USC senior Claire Mauss has always had a deep love for desert plants. Her earliest memories include exploring her grandmother’s garden in the town of Rialto, San Bernardino County, which she compared to a “jungle”. That initial fascination with flora turned into a passion for the environment when her high school teacher described how she used to collect runoff from the shower to water her garden.
“Something about it really inspired me, the way she incorporated an academic interest into a way of life,” Mauss said. “It was then that I knew I wanted to pursue a career in environmental science.
I had never really got my hands dirty and wanted to challenge myself.
And Mauss didn’t want to be an armchair activist either. The summer between her freshman and sophomore years, for example, she decided to work on an organic herb farm in Hollister, central California to experience farming and growing plants.
“I wanted to do forced labor. I had never really got my hands dirty and wanted to challenge myself, ”she said. “I was cutting roots in the sun and getting stung by bees, but then you make a tea and you feel very accomplished. It had such an impact on me, so I worked on another farm the following summer. These experiences made me realize that I wanted to work with plants for the rest of my life.
Mauss spent the last years of his university career studying agave in the Huntington Botanic Gardens. There, she conducts research on plant tissue culture in the on-site laboratory with the goal of increasing biodiversity and ensuring the survival of the species.
His particular interest in agave intersects with his passions for biodiversity and equity. Agave, which is widely used for tequila production, has become genetically homogeneous and therefore vulnerable. It also has cultural significance for Mauss, with his Mexican roots, and his work aims to create a safeguard against his extinction.
“It is extremely important to me, as a person of color, that I study and highlight the causes that relate to issues surrounding my culture or taking place in my culture,” she said.
Environment and justice are intertwined in all of Mauss’s work, from studying endangered plants to researching food scarcity in underserved communities. “Globally, disenfranchised people are the most affected by climate change,” she said. “And they have the least political power to solve this problem. When people like me suffer in the world this way and I have the privilege of going to USC, I’m not going to spoil my voice.
And she made her voice heard. Outside of the lab and classroom, Mauss is also the co-executive director of the USC Environmental Student Assembly (ESA). Under his leadership, the organization was restructured to have a more direct impact on university policies and the daily lives of students.
The seeds of environmental advocacy are sown
The summer before starting as a freshman at USC, Mauss had already researched every organization with the environment in its mission. She decided that ESA was the best solution for her. “USC was the school of my dreams and I was so excited to get involved here,” she said. “I went to the very first meeting and loved it and made a bunch of friends. Now this is my baby.
While ESA gave her a community of like-minded peers, Mauss said she sees the organization’s untapped potential. “We were mainly only doing campus events before we restructured the club,” she said. “Now we still organize events, but we have really turned into an advocacy organization. We are now focused on advocating for the specific changes we want to make on campus, with measurable results. “
These results, under his leadership, are impressive. Mauss and his team have successfully lobbied to remove plastic straws from mess halls, increase transportation subsidies for USC staff, and make Mondays meatless at residential restaurants. This latest initiative will run continuously between campus restaurants every Monday from fall 2020.
Nathaniel Hyman, his Co-Executive Director, describes the transformation he has witnessed: “There was a fear within ESA not to make a difference, and Claire changed that. She demanded change and she turned ESA into a vehicle for making that change.
Growing sustainable development at USC
The positive momentum is coming from many factors, Mauss said, including the new leadership of the university. President Carol L. Folt has made progress towards a more sustainable campus, community and world a top priority since taking office in fall 2019.
The environment is fortunate to have [Claire] in his corner.
Mauss said she and other student conservationists saw a change right away: “In the past, when we asked for something, we usually got an immediate ‘No’. Now, with President Folt in power, while we obviously can’t get everything on our wish list, there is a lot more communication, more care and more thoughtfulness on the part of our leaders. Our proposals are studied, and if something is not feasible, they will take the time to explain exactly why.
Mauss and his fellow student leaders have a table seat with senior administrators and staff as members of USC’s sustainability steering committee. And she’s working to transition ESA’s new leadership, so the organization continues its clip pushing the sustainability needle forward.
“Claire is a strong advocate for environmental justice,” Hyman said. “The environment is lucky to have it in its corner.
It won’t stop anytime soon. After graduating in May, Mauss headed straight for a doctoral program in plant biology and career change, one plant at a time.
More stories on: Beginning of 2020, Environment, Students, Sustainable development