July 2019 Student Spotlight
July Student Spotlight with Maria Michalos MPA ‘19
Maria Michalos’ passion for public service has taken her from a role in government to a nonprofit organization, advocating for environmental policy change and abroad in Marxe global programs as she works toward her MPA. Maria tells us about her experience in Governor Cuomo’s office, her role at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and more.
You served as part of Governor Cuomo’s staff. Can you tell us in what capacity you served his Office and what projects you worked on during your time there?
There are experiences throughout our lives that shape us and provide us with immeasurable perspective – for me, working for Governor Cuomo was certainly one of those experiences. I have always been captivated by American government and in awe of the impact government can have in bettering the lives of ordinary people. Working for the Governor over the past several years gave that curiosity and awe meaning, as I was part of a tireless team committed to fighting for social, racial and economic justice.
I served as part of the press operation and had a particularly interesting/niche role within it. I led the development of the Governor’s keynote addresses, turning policy into public presentations. If you’ve ever seen the annual State of the State or Budget announcements, or any major policy unveiling, you’d likely be familiar with these presentations. Crafting the Governor’s keynotes involved an understanding of policy implications, an ability to tell a story and cultivate a strong message and sync powerful imagery with a compelling narrative. For example, I created a presentation for an event with Al Gore that articulated the many harmful environmental impacts from offshore drilling – but within that presentation was an even bigger message about New York’s profound environmental legacy and the urgency to uphold and build upon it. In many ways, these presentations were – and continue to be – a reflection of the values and principles that make New York unlike any other place in the world.
My role required regular travel with the Governor, which exposed me to the richness of our beautiful state. On any given day, we’d fly from New York City to Seneca Falls to Albany and back again. I saw firsthand how state policies strengthened communities through grants to revitalize long neglected downtowns, how families were made better off through paid family leave and free college tuition, and how the voices of women were resonating in the halls of our Capitol, loudly and proudly.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have worked in an administration that is ‘round the clock fighting to improve the lives of all New Yorkers – and I encourage young people, particularly young women, who are curious about public policy and want to have an impact, to seek opportunities in state/local government. It is truly an extraordinary experience, unlike any other.
Tell us about the NRDC and your work there in environmental and climate policy.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is one of the nation’s leading environmental organizations and was founded in 1970 by a group of young attorneys. Today NRDC is a community of nearly 600 scientists, lawyers, policy advocates – and more than three million members – who are committed to protecting the earth, its people, its plants and animals, and our natural systems from powerful polluters. Whether advocating to safeguard people’s drinking water across America or fighting back against the reckless undoing of bedrock environmental protections at the federal level, NRDC is driving forward enduring environmental solutions.
In my role as Eastern Regional Communications Manager, I oversee media strategy across the region with a focus on state-level advocacy. My goal is to amplify the initiatives and policies NRDC is supporting – from urging stronger protections for drinking water safety to encouraging state capitols to scale-up clean energy and reduce the plastic waste that pollutes our waterways and endangers wildlife. While the urgency to take action has never been greater, the silver lining is the surge of momentum and growing activism taking shape in communities across the nation and throughout the world.
What drives your commitment to public service? What would you say your greatest public service interests are?
I started my career in public service like many young people – eager, stubbornly curious about our ever-evolving world and dedicated to fighting for the least among us. Public service is about lifting up the voices of people who have faced unimaginable barriers and disadvantages. I don’t know what could be more important or urgent than working on behalf of the marginalized and fighting to make our communities stronger, fairer and more equitable.
I think what’s critically important, perhaps now more than ever, is recognizing how issues of social, economic and environmental justice are intertwined. This became clear to me when I worked in state government, and it’s even more apparent now at NRDC. Fighting racial injustice, in all of its forms, is inextricably connected to the fight for environmental justice – communities of color and low-income communities disproportionately shoulder the burden of climate pollution. To quote Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The heart of public service is working to stamp out injustice wherever and in whatever form it may exist.
You’re currently a student in the Marxe MPA program. What has the experience been like thus far?
Attending the Marxe School is a great privilege – it’s afforded me some of the most honest, difficult and eye-opening dialogues about the future we envision and how we plan to get there. My courses, professors and peers bring depth and a greater awareness to my own deeply held beliefs and provide pivotal insights into the underpinnings of public policy decisions and their impacts. I had the opportunity to participate in the ERASMUS scholars program this past term, in which I received a scholarship to study urban planning and gentrification in Berlin for a week, alongside several Baruch peers, as well as students from Germany, Sweden and Belgium — it was truly an unforgettable experience.
Specializing in urban development and sustainability has strengthened my understanding of complex environmental issues, existing policies, particularly at the local level, and barriers that can hinder progress if not swiftly addressed. In fact, it was my environmental policy course, taught by Bryan Jones, that drew me to working in the field. We’re at this unequivocally critical period in time, and the urgency of climate change was made so explicitly clear – it had a tremendous impact. That’s the beauty of being at Marxe – you realize you are part of the solution. It’s not hypothetical.