Transformations: A Conversation with Debbie Raphael, Director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment

by | Jul 22, 2021 | Environment, Voices

Debbie Raphael never planned to work in government. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in biology and Master’s in Psychological Plant Ecology, she began working on her Ph.D. and was on track to don a white lab coat and study plant ecology for the rest of her professional career. However, something about this path didn’t sit right with her. Instead of continuing with her Ph.D. program, Debbie quit. After teaching high school for a few years and working at a science museum, she realized that she wanted to “use science, not do it.” At age 33, Debbie got a job working as an entry-level temp for the City of Santa Monica and unexpectedly fell in love with local government. 

Today, Debbie Raphael is the Director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. She has crafted policies for green building that include the installation of solar panels and electric vehicle charging capacity in all new construction. She has also championed policies on toxics reduction, healthy nail salons, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Although her start in government was unconventional, Debbie has earned her place as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in climate policy.

Read on to learn more about Debbie Raphael’s environmental work, as well as her advice for big life changes. *This conversation has been edited for clarity

How have you seen the environmental field change over the years? Have there been big changes between when you started in the field versus now?

Now, many people have these majors that just didn’t exist when I was an undergrad. You used to be a bio major, maybe you have an emphasis on plant ecology. But the word “environment” never was anywhere. So when I started, the field of environment was really environmental science, and it was very much the science of nature. If you were interested in preserving nature, it was through the lens of biology, geology, and geography. People accessed the environment through these very scientific frames. And now, when you think about the word “environment,” it’s all about intersectionality. This idea of intersectionality used to be so siloed. There’s such an evolution of what it means to do environmental work.

Has it been difficult to enact change while working in a government setting with so many different priorities and agendas? How do you work through roadblocks in your work?

One of the most troubling challenges right now is the intersection of labor. We want an environmental world, and we want to get off of fossil fuels. The decision in San Francisco to ban natural gas in new construction means that we’re going to eventually have stranded assets. We’re going to have to close these big refineries, who are employing thousands of people. What are those people going to do for jobs? They hear us say, “we’ll just transition, we just need to transition,” but we don’t have any examples of what that looks like. So while we don’t face so much political opposition, there are other challenges. There are also a lot of competing needs. There’s a need for mental health care, there’s a need for drug addiction care, and we have a homeless problem. So there’s a lot of really challenging issues that elected officials have to pay attention to. And so for me in the environmental field, sometimes it feels like we’re arm-wrestling for the same pot of money to do the work. And who am I to say that worrying about something that’s going to happen 20 years from now deserves money when what you have right in front of you are people who are homeless, or people who are addicted and people who are dying, people who are hungry. So that is tough. I don’t know. I mean, of course, it’s and not and/or. And yet, when we’re talking about limited resources, it’s hard to find the end.

How can young people get involved in protecting the environment and building resiliency in their communities?

Every job can be a green job. I really don’t like the idea that we need to build green jobs. I want every job to be a green job. One thing young people can do is to bring an environmental curiosity to wherever they find themselves. I think that young people can get involved wherever they find themselves. If you work in the cafeteria at your college making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which is what I did in college, maybe there’s a way you can talk with the food manager about buying organic. Or maybe there’s a way you can help as a student to negotiate a contract. There are lots of clever things that we can do when we bring our curiosity.

The other thing that young people can do is find out how their local government works. So for example, in the city I live in, there’s a city council. There’s also a sustainability committee, and one of the city council members sits on that sustainability committee. Students are welcome to come to those committee meetings. Just showing up and saying “I want to help.” It should be less “someone should add more,” and more “I am willing to (…).” So that when you go in the office, or when you go into that committee, you say, I am willing to find out why we’re not buying organic peanut butter, or I am willing to find out what it would take to put recycling bins in the libraries, rather than someone should put recycling bins in those libraries, right. I think that kind of openness and willingness to show up gets young people a long way because people are happy for the help. Maybe it won’t work, but you will learn something, and you can bring that to your next experience. 

Summer can be an important time of transformation for many people– especially recent high school and college graduates. Do you have any advice for these folks while they’re working to navigate their next steps?

Take a deep breath, and give yourself permission to not know. It’s okay. And honestly, you can’t know what your perfect job or major is until you try different things and discover something about yourself you didn’t know before. Take risks and put yourself into situations that you’re not at all sure of but have the possibility to learn from. That’s where discovery happens.

The word “Ikigai” is Japanese for “purpose” and is the intersection of what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you’re good at. When you’re in your 20s, you have a particular job: to figure out what you’re good at and what you love. The world is run by those who show up. Show up on college campuses, show up in your community, show up in your relationships, and show up for yourself. 


  • Kaija Schlangen

    Kaija is a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth and studies Psychology and Latin American Studies. She grew up in Two Harbors, MN with Lake Superior in her backyard. This proximity to nature ingrained deep respect for environmental conservation in her. She is passionate about committing to equity and justice in all work, but particularly sustainability. In her free time, Kaija enjoys hiking, camping, and spending time with her friends and family.