Q&A with Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz MPA ’02

Monday, Jun 22, 2020

Ramón Cruz MPA ’02 recently was elected as the Sierra Club’s president of the Board of Directors. He is the first Latino president in the organization’s 128-year history.

As a student at the Woodrow Wilson School, Cruz pursued an MPA with a focus on Urban and Regional Planning, and completed the Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP) Certificate. Since graduating from the Woo, he has pursued a career in environmental policy and urban planning. He has worked with think tanks, government agencies, and NGOs, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, and the state Environmental Quality Board of Puerto Rico.

In the interview below, Cruz reflects on his time at Princeton and how the school and faculty helped shape his approach to environmental policy.

 

What made you want to pursue a degree in public policy?

When I was an undergraduate at American University studying International Affairs, I initially thought I was going to continue in a traditional academic career. After serving as a teaching assistant and attending a few academic conferences, I realized an academic path wasn’t for me. I switched to thinking more about an applied career. I was an activist on social issues, and came to public policy because of a desire for community engagement.

One thing that was critical for introducing me to public policy was the Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) fellowship, which aims to prepare students from diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds for graduate study and careers in this field. In light of what’s happened recently with nationwide protests and advocacy in response to events in Minnesota, Kentucky, Georgia, and Central Park, it’s even clearer that we need diverse leaders in government and public service. It’s not the same being a person of color in this country, and we need leaders who understand that. The PPIA fellowship at University of Maryland really helped me start seeing public policy as a career option, and that’s how I learned about the Woodrow Wilson School. If it was not for that program based on “affirmative action,” I would not have been able to be where I am today, not because I wasn't able, but because I did not have the access to this kind of institution.

How were you active on environmental issues while you were at the Woodrow Wilson School?

I was an activist on environmental issues in Puerto Rico before coming to the Woodrow Wilson School. At that time, there was a big civil disobedience campaign going on to have the U.S. Navy stop practice bombing in the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico and clean up its environmental consequences. I was active in it. I almost had to defer my first year at the Woo because I was arrested for trespassing related to the protests!

While at Princeton, I was able to organize a conference about Puerto Ricans being treated as second-class citizens and a symposium on Vieques, including the Navy’s environmental impact there. Some of speakers included Jesse Jackson and Sonia Sotomayor ‘76. It all started with having coffee with Prof. Arcadio Diaz-Quiñones. We had great support from the University. It was amazing to me that we were able to gather the funding needed to run the conference with support from a handful of different departments.

My second year at the Woo coincided with Michael [Oppenheimer] and David [Wilcove]’s first year there. The STEP Program was smaller then – there was a group of us pushing for STEP to become much more of a priority, and that’s partly why they hired and strengthened the program with Michael and David. It was the right approach because they weren’t only great academics, but also had prior experience on the applied side as practitioners, coming from working at the Environmental Defense Fund.

For one of Michael’s classes, we did some air and wind modeling around a tire fire in Puerto Rico. The community organization fighting against the consequences of that tire fire were actually able to use that report and win the case partly because of that. As a student it was a great way to see real results of what you’re studying and doing for a class. There was a clear connection beyond campus and being involved in environmental policy and advocacy.

How did the Woodrow Wilson School prepare you to work on real-world problems?

The Woodrow Wilson School does a good job of admitting students who are very committed to public service. Connecting to that interest, the school helps students see that their classroom experience is not just an academic exercise, but one that has connections to real life. This prepares students to work to benefit as many people as possible across society, especially the most vulnerable and resilient among us. There’s always room to keep improving, but many of the experiences I had at Princeton, like the policy workshop or the MPA summer internship program, were great at helping us apply the knowledge we were getting in the classroom. The School also was great at bringing in practitioners to teach and inform students.

I also benefited from a few years between undergrad and Princeton. I remember thinking that it’s a program that students should join a few years after college so they can bring more life experience to understanding how the research applies to real life.

Ramon interviewed at protest

Photo credit: Natalie Chitwood for The Luupe

What are some key skills you believe are important for students to learn if they want to have an impact in environmental policy?

I was part of the Urban Planning program and also pursued the STEP certificate, so I didn’t have much extra space for electives. I’m not very mathematically minded, but the programs required me to take economics, statistics, and quantitative analysis courses. I’m glad those requirements were in place because they forced me to learn new approaches, rather than just taking more discussion-based classes that I was more comfortable with. These courses really helped me learn how to read or interpret data. Later on in the professional world, those foundational courses allowed me to use data-driven reports as important tools for advocacy. Even if I am not doing the data-crunching, knowing how to read it, use it and not being fooled by misleading representations of data is a crucial part of being an effective advocate and policy maker. Those are tools I wouldn’t have otherwise received without this type of education.

What are some of the most pressing issues that you think the next generation of students, scientists, and policy experts should be studying?

Climate change is everything. It’s the most important challenge of our generation and really the biggest challenge in the history of the world. Climate change has to do with so many things, not just the environment and carbon emissions. It’s also tied to issues like immigration and relocation. Or, when you think about COVID-19, it’s very similar to climate change in that the most vulnerable populations – low income communities, communities of color with poor access to health care – are the most affected. When thinking of public policy solutions to tackle them, both need to rely on science as the basis of analysis and response.

When you think about legal studies and conflict resolution, passing the Paris Agreement was one of the most important and complex examples of getting so many parties with competing interests to work together.

Climate change cannot be divorced from all the other social issues. If you’re going to work to improve society, it’s for the benefit of both people and ecosystems. I hope the next generation of students will pursue these interconnections.