Kelsey Wirth #37

Portrait by Sam Thompson

Portrait by Sam Thompson

Founder and Chair

Mothers Out Front

There are a lot of mothers out there that felt the way I did, which is 'holy... this is what we're doing to our children's future?’ and yet feeling utter powerlessness to do anything and hopeless.

784_34_Heidi Legg_© Susan Lapides_2012dtV2.jpg


Interview by Heidi Legg

Mothers Out Front is a new movement for climate change gaining energy in Cambridge and Boston with women and men, but mostly mothers and grandmas. They are committed to move "swiftly", as their handouts from bookmarks to t-shirts read, away from fossil fuels and toward clean, renewable energy sources. As a GenXer, the thing that intrigues me most is that my generation finally has a movement. During the Iraq War, nothing. Lean In was something, but the boardrooms are still full of men and the editor of The New York Times was fired for wanting to be paid the same as a man. Wall Street Protests were the missive of the set behind us, the Boomerangs/Millenials. Gloria and Betty burned bras. But GenX? Not so much controversy from the cool kids that Canadian Douglas Coupland baptized in his namesake book, GenX: Tales for An Accelerated Culture, in 1991. Accelaration? Yes, we invented Google and Instagram, all full of awesomeness, innovation, and eternal optimism, but movements? Nada.

Happiness, hopefulness, and Halcyon days are how the history books will remember GenX in generations to come. But is there more to our legacy? Many of us are the children of the last great generation so we know how to work hard, to keep our heads down and forge onward. We sit behind the air vacuum and wreckage of that enormous mass called the Baby Boom. But now we are getting tired of their constant need to be the center of attention. They are eating up our environment, holding on to their senior positions, winner-takes-all wealth, and all the decent real estate. I sometimes think of them as hoarders.

Kelsey Wirth appears as the change agent. Not only because she is focusing her efforts on climate change and mobilizing educated women, both burning topics of our times, but because she is making noise.

Her family life has many ties to climate change. Former US Senator Tim Wirth, who held some of the earliest congressional hearings on climate, is her father and her mother, Wren Winslow, runs a foundation that gives $1.2 million annually in small grants, some of which go to green groups. Samuel Myers, her husband, researches the impact of global environmental change on human health for Harvard’s Department of Environmental Health. I sat down with Kelsey to learn more about building movements and what she hopes to accomplish with Mothers Out Front. 

What's Mothers Out Front doing next?

We're about to file for independent C3 status. We started as a program of another small Massachusetts-based organization and now we are launching out on our own.

However, the nature of being involved at the startup stage and a movement building effort is that there's never simply one burning issue. We've been around for fifteen months and I have been the sole fundraiser for Mothers Out Front to date, and still need to raise about another $200,000 to meet our 2014 budget. 

We recently kicked off our campaign for Massachusetts with community teams across the state focused on the priority of having people switch to clean, renewable energy. We have another level of that campaign that is focused on Governor Patrick. So, right now we’re trying to schedule a meeting with Governor Patrick to talk to him about our platform and campaign. There are probably, at any given time, about eleven priorities.

What does C3 status give you? 

Being our own organization means that we control our own mission. We feel that what we are doing as Mothers Out Front is developing an unheard voice when it comes to climate change, and that's the voice of mothers who are called to protect their children and grandchildren.

You could get fiscal sponsorship from any number of organizations out there. For a long time, (Bill McKibben's group) was fiscally sponsored by another agent, and then about two years ago they became their own C3. In our case, Better Future Project was our sponsor. It's a Massachusetts-based climate-organizing group that is very activist-oriented. 

We're really engaging people who otherwise would not be involved in addressing climate change. We're mothers coming together to protect our children's future. We share those fundamental values about taking care of our children, and we're reaching them not because they've got this natural environmental bent or that they're particularly inclined to be politically active. Although, we have some that have been quite politically engaged, but a lot of the people we're reaching have never been particularly active, have never really thought that much about climate change, and the reason they're coming is that they've been invited to a house party by another parent in their kid's school or a neighbor.  It’s all about reaching people through existing relationships and creating a safe space in which we explore the issues and challenges of climate change. We share stories. We talk about how we feel about climate change as mothers and as it relates to our children and their future. What could we actually do about it if we came together?

Did you see a Gen X void in terms of movements?

Absolutely. Not only did I see the void, but also we feel it on a regular basis in terms of the messages we hear back from women who are our age. We are the Reagan Generation. I'm speaking as someone who grew up with a father who was in elective politics, but it was still the Reagan era and it was all about 'how much can we shrink government? How do we minimize the role of government in our lives? Government is fundamentally bad.' And there was a certain amount of apathy, and there was a fair amount of wealth, and there wasn't a lot of political engagement.

What happened during the Iraq War?

Not very much, in part because there's no draft anymore. The people who go to war are a tiny sliver of our population. It doesn't affect most of us. Wall Street protests were the group younger than us.

How did you study movements?

It started with Marshall Ganz. Having grown up knowing about the issue by virtue of my father's involvement in addressing it, I never felt a driving desire to do anything until I became a mother. There was this 'aha' moment that I have described before. I was sitting on my daughter Sophie's bed when she was about two years old and we were looking through a book from the aquarium with all these beautiful pictures of coral reefs, and I started to cry. I'm looking at this thinking, 'she's never going to see this in her lifetime.' What are we doing to the world? And what does this mean for my children's future? I felt a level of anxiety that I had never felt before, and felt completely powerless to do anything. My model for playing an important role in the world was running for public office because my father had done that. It's a path I didn't take. I'm not a scientist. I'm not an engineer. What am I going to do about this enormous challenge facing our world? Totally powerless.

I had read about Marshall's involvement in the Obama campaign of 2008, he was the mastermind behind a lot of the Obama field strategy that was so effective as opposed to parachuting organizers in from the outside, which is the traditional political organizing model. Marshall Ganz brought a community-organizing model to politics and to the Obama campaign, and it was incredibly successful.

Here he is at the Kennedy School, right around the corner from where I live, and I thought, 'I've got to meet this guy.' I went in and spent about half an hour with him, and in half an hour he gave me a whole different sense of possibility. What he said was fairly simple: Transformational change in our society has always been driven at some level by social movements, which is lots and lots of people coming together out of a sense of shared values.

There is something fundamentally wrong here. It’s not about facts and figures. So much of the earlier work around climate change was about these dreary facts and figures and not giving people any sense of agency. Al Gore's movie is a perfect example. It was incredibly cerebral. It was a starting point, but sort of Psychology 101 is that human beings don't act based on a bunch of facts in their head. Human beings are fundamentally emotional creatures and it's our emotions that drive our decision-making.

You actually engage people through story telling and then develop structure and strategy. We need a movement. There isn't really much going on out there in the climate change space when it comes to movement building.

When did you know you were onto something?

I met Marshall Ganz back in November of 2009, and I came home from the meeting and I kept talking about it. Marshall and I worked together on bringing together thirty two climate leaders from across the country for a weekend to create the space to talk about movement building in climate change and how to get something going. Out of that came a project called the Climate Organizing Lab, and that lasted for about a year.

Were you paying for all of this by yourself?

No. I didn't pay for any of this. We raised money from a handful of progressive foundations but the overall project went a little sideways. We had four different organizations that were involved, and teaching an organization how to do something very differently from the way it has been doing things is very, very hard to do and we made a lot of mistakes at the beginning and we ended up transferring remaining funds to Greenpeace. I’m not an organizer by training.

Yes, but you did have a very successful startup out of Stanford Business School called Invisalign? (Wirth co-founded Align Technologies, makers of Invisalign invisible braces, taking it from startup mode to a publicly traded company in a short four years)

Yes, but that was in the days before I had young children… In November 2012, I went to a climate vigil by the Better Future Project who had been our sponsoring group. The idea was to get climate change addressed as an issue in the senate campaign between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown. I went to this vigil and I met Vanessa Rule, a co-founder of Better Future Project. She's a mom and she's been doing climate-related organizing for seven years, mostly at the local, state, and regional level. I practically grabbed her and I said, 'we have to talk because I have this idea about organizing mothers,' and within a month we had pulled a group together in my living room and brainstormed how to do this. At the end of January 2013 we had our very first house party, and we were off to the races.

What public opinion do you want to change? What are early goals/initiatives?

One of the first questions we wanted to answer is, 'is it possible to engage mothers around this issue?' They might worry about it from time to time but mostly they kind of block it out, right? They think it's too big and not necessarily directly relevant to my life. But that's starting to change. Is it actually possible to engage people? Will they come to a house party? Will they get interested enough to take the next step and actually want to get more involved? What's this whole process going to be like?

The whole premise was that there are a lot of mothers out there that felt the way I did, which is 'holy... this is what we're doing to our children's future?’ and yet feeling utter powerlessness to do anything and hopeless. How many mothers out there share a lot of that same sentiment? And how many are willing to get involved if we reach them through the appropriate way and we provide them with concrete paths to action?

What do you consider as concrete gains?

At the individual level, we're trying to have thousands of people across Massachusetts make that switch to clean, renewable energy for their electricity which is an easy thing to do for most residents. Our volunteer-led and volunteer-driven teams are working with local businesses to have them make that same switch. And at the statewide level, we're making very ambitious 'asks' of the governor. We want the governor to commit to Massachusetts meeting all new energy needs with energy efficiency and renewable energy and draw the line against new fossil fuel development.

How do you define clean renewable energy?

We are shutting down coal plants in Massachusetts and the question is 'what will we use to replace that coal-fired energy?' Are we going to build natural gas plants and continue to import increasing amounts of natural gas into the state? We already send $22 billion a year outside of Massachusetts to pay for our energy because we're so dependent upon imported fossil fuel. Are we going to invest in more natural gas or are we going to invest in smarter ways in the deployment of more clean, renewable energy, which includes developing more offshore wind? Offshore wind is the biggest opportunity, not just for Massachusetts, but also for the country. There are also hydro, solar, and other smaller sources like biomass. There is a real opportunity with hydro, if developed carefully, solar, off-shore wind and geothermal.

Are you thinking about the 2016 election?

We will be. Right now our near-term focus is on learning how to do this work here in Massachusetts, in developing a model that can be adopted and adapted in other states across the country. Massachusetts is our Petri dish where we're trying lots of different stuff, learning how to do it. We're going to learn a lot about structure and process and a lot of lessons that will be applicable in the next states where we start organizing. Our goal is to be organizing in one or two more states by the end of this year; New York will likely be one of them.

Our vision is for a national movement of mothers that is not working by itself, but is working with important allies across the country, because we need everybody in this movement. We will be growing it as fast as we are able to, which means recognizing our own capacity and limitations, raising the money to do it, and being smart and strategic about it as opposed to taking a scattershot approach.

Are solar, wind, and hydro companies excited to see you moving the needle towards them?

We haven't worked hard to develop those relationships yet but it's a good question: how do we work with the renewable energy industry? I think that will come. Remember, we've been doing this for just over a year. I think as we prove ourselves, we're going to have a lot more people knocking on our door.

I was frustrated, as a woman, when I read the article about you in the Boston Globe when the journalist wrote, “It may sound a bit like an Ivy-educated stay-at-home mom’s creative play to reenter the workforce.” Did it bother you?

Do you mean like we're privileged people who are now coming back into the workforce? 

Let me rephrase it: How can women who stayed home and raised young children and who want to make a difference by reentering the workforce learn from what you are doing?

I suppose the reporter's point was that I'm part of a privileged set of people - women, in particular - that has had the luxury of taking time away from work to be with my children when they were very young.  I think it's true that it is great to have the opportunity to have the space to think, to let things settle in, and reflect on what one might want to do next. I have so many friends right now who are doing something that they really are passionate about, maybe for the first time in their lives. I feel like I can give you examples from you or Annie Brewster, a friend who's a doctor and has started a patient audio series called I have another friend who left after many years working in public television to start her own nonprofit, another friend who, after working for twenty plus years for a big media company, started her own media startup. The list, to me, it goes on and on and on and I would say the majority of my close friends here in Cambridge and in the Boston area have taken that step and it's an amazing thing to watch.

How do we get around the privilege piece and see it rather as untapped energy, a viable resource that needs to be promoted and encouraged in a country that needs infusion?

But it's not just about privilege. It's also about having a sense of possibility. There are privileged people all over the world who don't take this step, to whom perhaps it doesn't even occur and there's something about it that's wonderfully and probably uniquely American, to be honest with you. It is this sense that, 'oh, I could actually make a difference,' and what I love so much about Mothers Out Front is that the message we're communicating every day to the mothers who we are hoping to get involved is 'yes, you can make a difference.' It all starts with the sense of possibility and how do we encourage that?  

But it's also true that there are privileged people all over the world who don't take this step.

Where do you get your news?

I'm on a lot of email lists from people who send stuff. I would love to say I read Twitter. I don't. I read the New York Times and the Boston Globe. I never used to be a Globe reader but now that we're doing this work, I do. I read The Daily Climate and Grist Magazine (, which are online, and then just stuff that people send me. I rely a lot on our community of people.

Secret source?

Marshall Ganz. We have lunch once a month. I email with him when big questions and challenges arise. He's the godfather of Mothers Out Front and he's an amazing guy. You would love interviewing him. He's got a real twinkle at seventy years of age.