Oliver Sellers-Garcia, an MBTA administrator overseeing climate change and social equity goals known regionally for his pragmatism and interdisciplinary approach, will join City Hall as Mayor Michelle Wu’s senior adviser for the Green New Deal.
In a long-awaited announcement Monday that completes the new mayor’s Cabinet, Sellers-Garcia, 41, takes on a brand-new role that promises to be one of city government’s most challenging. He is tasked with ensuring that climate and social justice goals guide every decision Boston makes — and with translating Wu’s ambitious campaign plans into official, achievable city policy. He will steer the mayor’s efforts to make Boston a national model for municipal climate resilience, marrying environmental efforts with the city’s work on housing, the economy, and social justice.
“I think it is incredibly exciting,” Sellers-Garcia said of his new role in an interview with the Globe. “It meets the moment of where we are — the very cutting edge of what cities need to do on climate change.”
A Roxbury resident, Sellers-Garcia has spent about nine months as the MBTA’s director of resiliency and equity, and previously worked as the director of Somerville’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. In that role, he oversaw the creation of Somerville’s first Climate Action Plan and helped cement the city’s reputation as a national leader on climate action.
For Wu, who ran on a Green New Deal platform with the eyes of the national climate movement on her, this was a crucial and long-awaited hire. While Wu has pushed ahead with a raft of pilot programs since taking office in November, some environmental advocates have fretted that her agenda was on hold while she searched for the right Green New Deal adviser.
Wu said she has found that match in Sellers-Garcia.
“We need leadership in this space that can bring bold vision and relentless creativity about what we could do matched with in-the-weeds knowledge of how city governments can make a difference in all the little details that add up,” Wu said in a recent interview.
The weight of those expectations, and the urgency of the climate crisis, await him when he starts Sept. 6. Those who’ve worked with Sellers-Garcia describe him as a consummate pragmatist, a colleague who sets achievable goals and works across departments or jurisdictions to get them done.
Julie Wormser, senior policy adviser with the Mystic River Watershed Association, said that in 2018, Sellers-Garcia was a key supporter of launching an initiative to address climate threats; he secured a grant to study how a major climate-driven storm could affect infrastructure and threaten environmental justice communities. That study resulted in a “punch list of projects that focus on the people who would be most harmed,” said Wormser, and now they’re working to resolve those issues.
“There could not be a more inspired hire for the Green New Deal director,” she said. “He has vision — he can work at 30,000 feet and three feet.”
Larry Yu, an advocate with the Climate Coalition of Somerville and Carbon Free Somerville, and member of Somerville’s Commission on Energy Use and Climate Change, said Sellers-Garcia views challenges “through the lens of what can actually be accomplished with real policies.”
In his experience with Sellers-Garcia, Yu said that’s been something he has valued — and something that he’s been occasionally frustrated by. “He sometimes veered away from major pronouncements or big thoughts. From an advocacy side, that can be frustrating sometimes,” he said, pointing to times that proponents sought to shorten the timeframe in which Somerville planned to get to net-zero emissions.
Yu said Sellers-Garcia was someone who at times rejected ideas he found problematic — such as an early effort to use zoning policy to push for energy efficiency in buildings — but later came back with his own solution to the problem. In the case of the zoning effort, Yu said, Sellers-Garcia crafted a creative policy that would hold up to state opposition.
“We were pretty excited about that, and pretty excited about what the zoning did accomplish when it was passed in 2018,” Yu said.
In an interview with the Globe, Sellers-Garcia sounded many of the same notes as Wu, citing the need to achieve major victories by succeeding in minor ways, too. But he also described himself as a “problem-solving executor,” a style he said would complement Wu’s big-picture thinking.
“We’re a perfect match,” Sellers-Garcia said. “The big picture is the exciting place to work at if you also are willing to go into the nuts and bolts details.”
As a mayoral candidate, Wu laid out some of those details in her 49-page Green New Deal plan, which included ambitious decarbonization goals for the city, such as reaching net-zero municipal emissions by 2024 and 100 percent renewable electricity for Boston by 2030. Those far outpace the city’s current targets, which were set under former mayor Martin J. Walsh.
Sellers-Garcia — who warned against setting overly-ambitious goals — called the milestones in Wu’s plan “realistic” and “achievable.” But he did not immediately commit the city to meeting them, explaining that his first months will be spent setting goals and choosing the best ways to measure progress, with the intention of having a “framework” in place by the end of this year.
Former Somerville mayor Joseph Curtatone, who worked with Sellers-Garcia for years, emphasized his ability to think across disciplines and departments, and praised his practical thinking.
“We don’t just have plans and aspirational goals that are sitting on the shelf,” Curtatone said, describing how he and Sellers-Garcia approached Somerville’s climate efforts. “Those plans are wonderful. We can look at them like beautiful sunsets. But at some point, it goes dark if we don’t do anything.”
A graduate of Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sellers-Garcia is Guatemalan and speaks Spanish and French.
His announcement caps a lengthy, difficult hiring process. The city launched the search in January and retained an outside search firm, a step it only took for two other jobs, police commissioner and school superintendent. Officials struggled to find a person with the right experience; no city had had a job quite like this one before.
City officials said they wanted someone who aligned with Mayor Wu’s Green New Deal mission; had a proven track record of strategic and critical thinking; had the ability to lead across departments while changing the way systems operate; and had a history of rolling out aggressive plans on climate.
After sifting through roughly 100 resumes and vetting dozens of candidates, city officials in early June were preparing a list of finalists. But none would prove the right fit.
Instead, in July, Wu’s team approached Sellers-Garcia. He hadn’t considered applying for the position when it opened up at the beginning of the year because he was so new at the MBTA. But he was a fan of Wu’s vision and eager to take on the challenge. By the end of the month, he had agreed to join her Cabinet.