Fresh Spotlight: Meet the Public Affairs team

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Four members of Fresh Energy’s Public Affairs team—from left to right, Anna, Justin, Brynn and J.

At Fresh Energy, we’re driving clean energy progress that secures an equitable, decarbonized future for all who call Minnesota home, and we can’t do that work without the support of communities across our state. That’s where our Public Affairs team comes in. As public engagement and advocacy experts, they bring enthusiasm, in-depth knowledge of how to strategically navigate the various levels of Minnesota government, and, if we’re being honest, the perfect amount of humor too. Read on to get to know each of them better!

Where the personal and professional collide

Fresh Energy’s Public Affairs team is comprised of Senior Lead, Public Affairs and Advocacy Justin Fay; Senior Manager, State and Local Affairs Anna Johnson; Senior Manager, Advocacy Campaigns Brynn Kirsling, Senior Director, Science Policy J. Drake Hamilton, and contract lobbyist John Berns. Together, the team is building a shared commitment to climate action by focusing on coalitions, collaboration, and leadership; opportunities for individual action; and policy design and advocacy. Each member of the team comes to Fresh Energy with a different background.

Meet Justin, senior lead, public affairs and advocacy

Justin Fay in front of the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.

Justin has deep experience in a variety of legislative and policy venues, having filled numerous roles with Sierra Club North Star Chapter, the campaign to pass the 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, the Nature Conservancy, and the Campaign for Conservation, among others. When asked about his personal climate journey, Justin admits that being raised by parents who enjoyed the outdoors played a key role—the family went camping on summer weekends, and that informed a large part of how Justin views the world. He wanted to be able to have those experiences as an adult too.

He adds that high school debate also played a key role: “Every year on the debate team there was a different topic, or resolution, that the teams focused on. My sophomore year of high school, the resolution was about renewable energy. And this was very, very early on in the conversation—where people were simply asking, ‘Hey, should we do this thing one day?’ And I remember thinking it was the most fascinating subject I’d ever wrestled with.” Although it would be years before Justin encountered climate and clean energy advocacy with his career, he remembers that time as the moment the seed was planted.

Meet Anna, senior manager, state and local affairs

Anna is an outdoor enthusiast. Before joining Fresh Energy, Anna co-founded an environmental education nonprofit, worked at the Minnesota House of Representatives, was a Research Assistant with the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, and interned at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. She remembers her introduction to climate advocacy fondly: “I had the great privilege and benefit of going to summer camp when I was younger. It was very formative. We did a lot of canoeing in the Canadian wilderness.”

Anna Johnson stands in front of the Capitol building in St. Paul, Minn.

Recalling one camp memory in particular, Anna mentions how, one summer, she was in the middle of the lake canoeing, in a place where she felt completely secluded. “Out of what seemed like nowhere, I heard a buzzing sound,” she says, “So I asked my counselor about it, and they told me it was loggers, cutting down trees nearby. It was a moment of realization for me, where it became clear that the wonderful world I loved was being threatened. And I felt very deceived.” From that moment forward, Anna remembers hearing about climate change on the news and in various conversations, all along knowing that she wanted to help protect the places we live and the people who call them home. 

Meet Brynn, senior manager, advocacy campaigns

Brynn joined the Public Affairs team in 2022 with deep experience in campaigns and advocacy from working at the Minnesota State House, AFSCME International, the U.S. House of Representatives, and consulting for candidates and elected officials.

Brynn grew up in northern Minnesota, spending lots of time outdoors from sunup to sundown. She remembers visiting her grandparents, who had a lake in northwest Wisconsin, and spending time together on nature walks, pressing leaves, and listening to the wind as it blew through the forest. Those experiences formed a foundation for a deep appreciation for the outdoors, but after her sixth-grade teacher straightforwardly talked about the urgency of climate change, she started to keep it more front of mind as she spent time outside.

“It’s a deep privilege to grow up a few hours from the Boundary Waters, and that that level of preservation is possible,” says Brynn. “It’s a powerful place to be. If you’ve ever been in a place with complete silence, and had the sky kind of eat you up because you can see the actual depth of stars at night, you know that it sticks with you. Those moments remind me why I do this [climate] work.”

As she grew older, Brynn turned her attention toward systems-level work. “I did national politics in D.C. for a while, and eventually I came back home to Minnesota to figure out what I wanted to do next,” says Brynn. “I was thinking of the things that keep me up at night, and climate change was top of mind. We’re seeing it happen. I just wanted to do good, impact problems in our system, and focus on doing the work in my lane really well.”

Meet J. Drake Hamilton, senior director, science policy

J. has served as an instrumental part of Fresh Energy for nearly 30 years, representing Fresh Energy at the global climate summits, showcasing Minnesota’s climate leadership on the global stage. J. also gives more than 50 presentations each year to businesses and civic organizations.

J. Drake Hamilton in front of Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis

J. learned about climate change when she was a geography major in college. J. credits her Dartmouth College years as a turning point in her own climate and clean energy career trajectory. “I had a dream in college where, one day, I woke up and said to myself, ‘What I want to do is help save the world.’ And I wasn’t talking about saving the planet, but about saving people.”

J.’s science expertise and interest in system dynamics led her into international energy development, where she worked for the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development on Kenyan projects. By 1995, J. says she sensed that there was an opening here in Minnesota with policymakers to begin a long-term transition of the electric system from what it was to something much better.

“I knew that this work would take a long time,” J. admits, “that it would be a slow burn of sorts. So, I left academia, and I came to Fresh Energy. And that was a big unknown to me, since I was the first person that [former Executive Director] Michael Noble hired.” J. says that the early years were heavy on relationship building in the electricity sector, and those relationships have consistently panned out.

Meet John, contract lobbyist

Besides Fresh Energy’s internal experts, the Public Affairs team also works closely with former State Representative John Berns. John began his relationship with Fresh Energy in 2007 while serving on the conference committee for the landmark Next Generation Energy Act and officially started working as a contract lobbyist for Fresh Energy in 2014. Now as a private attorney and lobbyist, John has continued that close collaboration with our team, providing key insights into the ever-changing politics and priorities in the Twin Cities and beyond. John also serves as a firefighter in his community of Wayzata.

Building a shared commitment to climate action

Justin says, “In the broadest possible way, our advocacy work with public decision-makers is fully inclusive, and we think about our relationship with them as a partnership.” Justin adds that working alongside public decision-makers to elevate community priorities is key: “When we go to the state legislature, a public agency, or city hall, we are holding the relationship of partners with that entity, to help support them in making decisions that don’t just align with Fresh Energy’s mission and vision, but that, based on the best data and technical advice, are in the best interest of all Minnesotans,” he says.

Fresh Energy has been a driving force behind the clean energy transition for three decades, using data, science, and expert knowledge of what is possible and what is needed to shape and drive bold policy solutions that achieve equitable, carbon-neutral economies. And the Public Affairs team’s role is crucial to our work—because our clean energy future also requires public and political will.

That’s why Fresh Energy is doubling down on reaching and inspiring people, driving nonpartisan public engagement to ensure that people from across the political landscape in Minnesota and the Midwest are mobilized toward a common vision of building an equitable, prosperous, decarbonized clean energy future for all who call our state home.

The Minnesota State Capitol, where Fresh Energy’s Public Affairs team carries out a bulk of its work building a shared commitment to a zero-carbon future and driving ambitious policy change at multiple levels of government. Photo/Fresh Energy.

Justice, equity, and access are baked into all of Fresh Energy’s work, particularly the Public Affairs program as it spearheads Fresh Energy’s nonpartisan climate and clean energy advocacy at government and community levels.

Climate change must be addressed in individual communities, towns, and cities across Minnesota, the Midwest, the United States as a country, and at the global scale. “Climate change requires action at all levels,” says Anna. “By serving in this role and helping decision-makers make the best, most informed choices, we are pulling the highest lever necessary in order to equitably decarbonize our economy,” she says.

Fresh Energy’s Public Affairs team members Brynn, Justin, and Anna with 2023 Session Associate Sally Bauer

Thanks to their individual skill sets and their ability to wear a number of hats at once, Justin, Anna, Brynn, J., and John have a system down. “We work well together and communicate well,” Anna says, adding that—although there’s a fair amount of interaction between their respective responsibilities—she leads the team’s work at local government venues, and Justin drives state-level work as well as coordinating amongst the Public Affairs team and with other key Fresh Energy team members.

Justin notes, “We have very specialized staff at Fresh Energy. The specialty of Public Affairs is that we’re all a little good at everything. That’s what allows us to work so well as a team. We might not all be good at exactly the same things, or think the same way, or have the same work styles, but there’s a high degree of interchangeability among us.”

With the Public Affairs team helping build strong, collaborative partnerships with decision-makers and stakeholders at all levels of government and with consumers, elected officials across the political spectrum, labor unions, businesses, and communities—especially those most vulnerable to climate change—those of us at Fresh Energy are confident we’ll see continued climate and clean energy progress in the years ahead.

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