Malissa’s journey to becoming an environmental advocate has its roots in the impoverished towns along the United States-Mexico border. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Malissa worked as an environmental lawyer at Baker & McKenzie, the world’s largest law firm. One of her chief responsibilities was helping U.S. corporations open divisions in Mexico and Latin America. In the course of this work, she witnessed widespread poverty and was shocked to learn that many poor communities on both sides of the border lacked clean water or sanitation.
Moved by these deplorable conditions, Malissa began working with corporate clients, socially committed foundations such as Ford and Carnegie, and local community-based groups to develop protective clean water and environmental standards and to structure financing options to build water treatment plants. Out of these initial alliances, Malissa helped to create bi-national, sister-city organizations made up of a cross-section of academics, activists, foundations, government officials and scientists to work on solving the ecological, public health and poverty problems along the border. These early sister-city groupings ultimately evolved into the Border Environment Cooperation Commission, part of the North American Free Trade Agreements.
Malissa learned first hand that it takes a wide range of interests to solve complex environmental, public health and safety problems, and that stereotypical perceptions are a big obstacle to progress: the tendency for environmentalists to see the private sector as only interested in profits or, conversely, for business people to see environmentalists as invariably unreasonable.
What was missing (and still is, Malissa believes) was an institutional catalyst for change – an organization that could provide leadership and harness the resources and funding necessary to create and maintain effective, long-term working partnerships — partnerships built on mutual understanding, respect, and a shared commitment to identifying achievable solutions that are environmentally and economically sound and equitable. Such an institution could sponsor research conducted by respected experts, enlist broad input from affected parties, and serve as a consistent, credible watchdog to ensure a degree of accountability in decision makers. Although yet to be fully realized, this is the vision that continues to guide Malissa’s work as president of CURE.
As Malissa gained recognition as an environmental expert, she was appointed to several California gubernatorial commissions including the Base Reuse and Alignment Commission, focused on tackling the redevelopment of closed military bases; the Flood Plain Management Task Force, formed after the 1997 floods to develop programs for reducing damage in the agricultural lands of central California; and the Colorado River Board, the entity responsible for negotiating on behalf of California with other users of the Colorado River’s water – the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and the nation of Mexico.