"New kids on the Earth," Sierra. Jan/Feb 91, p34.
By KEIKO OHNUMA
Not content to prepare only for a high-income future, many students are working today to improve the world.
TODAY'S TEEN AND "twenty-something" environmental activists are showing themselves to be low-key and coolly efficient. Demonstrations and rallies aren't really their style; these high-school and college students would sooner organize a tropical-hardwood boycott or produce a catalog of their school's "environmentally sound" courses than take to the streets.
Whatever their tactical approach to current issues, today's up-and-coming defenders of the Earth are eager to put a new face on environmentalism. Reared during the Reagan era, they pride themselves on their fusion of 1960s-style idealism with '80s-style practicality. With high spirits and boundless energy, they've formed an efficient nationwide student-organizing machine composed of a bewildering array of political and social-change groups.
Among the largest components of this new activist mechanism is the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), which members call "Seek." Formed in early 1988 by two University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students who wanted to communicate with other green-minded youth, SEAC has grown rapidly. In October 1989 the organization's first national conference, Threshold, drew 1,700 activists to a three-day powwow at the Chapel Hill campus. Participation swelled to 7,600 at Catalyst, SEAC's second major gathering, held last fall at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. For that event students came from all 50 states, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Serving as an umbrella organization for more than 500 campus environmental groups, SEAC functions as a grassroots network, an information clearinghouse, and a spiritual resource for "empowering and enriching" its members, who may choose to undertake activities as politically neutral as promoting solid-waste reduction or as controversial as marching for animal rights. "We try to be a decentralized democracy, where ultimately the grassroots decide what their stance is" on any given issue, says UNC-Chapel Hill student Ericka Kurz, one of SEAC's original organizers. Coordinated, top-down policymaking is distasteful to the leadership, and member groups don't necessarily have to support any regional or national action, explains Lara Mears, a student at Texas A&M University who serves on SEAC's governing body, the National Council. The organization, she says, simply "brings together groups that have been working on a variety of issues, motivating them and giving them a voice nationally."
At Mears' school, for example, TEAC (Texas Environmental Action Coalition) has published a community recycling directory and set up company-sponsored recycling bins in the dorms. At Stanford University, SEAS (Students for Environmental Action at Stanford) is concentrating on getting environmental studies incorporated into the academic curriculum. And at UNC-Chapel Hill, students are looking beyond their campus, drafting a resolution challenging the state's road-construction budget.
So far SEAC has concentrated primarily on coalition-building. But at campuses where no environmental-action groups yet exist, SEAC promotes such politically inclusive and pragmatic activities as recycling. National Council member Lisa Abbott of UNC-Chapel Hill says recycling is one of the best tools an organizer can use to involve students, "because a large number of people have to work together. From there, it's easy to get them talking about other issues."
Besides the youth of its members, what distinguishes SEAC from most mainstream environmental groups is its attempt to incorporate a broad array of social issues into its agenda.
Soon after Threshold, where guest speakers represented what students saw as the predominantly white, male, middle-class environmental establishment, SEAC began to cultivate alliances with grassroots organizers of minority, labor, and consumer groups--the sort of people who provide what Kath Delaney of the National Toxics Campaign Fund calls the "new voice" of environmentalism. As a result, Catalyst speakers included Winona LaDuke, president of the Indigenous Women's Network; Cesar Chavez, president of United Farm Workers; consumer advocate Ralph Nader; and Physicians for Social Responsibility founder Helen Caldicott.
Behind this shift in emphasis is a definition of environmentalism that stretches to include "anything that impacts on a living organism," as National Council coordinator Beth Ising puts it. David Ball, student coordinator of SEAC's administrative office, says the term means protecting not only the environment but "the people who live in it," and thus working toward "eliminating sexism, racism, and homophobia, promoting peaceful and nurturing philosophies over militaristic and exploitative ones, and questioning why corporations have so much control over how common resources are used."
Such broad-minded thinking isn't found just among college groups. Creating Our Future, a Marin County, California-based organization made up mostly of high-school students, and its national offshoot, Youth for Environmental Sanity (YES!), have also wedded traditional environmental thinking to social concerns.
Creating Our Future organizer Joseph Pace, a 19-year-old high-school graduate, regularly visits schools to promote environmental awareness. He tells students they should be aware of how their actions affect the world around them. For him, concern for animal rights and social justice make up part of the "compassion for all beings" implied by the word environmentalism. YES! organizers are touring the country, bringing a similar message to hundreds of thousands of primary and secondary school students in 25 cities in 13 states. Sixteen-year-old Santa Cruz, California, resident Ocean Robbins, a YES! spokesperson, says students are doing "tons of things" to address such issues at countless schools throughout the United States.
While some veteran environmentalists might scoff at such all-inclusive idealism, many are enthusiastic about the new trend. "Some of these students have an awareness that I am just beginning to have myself," says the National Toxics Campaign Fund's Delaney, who has been active in the environmental movement for ten years. "They're very committed to a democratic process, very sensitive to gender and cultural issues, and beginning to develop a plan to bring in students who haven't historically been involved."
Environmental theorist Barry Commoner, who spoke at Threshold, views the students as natural allies of grassroots activists. While the big environmental organizations "are negotiators, litigators, lobbyists," he says, the students "are much more like community groups, oriented toward anti corporate activism."
Indeed, established grassroots organizations have begun to see a potential gold mine in SEAC and other youth networks. Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes believes SEAC'S influence will ultimately depend on whether its leaders can effect change. But their ability to turn out large numbers of activists, Hayes says, gives SEAC, Creating Our Future, YES!, and similar groups "de facto political power." Hayes, like Commoner, notes that students, dismissed by activists during the Reagan years as "investment bankers on the make," have become increasingly sought after by some of the major environmental organizations - "not just as foot soldiers, but as allies."
KEIKO OHNUMA is a freelance writer in San Francisco.