Susan Stephenson — Executive Director, Interfaith Power and Light
Susan oversees The Regeneration Project and California Interfaith Power & Light. She has over two decades of experience developing and implementing issue-advocacy and electoral campaigns for environmental and other public interest organizations. Prior to joining The Regeneration Project, she served as vice president of the Oakland-based campaign consulting firm The Next Generation.
Beginning in 1999, Susan organized and coordinated the California Global Warming Campaign, which implemented a proactive strategy resulting in several landmark legislative victories. She has been involved with California Interfaith Power & Light since its inception in 2000. Susan received a B.A. in English Literature from the University of North Carolina.
What is the educational and career path that led to your current career?
My concern for the environment started in my youth. I grew up in trees and nature in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina with a creek behind our house. Our church was a modern building, with panes of glass that looked out into a grove of trees. In that place I felt a connection to the divine presence of nature. Perhaps surprisingly, I did not study environmental science or religion. I was an English major, and connected to the environment through literature, philosophy, and history.
When it came time to choose a career, I wanted to put my efforts toward my values. Concerned about what was happening to climate back in the 1990’s, I moved to the Bay Area to be in a place where there were opportunities for social change. Once here I got involved in political campaigns, petitioning on behalf of old growth forest and field organizing for legislation to protect the Headwaters Forest Reserve.
I connected back to religion working for Sally Bingham as a consultant on a global warming campaign bringing the faith network into efforts to address climate change. In 2000, Interfaith Power & Light was formed with Sally as executive director. She highly valued organizing skills and people who had come up through the ranks, which I had. By that time I also had discovered how to motivate people, and how addressing their passions can motivate change.
Discuss any mentors who have helped or inspired you to reach your aspirations.
My first mentor, early on, was Ken Masterton, my boss on a campaign for a ballot initiative supporting campaign finance reform back in 1996. He taught me how to organize people, have goals, and bring in signatures, votes, and endorsements. It was great training for all that was to come later.
I was fortunate to be involved in Next Generation with Doug Linney, Political Director of the California League of Conservation Voters. I learned about the environment and campaigning for candidates from him. And more recently, Sally Bingham was a true North Star as I helped to support her vision and get Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) off the ground.
What do you think are some challenges and opportunities facing women in the environmental movement today?
The environmental field is a great field for women. If you look at polling, women show up as more concerned about the environment than men. Women have that connection to Mother Earth, a natural sense of caretaking. Women want to leave a better world for their children, grandchildren, and future generations.
We do not have as many women leaders as we should. The environmental movement has Gina McCarthy of the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). In too many religions and denominations there are barriers, or even prohibitions, on women becoming clergy. Yet IPL and many of our state affiliates are led by women. The nexus of religion and the environment is a fascinating place for women. Women have found a niche here.
What are your suggestions on how WEN members can become more involved in your sector of the environmental movement?
Take a good look at the faith sector. Two interesting things for women to think about are: what do they feel passionate about, and what unique strengths do they bring and offer? There are a lot of people in the faith sector who are involved in a faith community, such as a synagogue or church. But also many people who relate to the message but don’t attend church or identify with any religion. Spiritual but not religious, as they say.
A majority of people are influenced by their values. And those values may have been shaped by a religious upbringing, but not necessarily. Interfaith Power and Light helps people see that care of the environment is integral to their values. We see behavioral, cause-based change because we are motivating people to make change. Not because of negative consequences necessarily, but because of their sense of oneness with the earth.
If you are part of a faith community, that is a great way to connect. Find out what that community is doing. Join a green team. Ask the pastor or rabbi to speak on the topic. If you are not a part of faith community but feel passionate about making change, join a group that inspires people of faith and conscience. Interfaith Power & Light inspires and mobilizes people of faith and conscience to take bold and just action on climate change.
Interfaith Power and Light’s most important national campaign is The Faith Climate Voter Campaign. It’s important to vote your values, yet environmentalists historically vote at a low rate. Please consider taking this pledge to vote with both the climate and your faith in mind.
— From an interview conducted in April 2020 by Cinndy Erickson, WEN Board Member