Clean Energy Organizer
Centering on Climate Justice in the Pursuit of Clean Energy
Kyra Woods remembers the smokestacks she would pass on her way into downtown Chicago as a teenager. When the clouds of smoke would quickly disappear into the sky, she assumed it wasn’t the same as the bad pollution she heard about in science class. However, she soon realized that these problems she learned about in school existed here in Chicago and were affecting those in her own community.
“I remember coming home and saying, ‘Mom, this is the type of work I need to do,’” said Woods. “And I understood the importance of prioritizing Black communities... because if we let [things] ride the way they are, we will continue to burden the same communities we've been burdening for years.”
Woods graduated from Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering with a degree in Environmental Engineering in 2013. After graduation, she had planned on serving in the Peace Corps teaching secondary students in Guinea, but due to the Ebola epidemic, Woods was sent home to Chicago. It was then that she first began to build a relationship with Sierra Club, a national grassroots environmental organization, supplementing her day job with volunteer work that aligned with her passion for environmental advocacy.
In 2016, Woods returned to the Peace Corps, working closely with the United Nations’ World Food Program, but still remained in touch with the individuals she met volunteering with Sierra Club. This time when she came home, she was presented with the opportunity to work as an Organizing Apprentice at Sierra Club, focusing on the visibility and development of the organization’s Clean Energy campaign. Over time, the work transitioned to her current role as the Clean Energy Organizer for Sierra Club’s Illinois Chapter, which has allowed her to focus on the equity issues she is also passionate about while helping the City of Chicago with its clean energy transition.
“At Sierra Club, we've taken the approach of doing [our work] in coalition with other community-based groups, whether that be faith-based or neighborhood-centric, in order to ensure that that transition plan and strategy is done in the most sensitive way possible,” said Woods. “And by ‘sensitive,’ I mean relating to racial equity and economic equity.”
In her current position, Woods was part of a coalition that created and passed Resolution R2019-157, setting the goal of 100% clean energy for the City of Chicago. As a result, Chicago became the largest U.S. city to commit to such a pledge. While the passing of the resolution was momentous, the team also recognized that the commitment did not mitigate the damage that decades of pollution caused in Black and Brown communities living in the South Side of Chicago.
“Community partners were saying [that] in the vein of accountability, if we didn’t center on the right communities who have borne the burdens of these industries, we risk this just being flashy,” said Woods in reference to the resolution. “I would still say that I'm really proud of helping to put Chicago on the map in that way, and I am still in the fight to ensure that it is carried out with integrity.”
Currently, Woods is working with the City of Chicago to develop a strategic plan for the transition to 100% clean energy and was recently recognized in Energy News Network’s 40 Under 40” list of clean energy leaders. In addition to the external efforts towards more intentional climate planning, Woods has also focused on how Sierra Club as an organization can amplify the voices of those most impacted by issues on which she works and move towards constant allyship and evolution, something that her time at Northwestern reinforced.
“Something as a Black woman, particularly, that has continued to serve me is this idea that your voice matters, and there aren't a lot of us in these spaces,” said Woods. “I'm not sure if I would go as far as to call myself a translator but definitely an accountability voice in the room, asking people to be more accessible in their language.”
* Editor's Note, July 2021: Kyra Woods is now on staff with the City of Chicago as a policy advisor on climate and environment.