens. That’s all that really matters to me. I’ve been really lucky to have so much support from my friends and family, and from people who hopefully will be my constituents one day. It’s going to be okay.
BIONEERS: I would love to hear about your thoughts on youth voices, the power of that approach, and how you bringing in youth voices to your own campaign.
CHLOE: My entire life I’ve been represented by people who aren’t my age and while those people have been really good politicians, why can’t there be someone my age in office? I think the people who represent Mainers, Americans in any representative political system, should reflect the people who live there.
It’s not just about young people though, it’s about fighting for everyone who lives here right now but youth can be a platform to unite people and create really inclusive platforms. Because it is about everybody, and I think it’s time that we get some young folks in office.
It’s happening all over the country. It’s happening all over Maine. I’m just excited to be part of that movement in my little district.
BIONEERS: Do you have any advice for young people or activists of any background or any age on how to take that first step, how to move past fear, and how to align themselves in a way that’s most authentic for them, how to get started in this journey?
CHLOE: It’s so different for everybody. For me, the foundation of everything is coming from my core motivation and my place of passion. I think finding that place and using that as the rock that you stand on gives you the power to really do anything that you want to do.
I also think it’s really important to have people around you who support you. I couldn’t do this without so many people in my life, in this campaign. The movement of young people running for office is not just about us as individuals but about this generation and about everything that we care about today and the future.
If anyone ever wants to reach out to me to talk about this stuff, just Google me. You’ll find my website and you can just email me.