Who’s Next Episode 2: SMMUSD Now Powered by Renewable Energy and What Our Guests Will Miss About Samo (and Samohi) as They Head to College


Damien welcomes back Maya, Emery and Willa for our second “Who’s Next” podcast. The three guests are all seniors at Santa Monica High School and leaders of the environmental group Team Marine. 

On Wednesday, SMMUSD celebrated becoming a school district completely powered by renewable energy, and in the first ten minutes or so of the podcast, we talk about what achieving that goal means for the District and what these three leaders did to push the district to make that change happen faster.

The second two parts of the podcast are more fun. Emery, Maya and Willa are departing for college in the fall and we talk about some of the things they enjoyed about growing up in Santa Monica and some very specific things that they’ll miss about their hometown.

A transcript of the podcast can be found below the audio.

So we’re back for our second podcast with Emery, Maya and Willa. It just so happens that earlier today they were part of a ceremony at Santa Monica high school, Samohi,  for a big announcement about some of the school’s environmental initiatives and their roles in it. Rather than me reading the press release,why don’t one of you just explain what it was that today was about and what it was you all were doing up there and what it is you all did to sort of get the ball rolling on this project?

We were at Santa Monica high school today  celebrating the school district’s transition to 100% renewable energy. We worked on just getting them or pushing them to transition in January through March of last year when they voted to transition. It took about six months to complete, and then by October we were running on 100 % renewables. Yeah it was really cool. 

We got to celebrate with board members, with city council members, with Team Marine which is the Samohi environmental activism organization that helped push for the switch and Human Rights Watch student task force was there. 

I feel like you 2 having actually spoken at the board meeting might have the most to say about that. I was there at the meeting. You two spoke ah excellently. I guess one of the takeaways from the celebration today was like how much we’ve seen this throughout our advocacy. How much student voices really matter when people like people really like listening to us.

Because we have chosen to lend our voice to this cause it seemed significant in making it happen.

So you mentioned going to the board. Can you describe the process? 

I know the district has made a commitment years ago to transition to renewable energy, and to become more carbon neutral and that what you guys did really accelerated the timeline. I think  twenty thirty was like the earliest they were looking at until just a couple years ago so maybe talk a little bit about what actually did to push them to make this change faster.

Well actually, the school district had what it called a climate adaptation plan or sustainability plan. They actually laid out for a switch to renewable energy by 2020 and so it was actually really interesting how it happened. I think it was in 2019 that the district switched to 100% renewable energy and then when covid happened and there were some things in transition in terms of staffing at the district level and the district switched to a new plan. 

The schools were receiving 40% renewable energy. But then Samohi and I don’t know if it was the district offices or Malibu, which were the biggest consumers of energy, weren’t running on renewable energy at all. 

So it was just this really interesting thing where we made progress and then we kind of took a step back. I think we just wanted to make sure that we kept the district accountable and went back to meeting that sustainability target. In terms of what our role was, I think we’ve been really lucky to have the privilege of working with Austin Toyama who’s the sustainability manager and all of the sustainability people at the district level Carrie Upton.

I think just meeting with them figuring out how we could convince the board…the board’s transition to renewable energy. I think once we get in contact with them, it just kind of happens. 

Naturally, we got Team Marine folks out to board meetings to testify and to really push them in the right direction and I think the board was very receptive. I think we’re lucky to live in a place like Santa Monica where people actually care about sustainability.

We helped push for it but there were a lot of other people that were involved too.

So Willa, Emery mentioned that you were one of the people that spoke at the board meeting. As I have never been to a Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board meeting…is it, is it I don’t know, weird or intimidating? Do they have a dais set up? How is it to do a public comment there.

I used to be a very outgoing person before the pandemic and then afterward I became extremely shy and now have a crippling fear of public speaking. So when Austin came to Maya and I and was saying, “we want to do this.” I felt this is so important. 

And then he said, “it would be really awesome if you guys spoke in front of the board.” I was thinking, “uh-oh” and alarm bells are going off in my brain. 

I always feel that if there’s something that’s important enough to me, I will overcome some sort of fear to do it. And by no means did that experience cure my fear of public speaking…I still do not like it. It really scares me. Bu,  I did it and like there was a very positive outcome. 

I think I played it up a little too much in my head. Honestly, having spoken in front of the school board now multiple times, I feel like they’re honestly…really lovely…and super supportive.

So it’s funny to look back and be, “oh my gosh like I was so scared of them like they were so intimidating” because they are just like the sweetest, most supportive people ever. Especially as a student, they are just so excited to see students getting involved in caring about issues.

But I was very intimidated when I went up to that podium with Maya. So I was glad to have her there with me. It was very nice.

Okay, oh and know and it worked out! I mean it. It is cool that you got to do the public speaking and you got to win out of it. 

It’s always really depressing when you have to face down a fear and then you don’t get a win out of it. 

But I guess it sounds like there had been a lot of work put in ahead of time too. So that’s ah that that always helps. So is it just Santa Monica High School that’s now hundred percent renewable or the whole district? 

This whole district.

So yeah, the whole district.

That’s impressive. Well, thank you for that good work. Is there anything else you guys want to add about that? It’s okay to say no.

Yeah I mean at least for me I think that’s it.

So then I will transition. 

Originally when I first pitched this podcast to you guys back in March, one of the things I wanted to talk about was some of the advantages, or disadvantages if you choose, of sort of growing up in Santa Monica and being in Santa Monica. 

You guys just talked about this activism experience that sounds like it was pretty good but is there so anything things think anything sort of. 

See “professional broadcaster” and I still trip over my tongue. My ego is so low that I won’t even edit this part out. 

Anyway, I was hoping there’d be you got we could talk a little bit about that like what it’s like to grow up in Santa Monica you think it’s different what advantages or something and then even at the end wanted to talk about something like. Fun or cool that you think might be somewhat unique to the city or something you like to do that you’re going to miss when you’re away at your fantastic colleges next year


I’ll start with a more pointed question of like do you have any good impressions or I should say a more direct question, any impressions of some advantages in what life was like growing up in Santa Monica versus I don’t know anywhere else in the world.

I can talk about this real quick because I actually don’t live in Santa Monica anymore. I go to school there, but we moved when I was 8 so I live closer to LAX now. I don’t think I really appreciated while I was in Santa Monica and now I really do miss the walkability of Santa Monica. Everything is so close like there’s always a park nearby. You can walk places.

Public transportation is not perfect by any means but it’s pretty doable. I think now where I live, there’s not that same friendliness and people don’t really walk outside so it doesn’t feel as safe. 

I would say that is something that I do really miss from Santa Monica, and I still go to school there so I do still get to enjoy that for the most part. But yeah I think that’s one really great thing about the city.

As a distance runner living in West Los Angeles the first thing I do on any run that’s more than three miles is I run into Santa Monica. I never run east towards Westwood or or Palms. My first thing I do is I run into Santa Monica. Then my route changes from there in part because the sidewalks are great. People are great. It…of course if I run far enough there’s a beach path so that’s pretty great too. Anything Emory or Willa want to add to this?

Like you just mentioned, the beach is really fun. I definitely take it for granted.

In my college process, I looked at places on the East Coast which is ironic because I’m. Going to school in California…in L.A. County… which is very funny. 

When I thought about leaving, I realized just how unique the landscape is in Santa Monica. You have all of these gorgeous walkways that are literally on bluffs overlooking the ocean and it’s just gorgeous. You have the PCH, which I really loved during the pandemic, my family and I would just go on drives down the PCH because we couldn’t go outside and it was just so…nice to kind of have that natural scene. 

I also grew up around Main Street and I feel like that’s just such a fun community as well. It’s a little bit lesser known among the tourists, but it’s kind of nice because all the locals are there and it has so many awesome small businesses and things like that. I feel like that’s so important.

Well Emery you have to say something now because everyone else went.

Before I say the more interesting thing, I’m gonna say the boring thing that you said…or that you said would be boring..

I accused you of having a more boring answer than I would have had, even though you’re young and hip and I’m neither of those things.

I would point out the great bike lanes. Our bike lanes are really good for the Los Angeles area. I bike to school and back…to most places that I can bike I will just do that. Why take the effort of going in the car when it’s gonna be like 20 minutes? 

Anyways, you touched on the beach. I definitely take for granted and underutilize this. I pretty much don’t go to the beach, maybe I’ll miss that when I’m on the East Coast. 

The sun,that’s a pretty great thing in Santa Monica that we do get that not all places get. I appreciate that about Santa Monica more specifically.

The privilege of going to SMMUSD and Samohi is a winning experience. I think about the college process and the experience of being at a university that can be something that’s wildly different from what the rest of life is. I think Samohi does a good job of being a school that represents. Ah…is closer to representing the entire community closer to representing everyone…it shows different walks of life and there’s a place for everyone.

I guess I have found my place so it’s easy for me to say that but that’s been my experience.

Do you even own a pair of gloves or like a winter hat like what’s the plan?

I had gloves when I was like 8. I have gardening gloves. Yeah, that’s what it is. We will have to stock up before going out.

Gardening gloves.

My son who’s 14…one of his best friend’s brother goes to MIT now and the dude had never left…I don’t think it’d ever been outside of Southern California in his entire life except for like a trip to Japan. The first thing he always says every time I see him…it’s been 2 years…he wants to talk about how cold it is. 

So I know you’re not in Boston, but maybe but get a hat or a little scarf all right? Right?

So we talked about some of the good things about growing up. So the follow-up question is to talk about something fun, something fun that you’ll miss next year. So no, don’t just say, “bike lanes” but maybe like this particular bike ride you like doing that you’re not going to be able to do next year or you’ll have to find something very similar to it to be able to do next year …something that might be unique to here, a specific place or memory or event or something like that.

<long pause>

And while you think, I’ll give you mine to give you an extra minute or 2.

So, on Friday mornings I get up very early because it’s the only time a friend of mine we can both meet up to go running. It’s like five fifty in the morning, that’s when we start. We get there at 5:45 and we stretch for 5 minutes first but we meet at Ocean and Main… no excuse me, Ocean and Main don’t cross…we meet at Ocean and Santa Monica Boulevard. While we’re stretching we have that overlook on the pier. Ah and it is one of our traditions that we have is we try to guess what the pier is going to look like, what the Ferris wheel is going to look like. All that sort of stuff based on the holidays.

So I get press releases from the pier communications. Sometimes it’s about what the thing’s going to look like and if it’s going to be if it’s something special like a holiday or Dodgers blue or something like that. I haven’t told her why I’m so much better at guessing than her..;.this will also be I can find out now if she listens to the podcast or not. She listens to some podcasts when she’s runs and I never asked if she listens to mine. Now I’ll find out maybe not this Friday but next friday

And that’s such a good strategy. Oh my gosh.

Well I wasn’t doing Santa Monica Next when we started doing this but when those press releases started to come to me I was like, “oh it’s going to be red for a week to celebrate API month.”

So cheat codes unlocked.

And I can’t do ones that would be weird,  like when Wrestlemania was in town. They had a big WWE like logo on the wheel like if I guessed that that would have tipped her off that something was up because that’s you know a little outside of normal. 

All right? So though I want to pick on Emery. He went last time. Maybe you should go first this time.

Could you repeat the question. We.

Can I repeat…I just I just vamped and all that.. 

Ahem, so what’s something specific that you do here that you will miss. Maybe not being able to do is regularly next year. So I gave a specific example if I were not in Los Angeles so close to Santa Monica I would still go running on Fridays obviously because I’m mentally ill and like to run a lot apparently; but  I wouldn’t be able to do that stuff with the pier and that that I get to do with my friend every every week while we’re stretching because there’s not a big ferris wheel everywhere in the world.

Something that I appreciate is being a suburb while having access to LA is cool. 

That is, I play something that you can do elsewhere but I go to the Collins and Katz Family YMCA and I’m able to do that in West LA while being in walkable, bikeable San Monica. I appreciate that. 

I also like going Downtown sometimes to Union Station to engage with LA and I appreciate being able to have something like this more peaceful.

You know that is like a great answer but he seems to be nervous about it. It was such a good answer, like you get to be in like this wonderful community of Santa Monica and then you have access to all the stuff especially with like Expo and that it’s not even like a half hour train trip apart. You don’t even need a car.

I don’t think I can top that. Mine was going to be that I’m going miss Samosa House, because I love Indian food. There’s Indian food everywhere. But there’s not Samosa House everywhere. So it’s going to be rough. I don’t know.

I want to say that I can see these guys because we have video up but we’re only recording the audio. People popped at the words Samosa House so that was a very popular answer.

I feel like Santa Monica food is just on top. It’s so good. Yeah, that’s that’s the thing.

I eat vegan food. It’s so easy. I mean, that is 1 thing that I really like. 

Maya and I are both vegan but I’ve had chronic migraines and so apparently gluten can sometimes trigger migraines. 

So I’ve been trying to reduce my gluten intake, that would not be possible anywhere else to be gluten free and vegan even for a little bit anywhere else. I would be dead and so that’s really nice. 

Santa Monica just has so many options. It’s a very health conscious place, very into very hippie things. That’s very nice  for me. 

I already talked to you guys about this but Small World Books. The best bookstore on the entire planet. There are 2 cats that live in the bookstore and you can pet them and they’re so cute and it’s just like a really great small business. I buy every single book that I have on my shelf from there because they are just so wonderful. 

Support local bookstores!

And as I mentioned, they’ve got a great cafe in our pre-interview. They’ve got a great cafe. It’s also right on the boardwalk because that’s where I have met people to eat and drink after boardwalk runs. 

But I will say Maya…you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding good vegan food in Berkeley California

I think I’ll be okay but I’ll still Miss Samosa house

Ah, yeah, that might be our ah that might be the um winter break catch up podcast with you guys. We’ll have to find out if .. how the vegan food is stacked up.

The reunion. Yeah no I will say also just to add to what makes Santa Monica so cool…I didn’t realize how accessible like city council members and city staff were to us. Two weeks ago, I’m part of Youth Climate Strike and we had protests down at LA City  Hall.

We went to the city council because we wanted to give public comments and present our demands for the strike. It was such a different experience.  I’m used to being in Santa Monica City council where all the council members will come and introduce themselves to people and there’s like 10 people there, tops. 

And there were just like so many people wanting to give public comment but then also like the leaders were coming in and out of the chambers. Most of them weren’t even there and if they were there they were on their phones, not even listening. It was insane. 

It just didn’t really click how lucky we are to have leaders, and I think part of that is also just Santa Monica being such a small city compared to the City of Los Angeles, but I think it still is a very big deal.

I mean compared to LA..but it’s got 80000 people at nighttime. That’s not nothing. I actually like covering the Santa Monica city council now as an outside reporter for a year and a half and some of the members don’t trust us because of our perceived politics.

But, I actually find your council to be pretty fantastic. Members that are on what I would consider the wrong side of the issues more often than not still seem amenable to talking or hearing people out…actually caring about things.

I’ve seen people change their minds on hot button issues. The single gender bathroom bill that the city passed, second in the country to pass: some council members said some things in the press after it was proposed that maybe weren’t super progressive.

People reached out to educate them about the issue and 1 of them spoke extremely movingly about the civil rights struggle he grew up with and how he hadn’t seen this as a civil rights issue. 

Now, everything has changed. He’s what I would consider one of the more conservative members, but he was able to sit there and bring in this experience of his life and see other people struggling and get an understanding and ultimately changed his vote.

I thought it was one of the best things I had actually heard at any city council meeting and said he’s not someone that politically would probably find the editorial positions of our publication to be in line with him very often. B

But it was a really powerful thing that you wouldn’t see in LA because the politicians stick to their guns as opposed to listen and learn. 

So yeah, it is. It is pretty cool. Right? 

So we’re starting to approach the 30 minute mark and I’m hoping to get 1 more in with you guys before you graduate, but it is only like five weeks away. We’ll see in like two weeks, I’ll start bugging you to try and pin down a time. But if for some reason we don’t get together again as a group. Thank you guys so much for these 2 podcasts. 

They were wonderful.

They were fun. 

You guys are great and did some really cool work and I said I didn’t know that it was going to be the same day as the big event that SMMUSD did to celebrate 100% renewable energy. But that is really cool timing and I’m really happy. You guys were able to make time for me today. 

But if any of you have a closing thought or anything you want to say that’s. Not on any agenda that I have, you’ve got 3 minutes and 48 seconds so we hit the 30 minute Mark so you know keep it moving.

Yeah, um, actually could I add something to the first part of our conversation..

 Okay, so one thing that I guess I just want to highlight and maya and I kind of highlighted this in our speeches at the celebration event was that we were really happy and grateful that everyone had come together and worked together on this change to make one hundred percent renewable energy in SMMUSD. 

But we also look to emphasize that renewable energy is just one part of sustainability and that sustainability is like a process. It’s not. :”Oh we did it. It’s done. Congratulations, guys.” 

It’s more, “We’ve done this. That’s great There’s so much more to do there will always be more to do.” I just wanted to emphasize that here because I think it’s important to know that um there is still more to be done and there is also cause to celebrate.

And I guess I should warn you Chris has told me she’s got all your video speeches from today. So just a warning, I don’t know that’s it I’ll just interview the speeches as though I’m as and we’re doing a podcast together. But no I’m kidding I wouldn’t do that. That’s way too much work. But so you might be seeing those speeches again on our website sometime soon.

Well again, thank you all. I hope we can get together again in June and maybe we’ll try again next December too. Ah, but if not, you guys are great. Knock ‘em dead. Next year and beyond.

Thank you, and thank you for taking the time to meet with us. This has been really fun.

Yeah, it’s always very enjoyable.

Yeah, thank you for putting this together.

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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