State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Alumni Profile: Working With Labor Unions to Create a More Sustainable Future

Growing up in Miami, Avalon Hoek Spaans is no stranger to climate disasters, as a first-generation American with roots in the Netherlands and Cuba—both areas, like southern Florida, highly vulnerable to sea-level rise and climate change.

It was this firsthand experience and historic knowledge that inspired Spaans to seek out a career focused on climate science, with the hope of contributing to a more environmentally just and sustainable society.

Now working in the field of labor relations, Spaans talks about their educational journey, ongoing projects, and how to be effective as part of a larger movement.

What inspired you to pursue climate science?
My personal experience and exposure to the impacts of climate change. I believe there is an opportunity to utilize climate change as a catalyst to rectify historic inequalities, not only in the United States but also across the world.

Why did you join the Climate and Society program? What skills did you develop, and how have these translated to your professional life?
Originally, I applied to the PhD in sustainable development program at the School of International and Public Affairs. However, I was recommended to join Climate and Society because it aligned more closely with my initial career interests of utilizing the climate transition to create a more just and sustainable society. The program taught me critical thinking skills to analyze large-scale issues, and how to leverage different types of thinking to make informed policy decisions. Having access to robust research and tools developed by the Earth Institute and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society helped propel my understanding and skills even further. These have been invaluable, helping me understand climate risks and develop effective policies.

Can you talk a little about your current position?
I am currently the assistant director of research at the Climate Jobs Institute within Cornell’s School of Industrial Labor Relations. I started as a research and policy associate when our team was a program within the Worker Institute at the school. Over the past two and a half years, we have grown into a robust institute. As a founding outreach faculty member, I specialize in research and policy development at the intersection of equity, labor, and climate change mitigation and adaptation. In my role, I oversee a multidisciplinary research team that conducts participatory-based research with the labor movement. Together, we create tools, conduct research and develop policy guidelines that advance a just green economy. We collaborate directly with labor unions across the country to develop processes that define what an equitable transition looks like.

What projects are you working on right now? What do you hope to focus on in the future?
The majority of our work focuses on state-specific, sector-based research. We aim to understand the intersection of climate change, labor and equity across various sectors such as buildings, energy, transportation, resilience and adaptation, and industry. Through collaboration with labor movements in the states we work in, we develop policy recommendations that prioritize emission reduction, creation of high-quality union jobs, and increased equity. Additionally, I am involved in projects that seek to understand working conditions in the renewable energy industries across different states. In the future, I hope to continue this important work by expanding our research and policy initiatives, addressing emerging challenges [and] understanding new climate workforce sectors.

What meaningful advice have you received along your path, and what advice do you have for students entering the field?
I’ve learned to listen more than I speak. Understanding the systems that operate within the field I work in is crucial. It is essential to ask myself if my efforts are genuinely contributing to reducing the climate crisis by lowering emissions and reducing risks for the most vulnerable. During my time at Columbia, a professor said that we are all pieces in a larger machine, working to solve the climate crisis. I like to imagine all of us contributing to a large quilt, stitching together a better future for all. So, my advice to students entering the field is to be humble, learn from others, and hold yourself accountable in creating meaningful impact. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, always stand in solidarity with unionization efforts and workplace organizing wherever you find yourself.

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