Meet Vanessa Fajans-Turner

Vanessa's Story

Vanessa Fajans-Turner has spent her career fighting against climate change and systemic inequality.  A native Ithacan, climate leader, and Progressive, she is running for Congress in NY’s newly-redrawn 22nd district to fight for our families and communities.

A Product of Central New York

Raised in Ithaca, Vanessa is a product of Ithaca’s local public school system, attending Beverly J. Martin Elementary, DeWitt Middle and Ithaca High Schools.  Growing up in Ithaca instilled Vanessa with a deep commitment for environmental conservation and social justice. She was voted “most likely to start a worldwide charity” by her high school peers, an acknowledgement of her co-founding role for a club that prepared food for Loaves and Fishes of Tompkins County to address local food insecurity. 

Vanessa, seen here as a high school student, proudly takes to the ice as captain of the first high school girls' ice hockey team in New York State.

Ithaca also instilled her with a passion for watching and playing ice hockey. After seeing the high school boys receive free equipment, ice time, and transportation to games, Vanessa decided it was time that girls got the same benefits. As a high school student, she wrote an op-ed, collected signatures, and petitioned the school to establish the first high school girls’ ice hockey team in New York State. She and her teammates went on to recruit young women from high schools across the state – founding the State’s first ever league for girls’ high school ice hockey. 

Action and Diplomacy on the Global Stage

Vanessa’s record of fighting for social justice continued and expanded to the global stage during college at Harvard and graduate school at Johns Hopkins SAIS, where she got her MA in International Relations.  She completed her undergraduate thesis with research she conducted jointly with her father on sustainable development and indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon. She then joined the United Nations, working first for the UN Development Program, and next for the UN’s first-ever Fund for Gender Equality, launched to promote women’s rights and gender equality around the world. Later, she became the Managing Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, founded by a close mentor, the Economist Jeffrey Sachs, in which role she focused on building financial solutions to combat climate change and global poverty. 

Acting on Climate Change

Vanessa’s work on the global stage to advance sustainable development by reducing poverty focused specifically on fighting climate change on multiple fronts. Her environmental justice work in the Amazon was noticed by the Oscar-winning film director of Titanic, James Cameron, who hired her to help launch his climate-focused foundation, the Avatar Alliance, after the success of his environmentally-themed film, Avatar. Vanessa helped lead the foundation, oversee its strategy, and manage its grant portfolio for more than 6 years. Under her leadership, the Foundation collaborated with the world’s leading climate scientists, policy-makers, and activists to scale innovations in sustainable agriculture and food systems, ocean science and conservation, climate messaging and journalism, and to defend the rights of of indigenous and frontline communities threatened by fossil fuel projects and special interests, like the Standing Rock Sioux and their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). 

Vanessa is gathered with climate activists from the Seneca Lake Guardian organization as they demand clean air and water protections and an end to fracked gas for crypto-mining.

During her time with the Foundation, Vanessa co-produced the Emmy Award-winning documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, which highlighted the catastrophic effects of climate change already taking place across the US. She was also part of National Geographic’s historic Deepsea Challenge expedition to explore the planet’s deepest known point, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. One of the scientific discoveries this expedition produced was a compound that shows promise for treating Alzheimer’s Disease.

Vanessa’s work to advance ocean science and commitment to protecting them inspired her to co-launch Investable Oceans, a company dedicated to conserving the oceans by finding and funding new ways to support sustainable fisheries, clean up the shipping industry, and accelerate renewable sources of ocean energy for years to come.

Taking the Climate Fight to Wall Street

After working to fight climate change at the global level she turned her focus to one of the biggest barriers to meaningful climate action – the fossil fuel industry and their financial enablers – Wall Street Banks.  She serves as the Executive Director of BankFWD, a non-profit that focuses on ending the trillions of dollars that Wall Street still funnels into the fossil fuel industry, a fight she plans to bring to Congress. 

Democratic Values & Service at Home 

Vanessa has worked for years to promote Democratic values and candidates in Central New York and the Finger Lakes. She has extensively advised, fundraised and volunteered for multiple campaigns to elect Democrats to office in Ithaca’s former districts, particularly efforts to unseat Republican Representative Tom Reed in New York’s former 23rd Congressional District. She outlined the district-specific impacts of Representative Reed’s vote in support of Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in this op-ed, co-authored with her sister, Allison.

Vanessa standing next to a State Education Department signpost labeled:

"First convention for woman's rights was held on this corner
1848"

Her commitment to service in and beyond her hometown doesn’t end with politics. Vanessa’s committed to the success of this District’s climate policies and leadership. She’s currently leveraging her national and international experience with climate finance to mobilize funding and national support for Ithaca’s Green New Deal – the most ambitious city-level plan in the country. 

Within a month of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Vanessa worked with local leaders here, in Ithaca, to source large quantities of PPE for under-resourced hospitals and seed emergency financial lifelines for vulnerable populations, particularly domestic workers who did not qualify for federal relief assistance. 

As an Ithacan, Vanessa is a proud supporter of local organizations and initiatives like Women Swimmin’, in support of Ithaca Hospicare, Racker Rivals, in support of the Racker Center and its work with individuals with disabilities and their families, and Vitamin L, of which she is a proud alumna.

Professional Affiliations & Memberships

Vanessa is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a CNN Opinion contributor. She is also the former Board Chair of the Citizens Engagement Lab, a nonprofit that incubated dozens of organizing efforts to increase the political power of underrepresented demographics in the US, including many with national profiles, like Color of Change, Ultraviolet, Demand Progress, Voto Latino, and Climate Parents. She sits on the advisory boards of The Resolution Project, the Blue Chip Foundation, and Amazon Watch (in continuation of the indigenous rights work her father led in the Brazilian Amazon). She is also a member of Explorers Club, and the Harvard Yard Venture Fund network