Jess Phoenix

Representing Us

Air Date: January 6, 2018

California Congressional candidate, Millennial and geologist Jess Phoenix discusses the need for representative democracy.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Public lands are increasingly under attack, vulnerable to molestation, as is the scientific method itself. One of the young activists turned candidates is on the front lines of fighting back against the present administration’s neglect of science. Volcanologist and geologist Jess Phoenix led an educational science non-profit, Blueprint Earth, until she declared her congressional candidacy for California’s 25th District. Phoenix is part of what many hope will be a new rising wave of female legislators, but “getting more women in office isn’t just about increasing gender parity in the U.S.,” wrote women’s online magazine Bustle, “when women get involved in the government, they actually change how it functions in a way that benefits woman, families, and the country at large.” Jess, it’s a pleasure to meet you.

PHOENIX: Thanks so much for having me here. This is great.

HEFFNER: Thanks for being here. You were saying to me off-camera, I always want to give our guests the opportunity to say what are we omitting, what are we neglecting as a journalistic cohort, right? We’re asking the questions. You were saying to me you want to reiterate that the representation in Congress today, which you are seeking yourself in the 25th District of California, is not representative of this country.

PHOENIX: Yes, that’s correct, and I think it’s a problem that we really need to address. The average age of a member of Congress is 58, and if you think about it, everything you hear in the news is about millennials this, millennials that, and millennials don’t have a voice in office right now. There, I think there’s only five who are in Congress, who by members of Congress actually qualify as part of that age group. Additionally, we only have 19 percent women and you know, the average net worth of a member of Congress is over a million dollars, and to me that just does not speak to the makeup of our country. And it’s supposed to be the people’s house. So it really, it really bothers me that we don’t have adequate representation right now in government.

HEFFNER: It’s veered to being the oligarchs’ house in so many ways. The representative, the aspiration of representative government, you’re on the front lines now as a candidate seeking higher office, whereas many millennials over the last decade had channeled their energy into volunteerism. You want to tout the importance of public service, don’t you?

PHOENIX: Yes, and you know, I founded and run a non-profit so obviously people who volunteer are a huge part of how non-profits work. But we also need people to get engaged civically. No longer can people afford, especially younger people afford oh I, I’m not interested in politics or I don’t pay attention to the news. You have to, because it impacts literally every facet of our lives, and it’s going to continue to do so for the next forty, fifty years. I mean that’s, that’s your kids and your grandkids that are gonna be impacted.

HEFFNER: It was the federalist aspiration from the original papers of the founders that it would be laymen and women who came from professions across disciplines,


HEFFNER: Farmers, of course notably then, now innovators, scientists like yourself, from watching some of your Facebook videos, you are very passionate in wanting to bring your value system which believes in science and the rigor of science back into a chamber that seems to be increasingly devoid of science.

PHOENIX: Yes. I mean really one of the, the big key moments for me when I decided to run was realizing that the current administration and the GOP leadership in particular are attacking facts. And you know, I am a fact-based person. I live in the real world and I work in the real world. And you know, that’s what scientists do is we use facts to analyze problems, find solutions, test our hypotheses. We’re basically saying the world around us is made up of things that we can test and measure and look at objectively, so we need some of that in our policymaking, because we’re missing it right now.

HEFFNER: Well I want to give you a chance to expound. How do you apply the scientific method to the political scene today?

PHOENIX: So it actually is pretty neat, because you know, I work in geology primarily. Natural hazards is sort of my, my field within that. So volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, like these are the things that I, I deal with. And you can take what you do with one science and port it across to others. So I may not be an expert on, I don’t know, let’s say sudden infant death syndrome, but I can use the scientific method which is looking for facts, looking at, at the academic work that’s been done already, and then using that to start to get some, some idea of where we need to go. Let’s say we want to solve SIDS, so I would talk to experts. I would say look, I’m not an expert in this, I can read the academic papers that are out there, but let me get expertise from others and then use all of the available evidence before I decide what action we can take to, to fix that problem. And that’s, that works across disciplines and it, you can even apply it to anything you can study, and a really good example, one of my favorites, is that right now, you know, we have this gun violence epidemic that’s going on, and it’s terrible, and it’s not just mass shootings, it’s suicides and domestic violence as well. And the CDC, Centers for Disease Control, used to study, used to be able to study gun violence and now they can’t. That was changed in the 90s, and since then, the CDC has not been able to study the causes or possible solutions to gun violence. So that’s something where science can actually help solve a problem.

HEFFNER: And you were similarly outraged about folks being appointed to positions in the scientific, the supposed scientific community who did not have the credentials to really evaluate any of these issues in science or health.

PHOENIX: Yes, and, and it’s not so much not having the credentials. That’s, that’s a key component, because if you’re the head scientist somewhere you probably should be a scientist. That would be a good starting point. But it’s also rejecting basic science. Rejecting it, the factual aspects of it just outright, because as it’s been said, science is true whether or not you believe in it. And that’s the same, you know, goes for facts because science is underpinned by facts. So in this era of alternative facts and fake news, we have to have people who are willing to say you know what? I don’t know that, that’s not my field, but I’m gonna learn and I’m going to figure out with all the available knowledge what the truth is, and we’re gonna act on that. And the key thing, and this is something that I tell my students all the time, which is never work with somebody who is afraid to say they don’t know something or who is afraid to change their mind, because with new evidence, we should change our minds. That’s how, that’s how government should work.

HEFFNER: Well so how do you get folks to change their minds and are you encountering this on the campaign trail on the 25th, which is a fairly split district between Republicans and Democrats, and in fact I believe that Secretary Clinton won the district even though the Republican who is the incumbent also won the district.


HEFFNER: Are folks in your district in California sensitive to environmental concerns right now more than usual?

PHOENIX: Oh yes, and actually, you know, we’ve had a spate of wildfires over the last couple of years, and so that is our biggest natural hazard, and it’s something that everybody in our communities has to deal with. It, it touches everyone, because at the very least, you get worse air quality when there’s a big wildfire and a couple of years back I helped evacuate wild animals from one of the local game, well it’s not a game preserve but it’s a wild animal center. And so they have exotic animals there, and I was part of the effort to evacuate, in, in this massive wildfire’s path, so you know, I’ve been part of it. Everybody in the community knows that brush fires are dangerous and it’s something that people always bring up to me as a point of concern. They want leaders who help us prepare for these challenges, and we’re just going to see more and more fires and, in our district earthquakes are always going to be a risk. We have the San Andreas fault running right through. It’s, it’s like several miles from my house and it’s right near schools and businesses. I mean this is something that can have a very real impact. So the environment around us is, it’s a part of life. We don’t have a concrete jungle in, in my district. In our community we have rolling hills and mountains, and we have hawks that fly over. I mean it’s rural. It’s not what people think of as L.A. when they think of it. And then you know, just last year we had, they capped the, well they reopened the Aliso Canyon site, which is a natural gas storage facility, so that’s something that impacted, when the methane leaked out of there, that impacted, tens of thousands of people in our community, and so even folks who are more conservative traditionally when they vote politically, they are coming to me and saying we need somebody who understands the hazards that exist in our community and who will give voice to that, and plus California as a whole is a pretty environmentally conscious state, and, and so the GOP incumbent whom I’m challenging, Steve Knight, he has a zero percent score for his lifetime record from the League of Conservation Voters. And I mean that’s, you have to try to get a score that bad. I mean he has not made one single vote that is considered pro-environment, and that doesn’t represent the will of the district, and you know, the district did go for Hillary Clinton by seven points, so that shows that you know, people in our community have values that don’t align with our current representative, and I think that’s a problem.

HEFFNER: So you’re finding the consciousness in the district to kind of the will to move forward on some of these environmental issues, so how do you take the issues of federally protected lands, now by executive fiat, are being thrust into state control, potentially corporate or industry control? How, how do you take an issue like that and kind of give it the Erin Brockovich effect, right, of you know, look what might happen here.

PHOENIX: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: You can watch Gasland parts one and two and see this, or you could watch good, good old Erin Brockovich, but reading your bio reminded me of her public service and the chemicals that were released that cause cancer,


HEFFNER: You know, how, how do you make the, the real life links here and counterpunch what is the federal authority now?

PHOENIX: I think you just have to be extremely strong and not afraid to show how passionate you are. Because these lands that the federal government is trying to open up to, to drilling, to mining, I mean they are our heritage as Americans, and, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you look like, how much money you make, I mean what your religious upbringing is, none of that matters when you’re out in nature. I mean you can just be there and be who you are in these places that were set aside by, a lot of ‘em, a Republican, by Teddy Roosevelt. And so, and of course, you know, Nixon did a whole bunch of good in terms of clean air and clean water protection and the EPA, and you know, even Reagan, a former governor of California, was known for his pro-environment policies. So while I may disagree with a lot of what they did politically, I think their record on the environment speaks to a larger truth that the, that nature belongs to all of us. And so people need to be active about this. People need to be unafraid to stand up and say this is too much. Like you’ve gone too far. And these lands belong to not just us, not just the people who were here when the, you know, the protections were enacted, but they belong to all the generations still to come. And that’s something that once you mine it or exploit it for natural resources, it doesn’t come back. So it’s something that has an urgency about it, and kind of a, like a macro effect that a lot of other issues maybe don’t, and so I think environment shouldn’t be partisan. There’s absolutely no reason it should be.

HEFFNER: Do you think that it’s become partisan because of appeasement, appeasement of corporate funders and corporate clients,


HEFFNER: Is that the reality?

PHOENIX: I think, I think that’s why. I think it, it’s just like anything in politics, you have to follow the money. And we have corporations who have a vested interest in having access to these lands to exploit the natural resources. And a lot of them are, they are fossil fuel industries and they’re also fossils in a way, because the way of the future is green tech, R&D, and these companies, a lot of them, have their primary, you know, their, their funding, their finances are tied up in fossil fuels. So they, they have an interest in preserving how things were, but you know they, they always say that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. Fossil fuel age isn’t ending because we’ve run out of fossil fuels. It’s because we have better technology. We have better options.

HEFFNER: Right, and there seems to be a new awareness within the corporate culture in terms of the statements that we read in response to the pullout of the Paris Accord. There is a corporate stewardship that is on the horizon if not emboldened yet. From your vantage point, what, you know, you have the unique ability to speak to millennials and speak to the generational, tectonic shift, that’s, that’s happening here. What, what are the ways that you feel uniquely qualified to address what may be these new environmental crises that are imminent?

PHOENIX: Well I, am really fortunate in having had the parents I had because they are experts in disaster preparedness, and I worked with them on a non-profit that they founded a few years back and they have the expertise in, in cyber disaster preparedness and manmade disaster preparedness, and I bring the natural hazards component to the table. So you know, this sort of this background really does, as you said, you ne—it’s like kind of uniquely qualifies me to speak to issues that are only going to be more and more present in everybody’s lives. Climate change to me is the greatest national security threat that we’re going to face over the next five decades or so, and that’s because it’s a threat multiplier. So you know, when you have a scarcity of natural resources, which will happen with the changing climate, terrorist groups are actually stronger. They, they have greater ability to inflict damage because the resources are scarce. So terror is magnified. Same goes with migration, you’re going to see climate migrants. I actually just met a woman, not too long ago who had moved from the New York area, New York-New Jersey area, because her house was devastated by Sandy and then Irene, and now she lives in L.A., and you know, over there we have wildfire danger, so it’s something that’s going to be touching every, everywhere and then also it speaks to food security slash insecurity. If we have less of an ability to have, you know, farmlands be fertile and be, be arable, then we are going to see people forced to think about food and how we get food to places in different ways than we do now. And you know, when you, when you have the oceans acidifying and you have, you know, sea level rising, it’s going to force us to reexamine how we live, especially because we have so many people living in coastal areas, not just in the U.S. but worldwide. They’re expecting up to two feet of sea level rise conservatively in the Philippines in some areas, and that’s by the end of the century. So this is really going to alter everything we know about how we live our lives.

HEFFNER: And yet until you have Sandy or Harvey-like events, there is the argument presented by the Republicans, at least in the political field today, that we need not be concerned.

PHOENIX: Yeah, well, I borrow a line from my mom when she talks about, preparedness and that preparedness is like your health. You don’t miss it until you don’t have it. So we need to be prepared for this stuff all of the time. That means that we have to be talking about what we should do for disasters, meaning we need to have emergency kits. We need to have plans with our families, and, and the good thing is about being prepared for natural disasters is that carries over to manmade disasters as well. So I mean, the same preparations and the same protocol you would use for one type of disaster crosses over to others, so it’s kind of multi-purpose.

HEFFNER: Now we had Amanda Litman here, who urged young people, millennials, all those who are concerned with the future of their country to run for something, run for office, not just do something, run.


HEFFNER: You’re doing that and I commend you for doing that as a, as a young person. Tell us about that process. The infrastructure and the apparatus, you’re running as a Democrat. There are several Democrats with whom you’re jousting, competing. How is the process?

PHOENIX: So what it has shown me is that the system we have right now is a mess. It is not serving us well, because it’s really catering to a specific group of people, businesspeople and lawyers. And if you don’t have a, an extensive network of rich friends or colleagues you can call on, it’s almost impossible to raise enough funds to be considered a serious candidate. So it’s all about the money, again, and that’s because we have Citizens United still in place, and we don’t have publicly funded elections. So candidates are essentially competing for dollars and, and the thing, probably the most striking fact that I’ve learned in this whole thing is that only point five eight percent of U.S. adults donate politically. So when people,

HEFFNER: Point five eight.

PHOENIX: Point five eight, zero point five eight percent, less than one percent. Almost, almost half a percent, you know, it’s, it’s a very small number of people donate politically. So if you’re walking around the street, look at people and think that, you know, less than one out of a hundred you see will have donated to a political candidate. And so,

HEFFNER: Well I would wonder how you compare that to other charitable,

PHOENIX: I think more people donate charitably because you get asked if you’re, you know,

HEFFNER: Considerably more.

PHOENIX: If you’re asked in PetSmart, you know, would you like to give a dollar?

HEFFNER: Right, right.

PHOENIX: You’re asked at the grocery store, like you do it. But I think,

HEFFNER: So we, we have to think about the effect of Citizens United,


HEFFNER: Not just on,


HEFFNER: The Republicans versus the Democrats but the Democrats versus the Democrats.

PHOENIX: It’s on everybody.

HEFFNER: Internal,

PHOENIX: Yeah, it is. It is a, it’s an inherent problem in the system now, and it means that both sides are relying too much on wealthy donors, and so if you want to be part of the real one percent that has influence in this country, you have to donate under the system we have. Until we can elect people who are willing to say we need to change this. We need to change this system. Overturn Citizens United, let’s make it happen.

HEFFNER: What are the incentives for the party apparatus locally now? Because you’re out there meeting folks, knocking on doors, introducing yourself, attending campaign forums,

PHOENIX: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: What is the, the dialogue now?

PHOENIX: I think, I think it needs to be that if we really want true engagement, if we really as Democrats want to be the party of everyday people, of just people in general, a people’s party, not a partisan party, not a political party, but a people’s party, we have to get out and encourage people to participate in the process, and right now that might mean donate five dollars, you know, because maybe that’s, that’s what somebody can afford, but that’s engaging them in a way that they may never have been engaged in before. It’s informing them to make a plan before they go to the ballot booth so that they don’t just walk in and blindly check boxes, but so they know what the person that they are voting for actually believes in.

HEFFNER: What about voters’ interactions with the political parties that are in effect ruling over these primary processes? So if more folks got in touch with or had the contact, the intimate contact with the party chairs,

PHOENIX: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: The county party chairs in the way that you do for your representatives at town halls, would that make a difference?

PHOENIX: I think so, but I think the key is, and I found this with the non-profit I run too, the key is actually going to kids as young as elementary school, starting there, letting them know that politics is approachable and that politicians aren’t some weird robots, you know, who live in the capitol and only come out at night or whatever. Their politicians should be real people, and so it’s a duty of people involved in politics, whether that means you’re running for something or you’re an activist or you’re a member of a local party group, you need to go out to elementary schools and start engaging kids when they’re young, and I mean, kindergarteners, start there and, and keep engaging them, because, you know, because I come from the science world, I’ve heard all the facts about you know, girls checking out of science mentally when they’re in seventh and eighth grade. So, but the same thing I think happens politically. Kids who may be interested in civics and, and social studies when they’re young, I think it’s really difficult when they’re around middle school because puberty, hormones, et cetera, life, I think a lot of times they, they lose touch with things they may have been interested in when they’re younger. So it has to be an effort to take kids from really, really young all the way up to when they could vote, and you have to engage them and show them that this is approachable and they’re part of it.

HEFFNER: Well I, I hope you’ve been making the rounds at the elementary schools, because a volcanologist,


HEFFNER: Those kids probably have a lot of questions about how you are an expert on volcanoes. Have you found some gravitational pull of the volcano, people?

PHOENIX: Yes, oh yes. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: People are interested in your work and how you want to bring a knowledge of science and the scientific process to communities.

PHOENIX: Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: They’re intrigued by that?

PHOENIX: Yeah, and I think it’s because, for so long scientists haven’t been so good at communicating with the public, and right now we have some really good science communicators who have stepped up. Most aren’t household names still. I mean most people can name Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, but aside from that, most people draw a blank. And I see that as something we can change, and there are so many amazing science communicators now, women, people of all different backgrounds, it’s, the face of science is changing. And with that, I think kids are getting engaged in different ways than ever before. You know, I have seen some fabulous programs based out of different museums that have public outreach going on and you know, I get asked to, to do TV work because it’s so key now for scientists to reach out and connect with the public, because the problems that we try to solve and the, the understanding we’re trying to get about our planet, again, that impacts everybody.

HEFFNER: Jess, we just have a few minutes left, but I have to ask you this, and it’s the same question I asked James Hansen, Naomi Oreskes, Michael Mann,

PHOENIX: Oh yeah.

HEFFNER: These communicators to whom you allude, what is the most effective way to combat the ignorance but specifically the counterfactual or postfactual ignorance? What do you say to the naysayers, the climate deniers, do you engage them and if so, what is the most effective way of engaging them?

PHOENIX: I find that it’s tapping into, something that we all share as humans, which is curiosity. And you know, when we’re born, we are all scientists, and as kids we’re testing things, you know, our hypothesis is oh, is that water wet? You know, and then you poke it and you find out. And as we grow up, that gets sort of squeezed out of us. And I think that one of the best ways to kind of fight the disease of ignorance is to think of curiosity as the cure. So I will often ask people questions to get their wheels turning and them thinking about things in different ways. And it’s sort of the Socratic method with the questioning but it’s also just a genuine desire to know what’s going on in their head. Because I think when we engage with our curiosity about other people, that helps ignite their curiosity about the world around them.

HEFFNER: Because if you question the denier, maybe the denier becomes a questioner himself or herself.

PHOENIX: Exactly. And that’s just a crack is all you need for the, you know, the light of truth and facts to make its way in.

HEFFNER: Hmm. Jess, thank you so much for your time today.

PHOENIX: Thank you, Alexander, this is wonderful.

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.