Anushree Chaudhuri: Involving local communities in renewable energy planning

April 07, 2024

And recently, she led a field research project throughout California to document the perspectives of rural and Indigenous populations affected by climate change and clean energy projects. Chaudhuri will receive her bachelor’s degrees this month, followed by a master’s degree in city planning in the spring. The introduction of renewable energy facilities, such as wind and solar farms, can perpetuate existing inequities if they ignore serious community concerns, Chaudhuri says. As an intern at the U.S. Department of Energy, Chaudhuri worked within a team on implementing the federal administration’s Justice40 initiative, which commits 40 percent of federal climate investments to disadvantaged communities. Chaudhuri hopes to follow in Mallory’s footsteps someday, as a public official committed to just policies and programs.

Anushree Chaudhuri has a history of making bold decisions. In fifth grade, she biked across her home state of California with little prior experience. In her first year at MIT, she advocated for student recommendations in the preparation of the Institute’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade. And recently, she led a field research project throughout California to document the perspectives of rural and Indigenous populations affected by climate change and clean energy projects.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or how young you are, you can get involved with something and inspire others to do so,” the senior says.

Initially a materials science and engineering major, Chaudhuri was quickly drawn to environmental policy issues and later decided to double-major in urban studies and planning and in economics. Chaudhuri will receive her bachelor’s degrees this month, followed by a master’s degree in city planning in the spring.

The importance of community engagement in policymaking has become one of Chaudhuri’s core interests. A 2024 Marshall Scholar, she is headed to the U.K. next year to pursue a PhD related to environment and development. She hopes to build on her work in California and continue to bring attention to impacts that energy transitions can have on local communities, which tend to be rural and low-income. Addressing resistance to these projects can be challenging, but “ignoring it leaves these communities in the dust and widens the urban-rural divide,” she says.

Silliness and sustainability 

Chaudhuri classifies her many activities into two groups: those that help her unwind, like her living community, Conner Two, and those that require intensive deliberation, like her sustainability-related organizing.

Conner Two, in the Burton-Conner residence hall, is where Chaudhuri feels most at home on campus. She describes the group’s activities as “silly” and emphasizes their love of jokes, even in the floor’s nickname, “the British Floor,” which is intentionally absurd, as the residents are rarely British.

Chaudhuri’s first involvement with sustainability issues on campus was during the preparation of MIT’s Fast Forward Climate Action Plan in the 2020-2021 academic year. As a co-lead of one of several student working groups, she helped organize key discussions between the administration, climate experts, and student government to push for six main goals in the plan, including an ethical investing framework. Being involved with a significant student movement so early on in her undergraduate career was a learning opportunity for Chaudhuri and impressed upon her that young people can play critical roles in making far-reaching structural changes.

The experience also made her realize how many organizations on campus shared similar goals even if their perspectives varied, and she saw the potential for more synergy among them.

Chaudhuri went on to co-lead the Student Sustainability Coalition to help build community across the sustainability-related organizations on campus and create a centralized system that would make it easier for outsiders and group members to access information and work together. Through the coalition, students have collaborated on efforts including campus events, and off-campus matters such as the Cambridge Green New Deal hearings.

Another benefit to such a network: It creates a support system that recognizes even small-scale victories. “Community is so important to avoid burnout when you’re working on something that can be very frustrating and an uphill battle like negotiating with leadership or seeking policy changes,” Chaudhuri says.

Fieldwork

For the past year, Chaudhuri has been doing independent research in California with the support of several advisory organizations to host conversations with groups affected by renewable energy projects, which, as she has documented, are often concentrated in rural, low-income, and Indigenous communities. The introduction of renewable energy facilities, such as wind and solar farms, can perpetuate existing inequities if they ignore serious community concerns, Chaudhuri says.

As state or federal policymakers and private developers carry out the permitting process for these projects, “they can repeat histories of extraction, sometimes infringing on the rights of a local or Tribal government to decide what happens with their land,” she says.

In her site visits, she is documenting community opposition to controversial solar and wind proposals and collecting oral histories. Doing fieldwork for the first time as an outsider was difficult for Chaudhuri, as she dealt with distrust, unpredictability, and needing to be completely flexible for her sources. “A lot of it was just being willing to drop everything and go and be a little bit adventurous and take some risks,” she says.

Role models and reading

Chaudhuri is quick to credit many of the role models and other formative influences in her life.

After working on the Climate Action Plan, Chaudhuri attended a public narrative workshop at Harvard University led by Marshall Ganz, a grassroots community organizer who worked with Cesar Chavez and on the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. “That was a big inspiration and kind of shaped how I viewed leadership in, for example, campus advocacy, but also in other projects and internships.”

Reading has also influenced Chaudhuri’s perspective on community organizing, “After the Climate Action Plan campaign, I realized that a lot of what made the campaign successful or not could track well with organizing and social change theories, and histories of social movements. So, that was a good experience for me, being able to critically reflect on it and tie it into these other things I was learning about.”

Since beginning her studies at MIT, Chaudhuri has become especially interested in social theory and political philosophy, starting with ancient forms of Western and Eastern ethic, and up to 20th and 21st century philosophers who inspire her. Chaudhuri cites Amartya Sen and Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò as particularly influential. “I think [they’ve] provided a really compelling framework to guide a lot of my own values,” she says.

Another role model is Brenda Mallory, the current chair of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, who Chaudhuri was grateful to meet at the United Nations COP27 Climate Conference. As an intern at the U.S. Department of Energy, Chaudhuri worked within a team on implementing the federal administration’s Justice40 initiative, which commits 40 percent of federal climate investments to disadvantaged communities. This initiative was largely directed by Mallory, and Chaudhuri admires how Mallory was able to make an impact at different levels of government through her leadership. Chaudhuri hopes to follow in Mallory’s footsteps someday, as a public official committed to just policies and programs.

 “Good leaders are those who empower good leadership in others,” Chaudhuri says.

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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