BY: Kat Gafycz '22 | DATE: Jul 13, 2022

In our interview the fall of her final year at CUNY Law, Kat Gafycz, then-senior staff editor for the CUNY Law Review and student in the Health & Environmental Justice Practice Clinic, revealed her groundbreaking paper earned her an invitation to present at the 2022 Climate Change Symposium in Austin, Texas.


The Class of 2022 graduate shared her passion for child advocacy and environmentalism, explaining “they are the same issue at different magnifications.

Child advocacy work is granular; it is direct service for individual clients. Environmental work is that same passion for the well-being of young people, but from a higher altitude.

The threats of climate change and environmental degradation affect every child, and they are the ones with the least amount of power to protect their own futures.” She went on to say that another way of connecting the two fields is that “advocacy work is for what children need now; environmental work is for what children will need when they’re no longer children.”


collage of person at a table with a mic, A sign says Texas Environmental Law Review and the picture to the right is the text of the article.

Her article, “Conferring Standing on Youth Plaintiffs via ‘Affirmative’ Citizen Suit Provisions in State and Federal Regulatory Systems,” published in the Texas Environmental Law Journal (TELJ) proposes affirmative citizen suit provisions, which are statutory provisions granting standing to youth plaintiffs so they can bring suit against an agency’s act or failure to act.

Along with a declaratory judgment in Juliana v. United States, Kat’s inspiration, affirming youth have a constitutional right to a habitable environment, her proposal would transform climate justice and have far-reaching impact on the racialized inequities of pollution.

Below, Kat shares her experience at the Texas Environmental Law Journal’s Symposium on Legal Systemic Changes to Address Climate Change and the Energy Transition, and how that experience helped her find her voice and power in community and collaboration.


image of the TELJ issue cover with Kat's piece in it

This feels much more official than a Word document you open at 3 in the morning.


Tackling a multi-system issue like climate change is daunting, as it requires buy-in and action from everyone from global leaders to local lawmakers and their constituents.

The last time I spoke about presenting at the Climate Change Symposium, the experience was still purely hypothetical to me. The upcoming panel was a problem for Future Kat, who I was confident would materialize and be naturally talented at public speaking. Present Kat’s focus was on getting through her final year of classes and studying for the bar exam, and Past Kat was notoriously anxious about public speaking — especially in a room full of legal subject matter experts.

Future Kat, it turns out, bears very little resemblance to Present Kat, but there is one thing I remain very grateful to Future Kat for holding onto: that the feeling of endless possibility is an incredibly powerful force, even in the face of obstacles that seem impossible to overcome.

So much of my work on this paper, and in fact throughout my time at CUNY Law, was motivated by the idea of community: what we can do for each other, how we can protect and care for each other and ourselves, and what we can learn from each other.

Both juvenile rights work and environmental law are grounded in the principles of care and protection, which is why I feel so strongly that they naturally overlap. Being at CUNY Law exposed me to burgeoning social justice lawyers from all backgrounds who were working across intersectional justice disciplines together in community towards collective liberation. Those values were also reflected back to me throughout my time in Austin.

I joked about hoping to talk to complete strangers about my work, but that joke turned out to be surprisingly prophetic: I connected with CVS cashiers, cab drivers, and hotel managers about my ideas for a new kind of citizen suit provision, and what that would mean, and was met with just as much enthusiasm and feedback as I found in a theatre full of very experienced lawyers. From local to global, climate change solutions demanded a collaborative, multi-pronged approach, and with every connection, the same hope in possibility was reflected back at me.

Forging connections between disparate fields and discrete groups of people stopped being something I had only theorized and written about, and became a thread woven throughout the weekend, winding its way through Austin and leading right back home again.


pic of university of texas at austin school of law

Every law school should have a fancy patio, in my opinion.


That thread didn’t just run in one direction, either; I brought New York, and CUNY, with me to Texas. Two of my closest friends and classmates, Serena Hui ’22 and Nusrat Khan ’22, came with me, armed with index cards and incredible patience for my regularly scheduled panic attacks.

The only reason I was able to stand up and present my paper, and even open with a joke, was because they were there in the audience, had been there for my disastrous practice run, and stayed there to celebrate the fact that I didn’t faint on stage. Having my own community with me to uplift and support me in an unfamiliar and nerve-wracking situation kept me grounded and focused on the task at hand — to share this work with advocates who could collectively begin to act on it.


two people sitting at table with yellow cloth on stage. One has a microphone

I still can’t believe that I was able to answer audience questions without visibly hyperventilating.


I arrived in Texas thinking on an individualistic, isolated level about my personal fear of failure: visions of choking up on stage, of not being able to articulate my thoughts, and of being perceived as someone whose work wasn’t valuable to the experts to whom I was presenting. But all those intense emotions dissipated as soon as my panel ended, and my vantage shifted to one of collective power and collaboration.

What remained, and has endured, is the great respect I received from the lawyers who asked me thought-provoking questions during my Q & A and the communal support and camaraderie that permeated the entire event.

I was also asked many times how I was feeling, how I was enjoying the trip, and how people could help me feel at ease. I was told many times how happy the organizers, moderators, journal editors, and panelists were to have me join them, and was reassured that I had done well.

Not only was I treated as someone with worthwhile contributions to the legal landscape; I was treated as a friend, as a member of a new community that came into being purely because a group of people aligned in a greater mission of addressing climate change created a space where a wide range of ideas could overlap and collide and spark something brand new. My hope in a collaborative culture of care was validated and exceeded.


four people standing on a stage in business casual attire posing for a picture

I am still trying to get Maddie to teach me how to not experience anxiety.


I brought New York with me to Texas, but I also brought a little bit of Texas back to New York, too.

My fellow panelist, Maddie Shaff, a 3L from Pace University, remains a dear friend.

The funny thing about our friendship is that, even though we came from the same city, we only met because we both brought our shared hope for the future to Austin. That hope for the future inspired us to pursue law, inspired us to submit our papers, and inspired us to get on a plane to share those papers with lawyers we’d never met before. That same hope in a community-motivated, cross-discipline response to climate change continues to inspire us to choose this work every day — even in the face of consistent and crushing climate despair.

It can be isolating to write or study and only hear about the losses we suffer. For me, it is this experience that I had in Texas that I hold to tightly, to remind myself that there are so many people out there that share values, passions, and the belief that we can accomplish incredible things, that makes the work done in isolation feel connected to a greater purpose, and to a greater community.


snapshot of the journal with Kat's piece listed

As a Law Review editor, I can tell you that the real heroes are the students who edited and Bluebooked my footnotes.


It is a reminder that when a room full of people bring their isolated work together, it is not just an act of solidarity, but an act of magnifying capacity, and a concerted consolidation of power in communal hope for a possible, better world.

My work focuses on the intersection between juvenile rights and environmental law; it can always improve with the insight and perspectives of my colleagues. My recent paper, published in the Texas Environmental Law Journal, can be found here.

I can also be reached by email for further discussion.