Nearly twenty years after we both spent countless hours helping to organize Threshold in our first semester at UNC-Chapel Hill, C-line and I recently sat down to remember SEAC's early days. We thought about visiting the Forest Theatre, where Threshold concluded in an emotional ceremony on Sunday, October 29, 1989. But it was otherwise occupied by the Paperhand Puppet Intervention, performing one of their annual late summer shows. So we traveled a few hundred yards down the road, and ended up at the curved stone bench behind Gimghoul Castle that overlooks the far edge of Battle Park.
At the first SEAC organizing meeting of the fall semester '89 (in Hamilton 100), Jimmy Langman convinced us all that Threshold was going to spark a national movement, and Ericka Kurz gave a fiery, impassioned speech wearing a cool black leather jacket. Besides Jimmy and Ericka, SEAC founding members who were running the show included Alec Guettal, Blan Holman, and Don Whittier. They were all juniors, seniors, even recent grads, but nobody past their early twenties. Still, as C-line put it, "They seemed so old. And we said, tell us what you need us to do!"
The nuts and bolts effort required to actually organize a nationwide conference in the pre-internet era was a little less romantic. Working alongside dedicated souls like Lisa Abbott, Chris van Daalen, Celeste Joye, Yu-Yee Wu, Raj Krishnasami, Mark Chilton, Quaker Kappel, Ruby Sinreich, Susan Comfort, Sarah Davis, Dave Ball, Nicole Breedlove, and a bunch of other SEAC'ers, we prepared mass mailings, entered hundreds of pre-registered attendees' names into ancient Mac computers, lined up crash pad arrangements with hundreds of UNC students, and using a primitive device known as the landline telephone, called up folks who wanted more info to convince them to make the trek to Chapel Hill. And my favorite part, sitting around in endless meeting circles on the second floor of the Campus Y, arguing over one minor detail or another until the WHOLE GROUP reached a consensus.
Threshold ad from Oct. '89 issue of Music Monitor.
The conference succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Over 1,700 people showed up from around the country, representing 43 states and 225 schools. It was the largest gathering of student activists since the heyday of SDS in the late 60s. And it launched SEAC as a national student environmental movement. By the early 90s, SEAC chapters existed at over 2,000 U.S. colleges and high schools.
SEAC helped spark a renewal of progressive activism on campuses nationwide. From early on, organizers expanded the definition of environmental issues to include environmental racism and corporate accountability. Over the next few years, national SEAC trainers traveled the country to run local weekend organizer trainings that schooled a new crop of student activists.
SEAC coordinated additional national and regional conferences (most notably, the 1990 Catalyst conference, which drew 7,600 students to Champaign-Urbana, IL) and organized a series of national campaigns (including energy independence, corporate greed, defense of old growth forests, Free Burma, and anti-globalization). SEAC-sponsored voter education work helped elect green candidates at local and state levels.
Unfortunately, SEAC's growth made it overly reliant on grant money. And when some of its foundation donors eventually decided the group was too radical, and yanked their support, SEAC lost a significant chunk of its budget. The number of paid staffers plummeted from 13 down to 7 and then zero.
PIRGs also began jockeying with SEAC chapters for members, and after using SEAC's membership list to organize a 1994 conference, founded a competing student activist network called Free The Planet.
Internal SEAC struggles intensified, and the national office in Carrboro, NC closed its doors in the fall of 1996. However, SEAC rebuilt from the grassroots up, and reopened its national office in 1998, which moved first to Philadelphia and then Charleston, WV.
On a personal level, my involvement with SEAC convinced me I wanted to be an organizer, and laid the foundation for all my political work that's followed. I saw my first published articles appear in issues of SEAC's national newsletter (later renamed Threshold Magazine). I became good friends with C-line, and our adventures have continued ever since. I worked on my first winning political campaign thanks to SEAC, when we elected Mark Chilton to the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1991 (at age 21, he was the youngest candidate ever elected in North Carolina, and the first and only UNC undergraduate to hold public office in Chapel Hill to this day).
Two decades after Threshold, SEAC remains the nation's largest student- and youth-led environmental group. The most fitting thing that happened to commemorate Threshold's 20th anniversary was that from Oct 16-18, the SEAC-affiliated Energy Action Coalition sponsored a regional summit (Carolinas Power Shift) at UNC-Chapel Hill. 350 student environmental activists gathered from schools in North and South Carolina to network and organize for action on clean energy and climate change. And speakers included Mark Chilton (now the two-term mayor of Carrboro), wearing his original Threshold t-shirt!
Clearly, SEAC continues to mobilize young people to protect our planet and our future. For more information on SEAC and its work today, visit SEAC.org.