When Sarah Fort ’02 entered high school at Princeton Day School, she was eager to continue fostering her interest in the environment. “PDS is where I developed my environmental advocacy. Sustainability Coordinator Liz Cutler was a mentor and a personal hero of mine,” she explains. “As a member of EnAct, I got really involved in some of the local and global environmental issues that were happening. That exposure and experience led me to pursue environmental preservation and advocacy even more in college, which is where I developed a real interest in environmental health and justice issues.”
Attending Brown University for her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations, Fort was given an opportunity to work directly with a sociology professor who was advocating for a small town in Rhode Island that was dealing with coal gasification contamination on their properties. Fort witnessed in real-time what it meant for this community to grapple with the contamination and how it impacted their lives, home values and health. “Learning that your home is, in fact, not a safe place and is a place that's contaminated, is a huge revelation for a lot of people. I did research and advocacy with them to fundraise and lobby before the legislature to get some relief for these communities. I think that's also probably the first place where I had first-hand experience with the legal side of environmental issues.”
After graduating from Brown, Fort moved to New York City to work for a city agency called Partnerships for Parks. She explains, “I worked there for three years as an outreach coordinator in Harlem, which was fascinating in its exposure to diverse stakeholders trying to figure out how to share space, how to organize and the dynamics of working in coalitions. But I was really frustrated by the pace of change. And I just felt like I didn’t have the tools to make the change. So, I went back to law school with the idea that I wanted the whole toolkit of being a lawyer and having that diversity of tools to bring to the work.” Fort then attended Harvard Law School and earned her Juris Doctorate.
Fort says, “I went to law school knowing I wanted to do environmental work but not knowing exactly how. I took a bunch of environmental coursework at law school and I worked for a federal judge for a year. That was just an amazing experience and an incredible peek behind the curtain of how the law can be used.” That peek gave Fort an introduction to the world of litigation, which she would come to love.
After years as a fellow and staff attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, Fort is now one of the Managing Litigators in the D.C. office and a senior attorney on NRDC’s litigation team. When it comes to progress on the environmental activism front, “It is still the case that the pace of change and a lot of the issues that I’m working on are really slow,” Fort explains. “Litigation can often move slowly, and even when you win a case, particularly if you win a case where you're suing the federal government, that may not be the last chapter. There may be more chapters to come and so it still feels frustrating, but I have more tools at my disposal to try to figure out the best way to move an issue forward.”
Fort also underscores the importance of her partnerships in litigating cases. “I have an incredible group of colleagues who have very different skill sets, including policy experts, scientists and communications colleagues, and campaign colleagues or federal lobbying colleagues. We can all sit together in a room with a shared policy goal and figure out which tool is the best one for a problem, and that is an incredible asset.”
On the power of partnerships, Fort says the youngest advocates for the environment offer perspectives that can help move public opinion forward on issues of the environment. “I think movements need a ton of different voices and different perspectives. People telling their own personal stories is always going to be incredibly compelling and I don't want to just win this issue in court, I want to win this issue in the court of public opinion. Ultimately, that is the best and most effective way for us to protect clean water and fight climate change in a way that will last. The voices we need include young people, frontline communities, experts, lawyers. We need everybody,” she explains.
Time at PDS
Although she was a young teenager when she started attending PDS, she recalls the intentionality with which she approached her high school journey. “I had to commute 45 minutes each way to get to PDS,” she says, “so I understood that my time in high school was a commitment. It was a commitment of my time and my energy, but there was never a day when it didn’t feel worth it,” she reflects. Her parents made a commitment to PDS, too. Her mother was a former PDS teacher in the Lower School and remained an ardent fan, making the drive for every one of Fort’s sports games. She explains, “I played softball, basketball, tennis… I remember the preseason for tennis started before the school year, so the first time I showed up for practice, I didn’t know anyone. I ended up playing doubles a lot, and the person I was partnered with for doubles became a very good friend. She was actually who I lived with when I moved to New York!”
Fort says that her time at Princeton Day School in the sports program and sustainability clubs underscored the wealth of opportunities the School fostered for many of its students. “My time at PDS was an incredibly rich experience. I feel so lucky to have shared that space with such caring and nurturing teachers and coaches. It’s a place that attracts really interesting, creative, intelligent people,” she concludes.