This article originally appeared in the summer 2018 issue of Harker Magazine.
When Scott Pruitt, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, took the stage in September, he had no idea that Daniela Lapidous ’12 was in the audience and was planning to call him out on his climate change denial.
“I couldn’t sit there while he lied (again), so I stood up and yelled and reminded him and his audience that they were betraying young peoples’ futures. ‘If you really cared about the people of Florida, Houston and the Caribbean, why are you not talking about how climate change is making storms worse? You’re talking the talk today, but you’re fighting to dismantle EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas. Pruitt is a puppet for corporate polluters! You’re betraying our futures!’” she screamed until the Secret Service pulled her out of the room.
In a blog post on Feministing.com, she explained, “I did this because my generation cannot afford to stay silent while he undermines our futures.” She attended this talk with Sunrise Movement, a self-described “army of young people” that aims to elect climate champions and get fossil fuel money out of politics.
Lapidous’ fiery determination was ignited during a presentation at Harker by the Alliance for Climate Education. Lapidous and her friend Shreya Indukuri ’12 then became focused environmental volunteers for Harker. They applied for and received a grant for the school’s gardens, green roof and smart metering systems, all of which combined to save the school about $20,000 annually.
But the pair didn’t stop there, traveling to the White House to meet with Steven Chu, then U.S. Secretary of Energy, to discuss expanding the program nationwide.
“I remember when she and Shreya came to me to ask me to sponsor them as they applied for a grant, which was a no brainer as Daniela was well-organized, well-spoken and very passionate!” said Jeff Sutton, upper school science teacher. “She is an amazing individual who has a strong will and brilliant intellect. She also has my deep respect.”
Sutton was one of Lapidous’ favorite teachers and ardent supporters. “He supported every crazy idea we came up with, including the summit our senior year,” said Lapidous with a laugh. Lapidous and Indukuri co-organized Green Teen Summit, a conference for high school students that featured keynote speaker Bill McKibben, environmental activist and cofounder of 350.org.
Her activism continued into college at Columbia University. In her freshman year, Lapidous co-founded Barnard Columbia Divest, a group that advocated for eliminating the school’s investment in, or divesting from, the fossil fuel industry. A renamed group – Columbia Divest for Climate Justice – continues work to mobilize student power on campus until the board of trustees commits to divestment. (Barnard College made a decision to divest last spring.)
Since graduating from Columbia in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and sustainable development, she has worked hard to effect change and protect Mother Earth through her work with nonprofits, startups and research institutions. She’s a coalition organizer at NY Renews, which comprises 130-plus organizations across New York that are fighting for a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy – with good jobs, protection for workers and investment into the most-impacted communities. She loves her work and encourages students to think beyond their grades.
When Lapidous looks back, she realizes her biggest impact has been speaking for the planet and fighting for environmental change, which doesn’t have anything to do with her GPA. “Try to do what you care about and see where it takes you,” she said. “I was lucky to find my passion but don’t expect to get struck by a bolt of lightning; keep trying new things and remember that passion can build over time.”
Vikki Bowes-Mok is also the executive director of the community nonprofit Compass Collective.