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Ryan Shaening-Pokrasso ’13 Earns Major Environmental Fellowship

Ryan Shaening-Pokrasso '13

By Andrew Cohen

Those who suggest that résumés should not exceed one page are clearly unfamiliar with Ryan Shaening-Pokrasso '13.

Before coming to Berkeley Law, he crammed several major accomplishments into a summer internship and subsequent 20 months as program director for New Energy Economy, a nonprofit in New Mexico.

Now he has received a prestigious Switzer Foundation Fellowship for his environmental work and leadership in the field.

"I've always focused on the social aspects of environmental work," said Shaening-Pokrasso, who is spending this summer at Accountability Counsel, a San Francisco nonprofit that defends environmental and human rights worldwide through the use of accountability systems. "That area is the most satisfying and important to me."

At New Energy Economy, Shaening-Pokrasso managed a phone-banking campaign to identify environmentally-minded constituents across New Mexico; ran an internship program that brought together Indian tribe members with college and high school students; and helped author, lobby for, and pass the New Mexico Green Jobs Act to fund training programs in sustainable industries for at-risk individuals and families.

He also helped convince 16 organizations--a coalition of ranchers, business owners, youth advocates, public health professionals, and environmental groups to support a proposed bill to cap carbon emissions. The New Mexico's Environmental Improvement Board recently passed it, mandating that state emissions be 25 percent lower than 1990 levels by 2020.

Along the way, Shaening-Pokrasso led successful campaigns to oppose public utility rate hikes; helped regional tribes successfully fight the development of a new coal plant in their area; and pushed to create New Mexico's Green Chamber of Commerce, which fosters the success of local economies and promotes businesses committed to environmental and social responsibility.

"There's a huge lobby from traditional chambers of commerce that are funded by big banks and the oil and gas industries,” he said. “They say they're representing more than 5,000 businesses, but really they're just representing their top donors."

As a Switzer Fellow, Shaening-Pokrasso will receive a one-year, $15,000 cash award for graduate study, networking, and leadership support. The foundation awards 20 environmental fellowships each year—10 in California and 10 in New England—from an applicant pool of over 300 graduate students.

Switzer Fellows must have strong leadership, communication, and critical thinking skills, relevant work and volunteer experience, and the necessary scientific or technical background for their field of study.

An executive editor at Ecology Law Quarterly, Shaening-Pokrasso has been heavily involved with UC Berkeley's Students for Economic and Environmental Justice (SEEJ). He is working with students, faculty, and legal practitioners to establish a student-run environmental justice clinic, which would provide pro bono legal services to communities disproportionately impacted by irresponsible business practices and promote community-driven economic development in California. The clinic's Student Initiated Legal Project aims to align first-year Berkeley Law students with supervisors from outside organizations to tackle sustainable initiatives.

"Many students are intrigued by environmental work," Shaening-Pokrasso said. "There's no formal clinic for it, and we see an opportunity for students to do exciting hands-on work." SEEJ members met with Assistant Professor Michelle Anderson to create a class that's modeled like a practicum for second- and third-year students. "They’ll engage in community-based lawyering in the Central Valley," Shaening-Pokrasso said, "and potentially use tools of environmental justice, land use law, and local government law."

Last semester, SEEJ piloted a program with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project in an effort to funnel certain toxic industries from West Oakland to the Oakland Army Base. The group collaborated with other organizations on policy research regarding the effects of cap and trade on West Oakland and its strategies for adapting to climate change.

A biology major at UC Santa Cruz who conducted environmental field work in Central America, South America, and Alaska, Shaening-Pokrasso is eager to apply his legal training. "I saw a lot of environmental destruction in incredible places," he said. "Those were great experiences, but it made me think I could be more effective in policy work trying to get at the systemic causes."