Mari, a senior policy associate at the St. Paul–based clean-energy policy nonprofit Fresh Energy, followed her interest in green construction by serving with Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity and Minnesota GreenCorps. Through her service, she uncovered a passion for addressing inequities in energy and housing justice.
How did you find your way to AmeriCorps?
In 2013, when I was a senior at Hamline, my senior seminar professor really talked up AmeriCorps, and GreenCorps in particular. I didn’t realize until I was finishing up my environmental studies degree that I wanted to do something in green construction, so GreenCorps sounded perfect.
My first assignment was with the Latino Economic Development Center in South Minneapolis, helping small business owners with energy audits and technical assistance; then that pivoted to general outreach and education for business owners.
After a year there, I worked for a remodeling company — I was able to learn really useful things like bookkeeping, understanding financials and running a small business. In 2016, when the owner closed up shop, I came back to AmeriCorps and served with Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. When I got there, my goal was to do construction; I didn’t know anything about affordable housing!
At Habitat for Humanity, I was a construction assistant and volunteer facilitator, helping the site supervisor coordinate and manage volunteers. I met so many amazing people from corporations, churches and other groups that volunteered with Habitat. The homes we worked on were Energy Star–certified (now, Habitat is doing all Zero Energy Ready homes).
It sounds like both of your service years really helped steer you toward a career.
They did! I learned about conservation and energy resources during my first assignment, and I got hired on staff at Habitat right after serving there. From construction assistant, I was promoted to project manager, where I got to see a lot of policymaking and decisionmaking around issues of affordable housing. That made me think, “I really want to do more about getting to the root of why these issues exist.” And that’s when the Fresh Energy job landed in my lap: I saw the position posted in a newsletter, and the idea of getting at the root of inequities and changing existing laws really struck me. I’ve been here almost two years.
What do you do at Fresh Energy?
We advocate for clean energy policy across Minnesota, at the state legislature and the Public Utilities Commission. We also work with other agencies like the Department of Commerce, the Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Housing — agencies whose policies and programs intersect with energy efficiency and electrification.
I was hired to help with advocating within the state Conservation Improvement Program, which is Minnesota’s energy efficiency framework for utilities. When a colleague left, I took over his portfolio that covered the intersection of energy and housing advocacy. That has let me pivot a bit to talk holistically about strategies for improving existing programs related to energy efficiency and housing for renters, multifamily housing residents and underresourced households. The three of us on Fresh Energy’s Energy Access and Equity team are working to center equity and ensure a just transition to clean energy — lowering the energy burden, or the percentage of income people pay for utilities.
I co-lead the Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) campaign in Minnesota (EEFA is a national coalition of 12 states). Right now, we’re working on restructuring to reflect racial equity and be more intentional. It’s important for us to support the work that frontline communities are already doing. Rather than trying to dictate from the top down, we should be going into organizations’ space to uplift their work so we minimize or eliminate harmful unintended consequences.
That seems like a pretty full plate — and you’re in law school, too?!
I am, part-time at Mitchell Hamline. I don’t know yet what I’ll focus on. I’m most interested in housing law right now. The issues with housing are just enormous, and there are so many things that disproportionately benefit property owners. Addressing equity and systemic issues is top of mind for me — advocating for people who don’t know how to navigate the system and can’t afford to pay for help.
What aspects of your service had the biggest impact on your career path?
Serving was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Honestly, without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
My GreenCorps cohort got together regularly for trainings at host sites around the state. A lot of us were fresh out of undergrad, so we didn’t have much work experience. The professional development piece was so valuable — it taught us how to operate in the work space and what it means to be a professional.
And the networking piece was huge. I met so many awesome people — before that, I didn’t realize how small the energy space is here. I’m still working with people I met in GreenCorps and at Habitat! Developing professionally is a little bit what you know, but mostly who you know. When I was applying to Fresh Energy, some of my contacts emailed people they knew here to recommend me. If it weren’t for the connections I made during both years of my service, getting here would have been a lot harder.
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