Midpeninsula Post

How a recent Gunn grad is combating climate change “at its roots”

Katie Rueff in May 2023. (Yoochan An)

With a megaphone in hand, recent Henry M. Gunn High School graduate Katie Rueff marches down the streets of Palo Alto. Behind her are a dozen protesters, each holding a handmade sign and chanting for climate justice. 

For Rueff, advocating for climate action comes almost as naturally as walking or talking. Ever since her freshman year, when she joined Gunn’s Green Team club, she’s been deeply involved with climate advocacy. Her passion, she said, stems from wanting to serve a community she cares about. 

“That community is what keeps me going,” Rueff said. “The moment I start talking to someone working towards the same goal as I am, I get super charged and start acting.” 

Rueff is a founding member of the Palo Alto Student Climate Coalition, a group of Palo Alto students that have come together to advance sustainable initiatives ranging from Palo Alto’s climate plan to electrification in East Palo Alto. They’ve also lobbied at city council meetings and organized protests to encourage local leaders to combat climate change. 

Rueff is part of a PASCC subcommittee that is working towards ways to equitably decarbonize East Palo Alto and Palo Alto. Due to the long-standing social disparity, she said she remains committed to finding solutions that address both the urgent need for decarbonization and the imperative of social inequality. 

“If people live in a community where their most basic needs are not being met, there’s no way for them to think about climate change,” Rueff said. “There’s so much systemic inequality that we can’t meet both at the same time unless we work to reverse these policies.”

Rueff’s leadership revolves around empathy and empowering those around her to take action. Rising Gunn senior and incoming green commissioner Angelina Rosh, who works with Rueff closely at PASCC, said Rueff embodies this philosophy when leading. 

“We all see Katie as this big force,” Rosh said. “She always empowers you … I feel like I’m always growing when I’m working on a project with her because she’s giving us a platform to experiment.”

Despite the barriers created by climate anxiety, Rueff said that there is reason for optimism, starting with youth education. 

“What’s so amazing is that we’re seeing these kids grow up into teams who also feel equally capable,” Rueff said. “We’re surrounded by so many opportunities and we’re just trying to make sure that [students are] as aware as possible of these opportunities, and can embed them into what they’re actually interested in their lives.” 

Time and time again, Rueff said she has emphasized the importance of participating in efforts to mitigate climate change. 

For example, Rueff spearheaded a campaign dubbed “Flip the Switch” in collaboration with climate education organization Kat Kid Adventure, which urged elementary and middle school students to turn off the lights when they leave the room. They gave out popsicles and food incentives based on the number of times students flipped the switch.

Rueff said she believes education is intertwined with promoting climate action and empowerment. To address the lack of climate awareness, she created the Cloud Project, an organization dedicated to cultivating the next generation of environmentalists, in July 2021. Most recently, the Cloud Project held weekly interactive workshops for elementary and middle school students to learn about environmental issues and take action within their communities.

Rueff presents at a Cloud Project workshop in October 2021. (Courtesy Rueff)

In April, the Cloud Project hosted the “Plastic in the Ocean” series, in which elementary school students explored ocean exhibits and learned about the detriments that plastic pollutants have on different sea creatures. Sessions included lessons on negative human impacts on the environment, followed by interactive activities such as relay races, where students collected trash in an obstacle course.

Devon Fernandez, a youth librarian at Mitchell Park Library in Palo Alto who worked closely with Rueff, said that Rueff has strived to create cultivating environments for meaningful discussions on climate change.

“[Rueff] captivates you when she’s talking so you want to listen to what she’s saying,” Fernandez said. “And she’s really good about asking questions to others and getting [the kids] talking … you can tell she loves it. She is a really really bright light.”

Outside the classroom, Rueff is an intern for Senator Josh Becker, where she actively collaborates with district staff to analyze key climate policies, such as the California Environmental Quality Act. As the intern coordinator, she introduced the “capstone project,” which enables interns to conduct in-depth research about topics they are passionate about.

“We got a bunch of different high schoolers and college students from across the Bay Area, all working on a bunch of passion projects,” Rueff said. “We’ve done some on sexual assault. We’ve done some education in charter schools. We’ve also done a lot on climate, so we’ve had people tackle CEQA, too.”

While Rueff said that she’s certainly ambitious in her work, she acknowledges the challenges of trying to do everything and the resulting burnout.

“Last year, during Earth month, I had so many opportunities to try so many new things,” Rueff said. “[However], I neglected other areas of my life, and that came at a cost.”

Rueff said environmentalists often strive for a perfect solution, but recognizes that no solution is ever perfect, and searching for the most cost-minimizing solution ends up sacrificing time. Despite the imperfect solutions, Rueff said that making these decisions have shaped her approach to tackling challenges and gives her optimism for the future.

“It’s about weighing costs rather than trying to eliminate them all together,” Rueff said. “I still struggle to accept that solutions will never be perfect, but I try to see that pragmatic lens now, too.”

In the future, Rueff plans to study environment and sustainability at Cornell University, while also working in public service to continue her climate advocacy. Whether it’s mobilizing coalitions, engaging in climate work or fostering environmental education, Rueff strives to tackle issues at its roots, and inspire others to take action.

“There are so many global issues that are worth tackling, but climate change uniquely has that time sensitivity,” Rueff said. “We need to address it before it’s too late.”

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