Kate Sinding Daly ’97 on how a pursuit of environmental justice has shaped her career path

Right before her 1L year, Kate Sinding Daly ’97 spent a few months living in Los Angeles. Watching pollution fog the city during the day convinced Sinding Daly that she wanted to work in the environmental sector. “I began to see and really think about urbanization and the ways that it can impact environments and the people who live in them,” she says.

Kate Sinding Daly
Kate Sinding Daly

Since then, Sinding Daly has been a devoted advocate for the environment and those made most vulnerable by its misuse. After working in leadership positions at major environmental organizations, including as deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s New York program, Sinding Daly has turned her focus to supporting grassroots environmental advocacy. Since February, she has served as senior vice president of law and policy at the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England-based advocacy and litigation organization that works with local communities to change laws and policies around land and energy use.

In this Q&A, Sinding Daly discusses how the concept of environmental justice, which she first encountered at the Law School, has been a focus for her throughout her career.

Were there any experiences at the Law School that you found particularly impactful?

At the Law School, I had a number of very influential professors. [John Edward Sexton Professor of Law] Richard Stewart, from whom I took basic environmental law, was an important influence. I also got to work as a research assistant for [Dean Emeritus and AnBryce Professor of Law] Ricky Revesz, which was an amazing opportunity to work on issues of the regulatory state. At NYU, I was also a member of the NYU Environmental Law Clinic, which introduced me to the then-controversial topic of environmental justice, which has since been central to my career.

How would you define environmental justice?

It’s pretty broadly accepted at this point that the burden of climate change and other environmental disrupters is often on people of color and low-income people. For example, things like hazardous waste dumping or fracking are often done for the financial benefit of the already wealthy at the cost, be it health or otherwise, to the people in whose communities this is being done—largely people who are already marginalized. They don’t benefit from these environmental disruptors but bear its consequences.

Environmental justice is first acknowledging the history of that impact. It means working with communities to find and decide together on very clear steps to address the harms that they have faced and also to ensure that the most impacted communities historically are the primary beneficiaries of any next steps.

How has your understanding of environmental justice shaped your career?

After Law School, I was so fortunate to work at this—at the time—rare litigation firm [Sive, Paget & Riesel], exclusively focused on environmental issues. It proved to be a great training ground for a young lawyer, and I received amazing mentorship.

After some time, I felt like I wanted to have a more direct impact and work on public policy and so took a position at the Natural Resources Defense Council [NRDC]. The majority of that time I was working on fracking issues, first in New York and Pennsylvania, and then across the organization. The kind of impact you can have at these well-resourced places is pretty great. [Editor’s note: Sinding Daly led a team at the NRDC that lobbied against fracking; their efforts helped a ban on the practice become law in New York State.] But I really grappled with how big, green organizations like the NRDC—as important as they are—show up and how they are resourced and the power they hold relative to grassroots organizations who are made up of those most impacted by these policies.

Ultimately, my work in collaboration with grassroots partners really affected how I think about how resources and power are allocated within the environmental community. It really contributed to a powerful belief that a reason that the environmental community had not had a lot of huge policy victories since the 1970s was because we did not, in fact, have the characteristics of a successful social movement. We were really lacking popular engagement and support with what we were working on.

I felt that it was really hard to address those power differentials from the inside. So I left NRDC and had this opportunity to go into philanthropy [as founding executive director of the NorthLight Foundation, an environmentally oriented grantmaking organization]. Of course, if you care about how resources and power flow, philanthropy is a pretty good place to spend some time. At NorthLight, one of the things that we needed to do is just move more money and more power to the frontline, to the communities that are the ones who are actually experiencing the most significant impacts of our energy choices, our transportation choices, and all of that.

What has increased cultural understanding around the environment and climate change meant for your work?

What I think has really shifted and is critical is a recognition of the unique expertise of those with lived experiences on the ground. It’s not just a kind of ethical or moral imperative to ensure that those impacted have a seat at the table and a voice in crafting the solution, but it actually is essential to being able to identify the solutions that are going to be not only equitable but effective.

In my new role, I get to set the agenda for the policy work done in six states across New England. A key part of what attracted me to this position was that the Conservation Law Foundation in recent years has done a lot of work to move away from the traditional top-down model in the environmental sector and to embrace and internalize a deep commitment to equity and justice. 

What I’m excited about is expanding the conversation to focus on how environmental policies have big class impacts. New England has traditionally been heavily dependent on the fossil fuel industry for our power and transportation sectors. Aggressively transitioning energy away from fossil fuels will have a major impact on communities and can result in major economic shifts. I look forward to designing policy solutions that aren’t going to result in a whole bunch of unanticipated adverse impacts for a lot of people. That is possible if everybody is made a part of the conversation. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted September 20, 2023.