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Debrief with May Boeve

June 3, 2024

The coming years are often referred to as our last chance to get on track to co-existing with our planet — the “decisive decade” is a term used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Many activists and scientists warn there is even less time remaining on the clock. Regardless of metrics in days or degrees, the conclusion is that the climate and ecological emergency is ever more urgent. Every day and every degree matters in direct proportion to suffering and survival.

Organizers looking ahead greatly benefit from pausing for a look back. The value of a good debrief surpasses the time it sacrifices. What can we each understand about the last 15 years that could inform the next — personally, as community and as a movement?

After 15 years of building, co-founder and executive director, May Boeve has decided it’s the right time to move on and transition leadership, having grown 350 from a student-led university collective to a global organization of 144 staff in over 25 countries supporting a network of 500 local groups. Under May’s leadership, 350 has grown the global divestment movement, created high-profile campaigns and mobilizations to stop fossil fuels, and supported thousands of activists and movements around the world.

350 has also recently entered a new phase in campaigning — taking what they’ve learned after 15 years of fighting the fossil fuel industry to champion the transition to renewable energy in communities around the world. They are demanding world leaders fund renewable energy projects instead of fossil fuels and showing that people want affordable, reliable and cleaner energy, now.

I spoke with May about organization building, strategy, mobilization, climate justice, and activism. She shares widely applicable insights that bear on current and future organizing — from intergenerational solidarity and student uprisings to the nitty gritty of behind the scenes work, from the double edged sword of technology to stewarding healthy networks, and of course, strategy.

This interview is co-published by and Waging Nonviolence/the International Peace Research Association.

How and when did you get activated? What were some of your first activism experiences?

My most memorable early activism was when I was 12, and writing a letter to the editor in my hometown paper about a beloved pasture that was slated to be removed. One of the activists involved in saving the land called me up and asked if I wanted to get involved. Through that, I got to know local community organizers and the mayor. It was the first time I can remember learning the power of raising one’s voice and finding community through that.

My journey was one of feeling very passionate from a young age about a range of injustices – but feeling alone and somewhat isolated as a result. The difference maker was in finding other people who felt similarly – not only for finding my own sense of belonging but also in having a greater impact. That idea is central to what we have built at 350.

Campuses across the world are erupting with activism right now through the Gaza Solidarity Encampments. Though this movement is undoubtedly student-led, there are also essential roles that faculty, parents, and community members must play. As someone who got their start as a student activist, could you share your thoughts on intergenerational solidarity and empowerment? 

Look at any major social movement and you will see the powerful role that young people and students play in articulating the moral clarity of a given crisis and exercising inspiring courage. Historic, first-of-its-kind climate legislation in the US would never have happened but for the youth leadership of the Sunrise Movement. The question for everyone else becomes: what does this mean for the rest of us?

The students on campuses today are trying to agitate because they don’t see nearly enough changes happening to stop the killing in Gaza – and they are wisely and strategically elevating this issue on campuses, where elite opinion is still not, by and large, on the side of Palestinian rights. It is a brave use of leverage of privilege.  I love the video of the father of one of the student protestors at USC who says, “I am here to support my daughter.” That is how the ripples of activism and mobilizing can move more people into action.

From my own experience of campus activism – very plush by comparison (no tear gas or rubber bullets were used to thwart our climate activism at Middlebury College) – we had our greatest victories when we teamed up with university staff, faculty, alums, and community members – just as we are seeing take place now. As students at Middlebury, had we not worked alongside Bill McKibben, there would be no

Campuses CAN be a microcosm of their wider communities – but only if the work of the students is not seen as isolated, but becomes connected to a wider set of constituencies. We are seeing glimmers of that today and let’s hope it has an impact on the choices the US government is making around enabling a ceasefire and enforcing our own laws around the provision of aid in Gaza.

Talk about taking 350 from a student collective to an international organization. Was this growth part of the strategy? And how are vision and values affected by scale? 

One of our core beliefs has always been that we need a larger, more diverse, and therefore more politically powerful mass movement to confront the climate crisis. That said, we had no idea when we started how large and lasting 350 would become. We were quite allergic to institutionalizing in our early days, so the aspects of organization-building (decision-making processes, personnel policies, governance, etc.) came at a much later stage in our evolution. Growing pains of that nature are tricky for any organization but we benefited from the fact that we took on organization building after we had built up a reputation, a budget, a staff, and a lot of support.

Scale affects everything, including vision and values. In our case, we have a very ambitious vision, of building and scaling the global climate movement, which can only be achieved with a certain scale – but not necessarily the size of our own organization per se. We made a decision a few years ago to concentrate growth in our network – the volunteers and community groups, over 500 in total, that we support and who operate independently. A highly complex network like ours, operating in almost every country, cannot possibly be held together by a shared structure, but it can be held together through strategy and values, which is the approach we are trying to take.

Some of the highlights of your work with 350 include a long-term campaign for fossil fuel divestment, fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, and helping to launch the Global Climate Strike. What is 350’s theory of change and how did strategy and tactics develop through these struggles?

We believe in organizing and mobilizing with an ever-increasing number of people in order to build the political power necessary for bold climate action that science and justice demand. We do this through focusing on dismantling the pillars of support of the fossil fuel industry — right now our focus is on creating conditions for climate solutions to scale, so that the fossil fuel industry cannot continue to claim that they have a positive role to play in the energy transition.

This year is the hottest year on record, we’re seeing the catastrophic effects of the climate emergency across the world. In parallel the cost of living crisis means people and communities are struggling to even afford their basic necessities – meanwhile, fossil fuel companies post record profits. These crises are inextricably linked to our dependency on fossil fuels and 350 is pushing for a world powered by community-centered renewable energy solutions to the climate crisis – which would provide reliable, equitable and cheaper energy for all.

Over the years we have emphasized different elements – in the 2010s we were primarily focused on mobilizing and showcasing the diversity of the climate movement, and bringing that to bear on the social license of the fossil fuel industry, through pipeline fights and fossil fuel divestment. In 2019 there was a historic upsurge in climate action through the climate strikes, driven by young people, but that was followed by a big crash, largely brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, we have shifted our focus to organizing, and building more leadership within the movement, particularly in the Global South.

You’ve often been vocal about inequality and sexism, even within the environmentalist movement. Could you talk about the justice in climate justice? 

One of the aspects of the climate fight that has changed the most since I got involved is the understanding of, advocacy for, and solutions when it comes to climate justice. It is now generally understood that climate change is an injustice, a symptom of a wider set of systemic injustices. By that I mean the causes of climate change, from fossil fuel extraction and burning, to the impacts, from pollution, extreme weather events, sea level rise, and more, can all be understood through a lens of justice. Policies that were inequitable that led to certain places and certain people – largely people of color, lower income people, women –  bearing the brunt of all of this, in the past and to this day. This understanding and shift in worldview has enormous implications for what approaches are required to adapt to climate change and stop it from getting even worse.

The fact that this shift occurred within a movement that had its origins in protecting wild places from people – and in some ways saw people as a problem to be dealt with – is a monumental shift and something to celebrate. As someone who got involved in environmental activism by protecting a place I loved so that people couldn’t live there – I have experienced a change in my own worldview precisely because it became so clear that climate change was deeply unjust. This happened because I met people who were losing their homes due to flooding, or fires, or coal mines, or an acidifying ocean.

Movements help shift ideas and the politics of what is possible. And the prominence of what we might call a climate justice worldview is thanks largely to the work of the climate justice and wider environmental justice movements, who have articulated a policies, culture, and a set of principles that have been widely influential in what we might call the ‘mainstream’ or ‘white-led’ environmental movement. You can see the impact very clearly in the Biden Administration’s Justice 40 Initiative, and the existence of networks like the Climate Justice Alliance, the Solutions Project, and the NDN Collective, and their role in implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, and ensuring it is accountable to principles of climate justice.

Our new vision towards community-centered renewable energy is built on the principle that climate solutions should be rooted in justice. Solutions should put the rights of people and communities front and center, protect and conserve the environment, and not replicate the extractive and neocolonial models of the past.

350 has been celebrated for its creative use of internet tools, with the website Critical Mass declaring a 2009 campaign “one of the strongest examples of social media optimization the world has ever seen.” Foreign Policy magazine called it “the largest ever global coordinated rally of any kind.” Talk about mass mobilization strategy and tools for social change then and and now.

I feel very grateful that 350 got our start when digital tools were brand new and their long-term implications had yet to be proven one way or another. It was a very exciting time in the 2000s and it contributed a lot of optimism to my generation and our experience of social movements.

To give an example, for our first day of action in 2009, the one you reference, we brought in hundreds of thousands of new Twitter followers and email subscribers because we were able to get Ashton Kucher, then the most followed person on Twitter, to retweet a post from Nick Kristof (whom Bill McKibben knew personally). That kind of rapid, explosive growth – for people obsessed with scale and a sense of urgency about climate change – made us feel like our big vision was possible.

It’s therefore been soul-crushing to see what has become of social media in particular, now that we understand it better. How it is leading to increasing isolation and anxiety, especially among young people, at a time when we desperately need to come together to exercise our political voice. How disinformation and misinformation make democratic participation increasingly challenging. These aren’t new challenges but the omnipresence of these tools makes political organizing even harder.

I’m committed to continuing to find the bright spots – groups like Aspiration Tech (they were our landlords at our very first 350 office) and stalwart digital organizing groups like OPEN who continue to work at the intersection of technology and movement building.

Fundraising occupies a huge amount of energy and time for most people who work for social change. Sometimes it even causes competition between organizations and people who are actually working towards the same goals. How can we overcome this dynamic? What was your experience in building and running a large nonprofit organization?

You are asking the right question: how do we overcome it?

Start with strategy and not with fundraising per se: working together on joint initiatives, building close relationships with other organizations who are both quite similar and quite different. You learn equally valuable and different lessons that way to shape how you share and how you make decisions.

Larger orgs can play a role in incubation, seed funding, and some of the organizational set up issues. They can also make introductions and vouch for other organizations.

Institutional donors can give multi year grants that help organizations plan on a longer time horizon, which enables bigger bolder ideas; and unrestricted grants, which enable organizations to change their plans when political conditions change…which is about every 15 minutes.

We also should be focused on building membership – the sustaining year on year individual gifts that make an organization truly “people-powered.” I will never forget when I was on a call with Maurice Mitchell, director of the Working Families Party. We were checking in on our organizational partnership, and at the end of the call he asked me to increase my personal contribution to WFP. I was so impressed with that – we all need to believe in what we are doing so much that we are always asking for support.

As someone who has spent nearly 20 years organizing for climate justice, what are some of the crucial but behind the scenes work that should get more of a spotlight?

This is my favorite question.

  • Paying attention to how people are feeling. Taking care of people.
  • Keeping up relationships with allies, especially those not as closely connected to your day-to-day work.
  • Learning about other movements and issues beyond your own
  • Developing your own strategic judgment – knowing how to listen to your own insights.
  • Administrative work. Finance, HR, legal support, scheduling.
  • Healing conflicts
  • Engaging in debriefing, learning, assessment of impact, and applying lessons learned

What are the biggest challenges ahead for 350, climate justice organizations generally, and the movement as a whole?

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and recent tragic wars, world leaders are devoting less attention to the collaborations required for multilateral climate action. Not only that but with rising authoritarianism, fewer world leaders are inclined to promote climate justice solutions and are choosing instead to focus on business as usual, which often serves fossil fuel interests. Contrast this with the political conditions in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was signed: numerous heads of state were aligned in advancing climate action.

How do movements manage to create conditions for a political breakthrough, if we assume the level of global conflicts does not diminish for some time? As we have written elsewhere, peace is a prerequisite for climate action at the scale required.

Under these conditions, 350 has shifted our strategy dramatically in order to focus on climate solutions: those that can be enacted locally, nationally, regionally – and simultaneously. Specifically: to advance the call for renewable energy all over the world. Finance is always a challenge when it comes to climate action and this year we’re calling for finance to be redirected from fossil fuels to these fair and community-focused renewable energy projects – at the scale of trillions.

By empowering ourselves, quite literally, we hope to create meaningful agency and develop powerful new alliances. To bring this added political punch, we are focusing on a campaign with Brazilian communities to provide solar energy at scale in the Amazon. This is part of a broad-based effort to create political will in the leadup to the COP30 summit in Brazil in 2025, where a breakthrough in the climate ambitions of the world’s largest emitting countries is desperately needed.

What’s next for you? Do you have advice for maintaining longevity as an activist?

My immediate plan after my last day is to campaign for Biden in Michigan, where the outcome will be quite close and where I have a lot of family. After that I plan to take a break before deciding what I want to do next.

That’s what I would say about longevity – breaks matter. Getting perspective from our work, and also just putting it down for a while helps remind oneself that organizational leadership and movement building is a team sport.

It’s also really important to create the kind of support you need. For me, that has always involved working with coaches, and having a network of peers with similar roles in similarly-sized organizations, who I can check in with regularly to get advice.

Would you like to platform someone or a smaller organization who could use more visibility?

First of all: my colleagues at, past and present, who have taught me so much, and who have built a beloved community of powerful impact that shines on. Most of what I’m describing in my answers to your questions came about with their help.

Second, are some other global network-based organizations that are doing terrific work with and for movements:

Namati – grassroots legal empowerment

The OPEN Network – digital campaigning

Clima/Global Greengrants Fund – grassroots grantmaking

Digital Democracy – digital access

Alexandria Shaner

Alexandria Shaner is a sailor, writer, organizer, and teacher. Based in the southern Caribbean, she is a staff member of, an instructor at the School for Social and Cultural Change, and active with the Women’s Rights & Empowerment Network, The Climate Reality Project, and