Roxanne Johnson ‘03 is a senior research analyst at the BlueGreen Alliance, an organization working to unite labor unions and environmental organizations. At Northland, she majored in mathematics and environmental studies with an emphasis in natural sciences and later completed a master’s degree in science, technology, and environmental policy at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
How did you get involved with BlueGreen Alliance?
Johnson: There was a research position available for a wind energy project after I completed my graduate program and I was intrigued by the labor/enviro connection because both my dad and grandpa were in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union.
Would they have supported this Alliance?
Oh yes! My dad is still working as an active member of IBEW and he’s pretty progressive. My grandpa has been gone several years now, but I was proud to tell him I got a good union job working on environmental issues. Labor and the environment are often pitted against one or the other—it’s good jobs or it’s the environment and you can’t have both.
What middle ground do you see?
I think people are starting to see that this is a false choice. Environmental regulations are driving investments in the clean economy all over the world and creating jobs. We’re also seeing more overlap of labor and environment in social justice movements like the People’s Climate Movement. Part of building a resilient future in the face of climate change is making sure our economy supports the people working in it—how we build that future is as important as what we build.
What are your biggest challenges?
One of our biggest challenges is also our biggest opportunity. We are a coalition working together where our individual interests overlap for a common blue-green goal: to build a clean, fair, thriving economy. Together we are powerful. But every member organization has their own priorities and perspectives, we don’t always agree. We do a lot of dialogue and relationship-building to understand one another’s perspective, and I have learned from folks in the labor movement about the importance of solidarity.
Union members stand together to support all working people, whether they are striking to demand better working conditions or fighting for an increase in minimum wage. They refer to one another as brothers and sisters. Right now there seem to be many fragmented movements that disagree on what to do about the most important issues. Solidarity allows us to respect our differences and focus on what we can do together to support us all.
What changes have you seen in your field in the last decade?
The broadening public understanding of the “clean economy” is much larger than things you typically think of as sustainability, like renewable energy or recycling. It includes raw materials and parts that go into products like wind turbines, solar panels, infrastructure, and equipment, and it also includes the workers who make those things—many of whom are union. We do a lot of work to highlight the importance of supply chains that make the clean economy possible.
Any key experiences at Northland College that shaped your career path?
I did my environmental studies capstone with one of my best friends, Melissa Damaschke ‘03, on the energy component of Northland’s ecological footprint. I loved it because the conceptual framework allowed us to use data to understand the resources required to power the school, then recommend changes that would reduce our footprint. I became really interested in how we conceptualize problems and how that enables us to think up solutions, which I still think about today. It also focused on change at a systemic level which is where I want to be working. Individual actions are great but our environmental issues are big, wicked problems, and I think to solve them we have to make all of our systems more sustainable.