The UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability presented the 2020 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award to Clara Pratte, a Navajo advocate for tribal communities and a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team who focuses on tribal engagement.
Pratte advises tribes across the United States on economic development issues, with the goals of alleviating poverty and advancing tribal sovereignty. She founded Strongbow Strategies, a firm that assists tribal and government clients with business and technical issues, in 2013. She is also part of the leadership team of Navajo Power, a public benefit corporation that transitions tribal lands from extractive energy industries such as coal to large-scale solar energy.
The annual award carries a prize of $100,000, which is funded through a portion of a $20 million gift to UCLA from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. It is the field’s first major honor specifically for innovators under the age of 40 — those whose work stands to benefit most from the prize money and the prestige it conveys.
Pratte said the award, which was presented Dec. 16 in an online ceremony, brought to mind traditional wisdom.
“There’s a Navajo saying that when there’s a world to heal, there’s going to be a mother to do it — a woman to do it,” Pratte said.
Through her work with Navajo Power, Pratte gathers input to make sure prospective clean energy projects serve the community’s needs. In many cases, she said, companies trying to work on Native lands fail because they lack an understanding of the everyday realities facing residents. They often communicate only with tribal leadership, which may not understand the needs of each individual community. The results create injustices, such as power lines that run over homes lacking electricity. Navajo Power makes sure that’s not the case on its projects.
The company reinvests its profits in the community — reimbursing people for the use of their land and making sure every home has electricity and water.
“I was born and raised in the Navajo community with no water or electricity, thinking that the only way we could survive is to join the capitalist community we’re part of,” Pratte said. “We destigmatize and demystify what it’s like to work on tribal lands.”
The Pritzker Award is open to anyone working to solve environmental challenges through any lens — from science to advocacy and entrepreneurism. For the second straight year, the winner represents an indigenous group and, for the third consecutive year, all three finalists were women.
In addition to Pratte, the finalists were Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a Marshallese poet and climate activist who performed at the United Nations Climate Summit, and Leah Penniman, who co-founded a community farm centered on Black and Indigenous people that aims to end racism and injustice in the food system. A panel of UCLA faculty members selected the finalists from among 20 candidates who were nominated by an international group of environmental leaders.
Pratte was chosen as winner by a panel of four distinguished judges: Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPrize Foundation; Kevin de León, Los Angeles City Councilmember; Lori Garver, CEO of Earthrise Alliance; and Kara Hurst, head of worldwide sustainability at Amazon.
“I don’t need to convince this crowd that climate change is an existential threat,” de León said. “We cannot solve it unless all individuals can access the latest and greatest energy technologies and live in a sustainable community.”
The announcement of Pratte as the winner was made by Tony Pritzker, who founded the award and is a member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s advisory board. He praised all of the nominees for their practical efforts during a difficult time.
“2020 obviously has been a different sort of year,” Pritzker said. “The word that I have in my mind is ‘grateful.’ I’m grateful for my health and the health of my family in a way I’ve never appreciated before. I’m grateful for your perseverance and dedication to the Earth and its various environmental needs. You’re all working toward solutions that can make this a better place to live.”