With support from the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, NationSwell Fellowships provide the network, support, and knowledge to help young leaders level up their environmental and social impact. Over the course of ten months, NationSwell Fellows will work to refine an individual social impact project, connect with established leaders in their field, build upon their expertise of environmental and social issues, and co-design the program in its inaugural year.  

In this series, NationSwell is profiling the incredible and inspiring recipients of this fellowship. ​​Each of these young leaders stood out for their immense passion in their environmental and social issue areas of focus, demonstration of leadership in the field, and focus on the importance of intersectionality. As social impact trailblazers, they work on a range of issue areas including climate justice, healthcare access, disability rights in the workplace, racial justice, & more. 

To begin this series, we’re interviewing Thea Gay, a recent college graduate from Florida, whose work is bridging the gap between climate justice and the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion. NationSwell interviewed Gay on the digital zine she’s creating as a resource for other social and climate justice activists to help them do this work authentically and sustainably, to encourage them to interrogate their work, and to build the tenacity they will need to stay in the fight for climate change.

NationSwell: Tell us about your journey to social impact and sustainability work. What was the moment you knew you wanted to devote your professional life to what you’re doing now?

Thea Gay: Since I was a teen, I’ve always been intrigued by work that’s centered around communities and the earth. It was in my sociology and history classes in high school that made me realize I wanted to devote my professional life to what I’m doing now: fighting for social justice and climate justice. These classes forced me to reckon with the idea that as a queer Black woman, society dramatically shapes how I and people like me navigate the world.

While I knew this to be true based on my experiences, these classes gave me the knowledge of why and how social structures/constructs work against minorities. I began to wonder how people of other identities were also shaped by society. I started noticing a trend: marginalized communities were disproportionately impacted by social injustices. While I have disadvantages, I also have many privileges that I can leverage to create a kinder world that is just and equitable. This is something I intend to do for the rest of my life.

NationSwell: What are some of the ways this fellowship has been able to support your work? What have you gotten out of it, and has anything surprised you along the way?

Gay: The NationSwell community has truly been a resource hub of wonderful opportunities, educational assets, and comprehensive support. I am currently at an early point in my professional career where I am beginning to carve out my path. Being able to connect with a community of young social impact influencers like myself, social impact leaders with extensive expertise, and even being mentored by one has been incredible. I relish this experience for giving me a chance to grow my creative mind and push me to think about the possibilities and impact that I could have. I am so grateful to be a part of NationSwell’s inaugural fellowship.

NationSwell: What’s the focus of your work right now? And what’s next for you?

Gay: In my day job as a Program Associate at the Lawmaker Network, I help facilitate high-level programming for Lawmakers and assess nationwide lawmaker impact to help our nation move towards racial, environmental, and social justice. I have a passion for finding creative solutions and developing resources and events focused on DEI, intersectionality, and greater.representation of marginalized communities. I would love to do more work centered around community and human-centered impact and design.

NationSwell: How can NationSwell’s ecosystem of social impact leaders and partners help you with your short term and/or long term goals? Give us one to three examples.

Gay: In the long term, I would love for the NationSwell community to stay connected with me and get in touch with any professional or personal opportunities that speak to the work I am interested in. Recommendations and referrals go a long way and would be greatly appreciated. Please tap me in as well if there is anything that I can do to give back to NationSwell for all that they have done for me. Whether that’s helping the next class of fellows or speaking at an event I am honored to be a part of this community.

In the short term, I’m looking for support on my impact incubator project, and I hope members of your community will share it so it can reach as many people as possible. This project means so much to me and I really hope that it will mean something to those who read it too.

To learn more about the NationSwell Fellows program, visit our fellowship hub.