Opening Doors: Graciela Chichilnisky

By Bilha Fish


On a somewhat gray fall morning I found myself lost on Riverside Drive in Manhattan’s upper West Side, where the tall buildings looking toward the Hudson River tell the stories of bygone glory.

 

I was frantic, looking for Graciela Chichilnisky’s apartment. I did not wish to ruffle her by being late for an interview. A first-generation Argentinian-American professor of economics and mathematics, she and her team were famous for, among other achievements, receiving a Nobel Prize.

 

As (bad) luck would have it, I walked by her door several times. I couldn’t imagine that the least attractive wooden entry with no handle and a small lock would be the entrance to her apartment. But then I realized the address had to fall at this modest portal and I finally knocked.

 

The door opened and a friendly young man guided me to a conference room. I passed a large triple-height hallway paneled with mahogany wood. A huge crystal chandelier illuminated magnificent paintings and the way to the upper floors via a decorative wooden staircase.

 

As I sat on an antique leather chair, one of many surrounding a large mahogany table, I absorbed images of what I believed to be one New York City most unique brownstones that I will ever see.

 

Graciela appeared, dressed to my surprise, not in a corporate ensemble but in a sweat suit with her hair somewhat disheveled. Here was a beautiful, 74-year-old woman who complained about her sleepless nights taking care of her 9-month old baby. To my astonishment, she proudly announced the child is her biological offspring.

 

I could not wait to learn more about this accomplished refugee who arrived more than 50 years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a young, unwed mother. She would wind up affecting the lives of present and future generations through her contributions to the environment by creating policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global climate change. An important aspect of Graciela’s life is to improve the economic lives of citizens of developing countries as well as to seek justice for gender equality.

 

Her life story energized me. It described a person with a brilliant mind and the tenacity and willpower to help others despite the barriers in her way.

 

Graciela gifted me with her book, “Saving Kyoto,” and invited me to attend a seminar that afternoon that was run by the National Geographic Foundation, where she was the keynote speaker. There I learned about Global Thermostat, a company she co-founded that created a carbon negative technology that captures CO2 from air and transforms it into profitable assets like biofuels and food.

 

As I looked at the setting sun on the horizon of the Hudson River and Riverside Drive, the twilight enhanced my emotions. I was overwhelmed by the stories of Graciela’s many experiences of defeat, victory and transformation. Here was a woman who climbed to the top of a predominantly male environment that was often hostile and still found a way to persevere and do good in the world. And at home.