In 2009, Shalanda Baker left her job as a project finance lawyer at a big global law firm and booked a one-way ticket to Latin America.
“Witnessing the massive bailout of the financial sector had not only left me disillusioned about the stability of our global economic system,” Baker recalls, “but also intrigued about the ways that law can be used to create sustainable outcomes for the planet.”
She hoped to work for a human rights organization, but ended up encountering indigenous farmers who were fighting against the proliferation of wind energy development in Oaxaca, Mexico. As she explained, “I was immediately drawn into this surprising conflict that pitted clean energy development against human rights.”
The experience shaped her career path. Today Baker is a newly appointed Northeastern professor with expertise in the interplay between global energy transition, climate change, and indigenous rights. She holds joint appointments in the School of Law and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and plans to work closely with Northeastern Global Resilience Institute and the law school’s new Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity.
“When I got the call to throw my hat in the ring, I was excited by the direction Northeastern was heading,” she said. “The Global Resilience Institute was a big draw for me, and my work lines up with what the institute is trying to accomplish.”
Baker, L’05, returns to Northeastern from the University of Hawaii, where she served as the founding director of its Energy Justice Program. She received her Master of Laws from the University of Wisconsin in 2012, her Juris Doctor from Northeastern in 2005, and her bachelor’s degree in political science from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1998.
After serving as a lieutenant in the Air Force from 1998 to 2001, Baker received an honorable discharge under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and then chose to enroll at Northeastern. “I realized that there are laws that create structural inequality,” she explained. “Northeastern had a long history of doing social justice work, which was incredibly compelling to me after being in the academy, and I wanted to be in a place that resonated with my values.”
Baker completed four co-ops at Northeastern. In 2003, for example, she worked for Boston’s Center of Law and Education, conducting research related to lawsuits challenging high-stakes testing in Massachusetts. In 2005, she served New York’s Urban Justice Center, advocating on behalf of homeless and low-income gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth.
According to Baker, these experiences helped her narrow the focus of her law career. “By the time I started working at a law firm after graduation,” she said, “I knew I was interested in changing the underlying structures of communities so all people could participate in decision-making.”
Baker’s most recent work is a case in point. As the founding director of Hawaii’s Energy Justice Program, she worked with community stakeholders to design democratic approaches to energy development, law, and policy in anticipation of the state’s transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. In 2016, she moved to Mexico on a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholarship to explore the complexity of the nation’s fast-moving energy reform and how the country’s indigenous people factored into the plan.
“My initial findings suggest that the structure of energy reform is in many ways at odds with the international doctrine regarding the rights of indigenous people,” Baker said. “But the energy market is moving too quickly to allow for meaningful course correction.”
Although her research is ongoing, she is currently writing a book that will explore the shift to renewable energy in the Global South. The topic is the focus of a new undergraduate course that she designed and will teach this spring along with “International Environmental Law.”
Noting that she cannot wait to return to the classroom, Baker praised Northeastern students for their curiosity and work ethic. “They’re incredibly engaged,” she said. “They’re curious about my work and want to make an impact on the world.”