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The Climate Fight Has A New Champion: Moms

Kelsey Wirth
McNulty Prize
United States

After decades of failed climate politics, time is running out to find a model that delivers change. Mothers Out Front—-consisting of locally-organized chapters of moms and anyone else who is concerned about the future of the planet—-is bringing direct political pressure at local levels to stop new sources of pollution and to create healthier infrastructure, policies, and communities.

“Mothers Out Front gives people a sense of agency,” says founder Kelsey Wirth. “We do talk starkly about what we’re up against. But we move on to how it makes us feel as mothers, what our concerns are. The movement shows people that they have power through coming together and working collectively, in the tradition of the great social movements in American history, and around the world."

Watch the micro-documentary featuring Mothers Out Front


Kelsey’s childhood was surrounded by talk of climate change. Her father, elected to Congress when she was just five years old, sponsored the first Congressional hearings on global warming. “We spent a lot of time at home talking about what was happening in the world, and thinking about how to solve problems. We had climate scientists in and out of our kitchen on a fairly regular basis. It was all about the science, though, and it wasn’t something I connected to.”This perception—that climate change was somehow abstract and academic—changed only years later, when Kelsey had become a mother. She describes it as a lightning-bolt moment.

Graduated with an MBA from Stanford University.

Co-founded Align Technology, maker of Invisalign, in 1997, and took it public with four years as president

A 2001 Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

A mother of two daughters.

Chair of Mothers Out Front, which she co-founded in 2013.

Winner of the 2019 John P. McNulty Prize.

The scientific consensus is that humanity has only until 2030 to stave off the worst effects of climate change. For decades, parents around the country have watched climate deniers and ineffective allies alike delay action. Yet the supposedly far-off crisis was already hurting kids: asthma rates were skyrocketing in cities, harmful methane leaks were neglected and ignored even in dense communities, and extreme heat events and extreme weather events multiplied year by year, lowering quality of life and destroying regions. For Wirth, the wake-up call actually came while reading a bedtime book. “After a day at the aquarium, I was reading a story about coral reefs to my then four-year-old daughter. Suddenly I realized: I am showing my daughter something she is never going to see. What are all the other things that simply won’t exist because of the impact of the climate crisis?

At this stage, Kelsey argues, the climate crisis is about power. “Yes, more information is always useful. More technology is always useful. But fundamentally, the problem is that there’s too much power in the hands of a very few.” She argues the environmental movement needs a well-organized, broad-based constituency to pressure leaders and force local action. Mother’s Out Front builds power in a bottom-up, “snowflake” model: locally, self-organized teams that listen to communities to determine local priorities, and that can connect people to their own sense of power. Their signature strength is energizing members with no prior advocacy experience to tell their stories to decision-makers and to become leaders themselves.

Activists, organizers, and supporters
Volunteers active weekly
Teams of mothers working in over 5 states

Mothers Out Front has seen extraordinary momentum coinciding with growing awareness and concern about the climate crisis. Currently, it has more than 37,000 supporters, with over 2,600 active volunteers including 450 leaders. There are 42 community-based teams across 5 US states, and they are growing across the country with an annual operating budget of over $4 million dollars.

Wirth, the founder of the Invisalign dental company, began Mothers Out Front in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. The area has been the site of many early successes such as when a team of mothers painstakingly identified and measured dozens of methane leaks in the city’s aging gas infrastructure, even holding a birthday party for the city’s longest-running gas leak.

From those beginnings, Mothers Out Front has sought to always be locally-led, and to address the specific concerns of each community, and is consciously creating the multiracial and cross-class movement needed in order to be a force for transformational change. Climate justice, Mothers Out Front holds, must mean justice for the frontline communities bearing the health, environmental, and economic costs of climate change. Often, these are low-income BIPOC communities that have had no voice in where polluting industries are allowed and where polluted water and air is overlooked for decades. Mothers Out Front aims to be a key power-building organization to build the political capital to fight back.

Moms are powerful. Moms can be fearless, and moms are determined. They get stuff done.

Kelsey Wirth

Local chapters have racked up wins that will have positive health effects for generations. In San Jose, CA, they successfully championed a measure to ban gas ranges in new construction (gas ranges are leading sources of indoor pollution). In Massachusetts, the campaign against methane leaks has forced a statewide initiative to repair aging infrastructure. In New York, they successfully blocked the placements of hazardous gas compressors near residential areas. In Virginia, they passed an Electric School Bus initiative focused on densely populated areas facing skyrocketing asthma rates. Mothers Out Front chapters were instrumental in passing an Air Toxins Bill in Colorado, and were asked to join the advisory boards after. Across the country, they have stopped construction of new unnecessary gas and fossil fuel infrastructure and procured funds for green energy instead.

It is core to Mothers Out Front’s mission to center these communities in their advocacy and ensure that their voice and leadership are a key part of the movement for bold action on climate.

“When people come together from different backgrounds, you end up with solutions that are much stronger than you ever would have had alone. But it’s taken me some time to really understand that, because of the role of structural racism in driving injustices in the US, building a multiracial movement is only realized by incorporating anti-racism into our work. We need everyone to be part of this growing movement if we’re going to win,” says Kelsey.

Lasting change is evident in members’ personal transformation: “the relationships they form and the agency they develop stays with them, I think, for the rest of their lives.”

Ultimately, for Kelsey, success is about measurably shifting the trajectory. Being able to say: “I did everything I could,” is not enough: she wants to be able to declare that “we brought a force for change to the climate movement.”

Mothers Out Front will not stop until they have achieved that, for the generations to come. “When we feel tired, and we want to quit, we look at our children and feel ever greater resolve."

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