USC senior Claire Mauss has always had a deep love for desert plants. Her earliest memories include exploring her grandmother’s backyard in the San Bernardino County city of Rialto, which she likened to a “jungle.” That initial fascination with flora blossomed into a passion for the environment when her high school teacher described how she collected shower runoff to water her garden.
“Something about that really inspired me, the way she incorporated an academic interest into a lifestyle,” Mauss said. “That’s when I knew I wanted a career in environmental science.”
I’d never really gotten my hands dirty, and I wanted to challenge myself.
And Mauss didn’t want to be an armchair activist either. The summer between her freshman and sophomore years, for example, she decided to work on an organic herbal farm in Hollister in Central California to experience farming and plant cultivation firsthand.
“I wanted to do hard labor. I’d never really gotten my hands dirty, and I wanted to challenge myself,” she said. “I was hacking roots in the sun and getting stung by bees, but then you make a tea and you feel very accomplished. That had such an impact on me, so I worked on another farm the next summer. Those experiences made me realize I wanted to work with plants for the rest of my life.”
Mauss has spent the last several years of her academic career studying agave in Huntington Botanical Gardens. There, she conducts plant tissue culture research in the on-site laboratory with the goal of increasing biodiversity and ensuring the survival of the species.
Her particular focus on agave intersects her passions for biodiversity and equity. Agave, which is used heavily for tequila production, has become genetically homogenous and therefore vulnerable. It also has cultural significance for Mauss, with her Mexican roots, and her work aims to create a safeguard against its extinction.
“It is extremely important to me, as a person of color, that I study and highlight those causes which relate to issues surrounding my culture or that take place within my culture,” she said.
The environment and justice are intertwined in all of the work Mauss does, from studying endangered plants to researching food scarcity in underserved communities. “Globally, disenfranchised people are the ones impacted most by climate change,” she said. “And they have the least political power to fix that. When people who look like me are suffering in the world that way and I have the privilege to go to USC, I am not going to waste my voice.”
And she has been making her voice heard. Outside of the laboratory and classroom, Mauss is also co-executive director of the USC Environmental Student Assembly (ESA). Under her leadership, the organization was restructured to more directly impact university policies and students’ daily lives.
Seeds of environmental advocacy are sewn
The summer before starting as a freshman at USC, Mauss had already researched every organization with the environment in its mission. She decided ESA was the best fit for her. “USC was my dream school and I was so excited to get involved here,” she said. “I went to the very first meeting and loved it and made a bunch of friends. Now, it’s my baby.”
While ESA gave her a community of likeminded peers, Mauss said she saw the organization’s untapped potential. “We were mostly just doing events on campus before I restructured the club,” she said. “Now, we still do events, but we’ve really transformed into an advocacy organization. We now focus on advocating for specific changes we want to make on campus, with measurable results.”
Those results, under her leadership, are impressive. Mauss and her team have successfully lobbied to removed plastic straws from dining halls, raise the transportation subsidy for USC staff, and make Mondays meatless in residential dining. The latter initiative will permanently rotate between campus dining facilities every Monday beginning fall 2020.
Nathaniel Hyman, her co-executive director, describes the transformation he witnessed: “There used to be a fear within ESA to not rock the boat, and Claire changed that. She demanded change, and she transformed ESA into a vehicle for achieving that change.”
Sustainability on the grow at USC
The positive momentum comes from many factors, Mauss said, most notably the university’s new leadership. President Carol L. Folt has made progress toward a more sustainable campus, community and world a top priority since she took office in fall 2019.
The environment is lucky to have [Claire] in its corner.
Mauss said she and other student environmental advocates saw a shift right away: “In the past, when we would ask for something, we would usually get an immediate ‘No.’ Now, with President Folt in office, even though we obviously can’t get everything on our wish list, there’s much more communication, more care and more thoughtfulness from our leadership. Our proposals are considered, and if something is not feasible, they will take the time to explain exactly why.”
Mauss and fellow student leaders have a seat at the table with senior administrators and staff as members of the USC Sustainability Steering Committee. And she’s working to transition new ESA leadership, so the organization continues its clip pushing the sustainability needle forward.
“Claire is a ferocious advocate for environmental justice,” Hyman said. “The environment is lucky to have her in its corner.”
She won’t be stopping any time soon. After graduation in May, Mauss heads straight into a PhD program in plant biology and a career-making change, one plant at a time.