Patricia Feeney is a senior biology major at Berea College in Berea, Ky., where she also studies sustainability and environmental studies. She is co-coordinator of Youth Power Shift, a campaign of the Student Environmental Action Coalition.
Tuesday, 6 Jan 2004
“What do you plan to do after you graduate from college?” the man behind the counter asked as my mom and I stopped in for a cup o’ fairly traded joe. She had brought me back to school this past weekend to begin another semester now that the holidays are over.
“The same thing I’m doing now,” I replied as usual. “Resist injustice and build hope in the face of a system that values profit over the quality of human life.”
“A lofty goal for a little lady,” the man said in reply.
No need to condescend. Little does he know, the resistance I speak of is a much greater force than myself. The work I do is in coalition with youth across the country, and in solidarity with people fighting injustice all over the world. There may be but a small handful of us working here with HEAL, the student environmental and social justice organization at Berea College, but we have the support of an entire network of young activists in similar situations — spearheading student initiatives that urge institutions to take action against dirty energy, racism, sweatshops, and other injustices, to be proactive in establishing policies that prioritize the health of communities.
This network is known as the Student Environmental Action Coalition, or SEAC, and after a productive semester and a restful break watching my gorgeous two-year-old niece grow more every day, I am ready to dive back into it. We are currently preparing for the January National Council Meeting, which will be held this weekend in Philadelphia and for which we had a lengthy conference call Monday evening. Full of excitement, we discussed the details of our gathering, which will plan for the governing of SEAC National and the affirming of SEAC’s role not only as a tool for grassroots campaigns, but as a resource and model for breaking down oppression within youth and environmental movements. Addressing various forms of oppression — sexism, racism, heterosexism, and classism — within our own organization brings attention to the interconnectedness of our efforts for a better world and also illustrates the beauty of SEAC, which is, I believe, its fearless embodiment of the power of youth.
I remember the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, when the representative of business in the Energy Plenary criticized demands made by the international youth representative for a future based on clean renewable energy by referring to her as being too idealistic. To refer to idealism as a weakness is to deny the possibility of progress and the pursuit of the ideal. As young people, we are a strong force in the movement for a better world because we have vision, and we have energy. As students, we have the resources and the people to provoke thought and action. As activists, we have technology, we have the streets, and we have one another.
Of course, no matter what resources I have, I am not going to force more hours into the day, so I exited the conference call early in order to get some schoolwork finished. By then it was after 10 p.m. Although I enjoy taking care of myself, sleep is often sacrificed as I find myself wrapped up in work until the early morning hours.
Before the conference call, I had three straight hours of class and then a HEAL meeting. My chosen role in HEAL right now is to urge my college to adopt a clean energy standard. In other words, I am encouraging my institution to reconsider the dangerous and unjust implications of not decreasing our reliance on an energy source that degrades our quality of life. This local campaign is closely affiliated with Youth Power Shift, a campaign of SEAC.
Youth Power Shift is a national youth-led effort to institutionalize energy conservation, efficiency, and clean power by pooling our resources and building collective energy for change. In the midst of our local organizing to build a new energy paradigm, students from all over the country will be gathering later this week to assess the campaign and strategize nationally for the coming months. This past year was an exciting one for Youth Power Shift and for SEAC as a whole, and I look forward to reflecting on 2003. Amidst our successes, the opportunities for learning only benefit this youth movement, as we are continually working in coalition with one another, sharing our resources and experiences to be a true force of resistance to injustice.
Wednesday, 7 Jan 2004
At 11:00 p.m., it’s time to sit down with a late dinner of improved ramen noodle soup and get some writing accomplished.
Remembering the energized discussion in class today, I appreciate the tension and exhilaration that complement each other in the life of a college student. I can manage the late nights and impossible amounts of reading — as far as I am concerned, the life of a college student is one of leisure — but the greatest challenge is communicating ideas to those with different backgrounds and thought processes.
A class I am taking for January term, Natural Capitalism, has raised some interesting questions concerning sustainable business, natural capital, and incentives to incorporate the value of our collective well-being into the market. One of our assigned readings for this class is Mid-Course Correction, Toward a Sustainable Enterprise: The Interface Model. Interface is a billion dollar company and the largest manufacturer of commercial carpet in the world. It also aims to be a sustainable, zero-waste business, and eventually a restorative company.
The book approaches this seemingly noble goal with practical considerations for business and market-based economics. The author Ray Anderson — the founder, chair, and CEO of Interface — has the following to say:
Interface paid fair market price for every pound of material it has bought and processed … Doesn’t the market govern? Yes, but does the market price cover the cost? Well, let’s see. Who has paid for the military power that has been projected into the Middle East to protect the oil at its source? Why, you have, in your taxes. Thank you very much. And who is paying for the damage done by storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes that result from global warming? Why you are, of course, in your insurance premiums. Thank you again. And who will pay for the losses in Florida and the cost of the flooded, abandoned streets of Boston, New York, New Orleans, and London someday in the distant future? Future generations, your progeny, that’s who. And who pays for the diseases caused by the toxic emissions all around us? Guess! Do you see how the revered market system of the first industrial revolution allows companies like mine to shift those costs to others, to externalize these costs, even to future generations?
Anderson realized he had been robbing our children of their future by externalizing these costs.
I consider daily how to convey such ideas to my peers and to our college administration — the urgency of paying for what we cost not only future generations, but communities today in Appalachia.
Today I received a message from a fellow activist on campus saying that we should use this January term, and the energy of the new year, to raise awareness about our clean-energy campaign and get folks thinking about energy consumption, and why they should give a damn. How do I explain to the average college student the social and environmental implications of leaving the TV blaring or the laptop on all day, that they are perpetuating systems of ignorant consumerism, over-consumption, and irreparable destruction? How do I show them the connection between dorm life and the family in rural Appalachia who, right before Christmas, had their house destroyed by a nearby strip-mining operation? (A mining company was blasting for coal near a house in eastern Kentucky, and in the midst of blowing the top off a mountain, a huge boulder smashed through the family’s roof.)
Oh, the never-ending question — how do we make people understand? We tell the stories.
But informing people of injustice and their connection to it is not all we can do. As with our local campus campaign, Youth Power Shift can’t create change by education alone. By encouraging higher education institutions to use clean, renewable energy sources, we are building a demand for these human-positive technologies, leading the way for other institutions to become more sustainable and creating a domino effect in the students and the surrounding community. Influencing energy policy is only one solution. There are many, and there is a niche for everyone in the social and environmental-justice movement.
As a student, I have come to realize that my most difficult task is allowing others, everyone, to realize their power. I want to communicate clearly the need for people to wield that power for justice, for life and music and democracy, and on and on. I hope we can all embrace the challenge of communicating with one another. Indeed, no one can do it alone.
Thursday, 8 Jan 2004
It came to me as we were “checking in” today at a meeting of HEAL, our campus environmental organization. Finally, on the third day of classes in my eighth semester as a college student and, not coincidentally, an activist, it hit me. My turn came around the table, and I blurted out with eyes wide open, “I don’t know how I am going to get all this done.” Much to my own surprise, I proceeded to ask everyone at the meeting for any time or help they could offer. No shame. I felt like I had just graduated from a 12-step program that made me wear a sign saying, “Confront me now if I don’t ask for help.”
Knowing we would be discussing our plans for this January term, I had finished a ridiculous to-do list before the meeting. The feel-good, look-what-we-accomplished-the-past-year attitude can only last so long, and today I felt it starting to fade. It is time to buckle down and do what needs to be done.
Along with the mega to-do list, at the start of every year I attempt to prioritize my life. I inevitably end up with less of a list and more a group of three clumps. The first is family and loved ones — easy enough. The second is schoolwork (investment in my future ability to do good), Youth Power Shift (national organizing), and HEAL (local organizing). The third clump is everything else, some of which remains in limbo; I see the value of music and art and reflection.
For my 21st birthday, my parents gave me an old violin. I started teaching myself what I could, and for the past three months a friend has been teaching me fiddle music. I can’t believe I waited 21 years to make such sound! Everyone should know what it is to create music. I can feel the stress melt away as I simply pick up the violin. Yes, there is much to be done, but I am reminded of a saying: “Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace within.” I believe music can provide such peace in a world shadowed by systematic destruction.
Another way to find peace is to work to calm the storm. Resistance is sacred. Sir Peter Scott, founder of WWF, said, “We shan’t save all we should like to, but we shall save a great deal more than if we had never tried.”
Late last night, my phone rang (if you ever need to get in touch with a college student, I find the optimal hours to be between about 9:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.) and I found myself lying in the middle of my hardwood floor (I have a spacious room for the average student living on campus) talking with Josh, co-coordinator of Youth Power Shift. I enjoyed the brief period of relaxation without a book or computer screen in front of my eyes. We are excited to get together this weekend in “Philly” and hash out our vision for the coming year. Also, I am looking forward to finally basking, ever so slightly, with Josh in that look-at-what-we-accomplished-this-year feeling. One such accomplishment was our first ever Youth Power Shift National Day of Action. We had a modest goal of recruiting 25 schools, but in the end 60 schools participated in solidarity as we raised awareness and communicated with our administrations the need for clean renewable energy standards.
It was a brief conversation, then it was time to sit up and get back to the books … but first, just a few minutes of “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” my first fiddle tune.
Friday, 9 Jan 2004
Last night was full of excitement as I was reunited with friends I haven’t seen since last summer’s Student Environmental Action Coalition National Council meeting in Ann Arbor, Mich. After an easy plane ride to Philly from Kentucky, I wasn’t surprised when we arrived at the “Sparkle House” (aptly named as the walls of the living room glitter) after midnight to find folks awake and pulling together last-minute logistics for the meeting later that morning. After many hugs and smiling faces, a few of us went walking in West Philadelphia in search of some space to sleep.
I woke this morning on the floor of the SEAC office and returned to the Sparkle House for a lovingly prepared, hearty breakfast of oatmeal, fruit, bagels, and coffee. Even more nourishing was the energy in the room. Throughout the semester my organizing time has been spent with voices — conference calls and emails from other student and youth activists changing their campuses, regularly sleeping in the SEAC office so they can keep the pulse of SEAC national running through this country. To see these people all in one room not only makes them more real to me but also fills me simply and fully with joy.
After breakfast, we headed upstairs to a room full of posters — “SEAC Goals,” “SEAC Organizing Principles” — and a blank white dry-erase board full of potential to illustrate the ideas and visions that will be generated throughout the next three days. I heard one fellow say that he came to the meeting because he wanted to learn more about Youth Power Shift, and my eyes widened. Another woman came to network in order to get clean energy on her campus, and I couldn’t help but smile as my heart lifted at the reality of our growing grassroots campaign and how far word has spread.
We spent the morning getting to know one another and becoming acquainted with the radical and inspirational history of SEAC — how more than 1,000 students came together in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1988 after a few students put a notice in Greenpeace’s magazine calling for a gathering of student and youth environmental activists. This initial gathering solidified the national student environmental movement and established the network known as SEAC. The second gathering, “Catalyst,” was in Chicago; there, more than 7,000 young people gathered to communicate and organize as an effective force against injustice. More than one student activist network exists today, but most communicate and remain in coalition with one another for the sake of strengthening local efforts.
SEAC exists to expand and empower the grassroots, and we came together today to decide how SEAC can better fulfill such a purpose. After getting settled and discussing, in a surprisingly entertaining way, exactly what SEAC is, we concluded the National Council’s morning orientation meeting with a question-and-answer session. “How can action and concrete change come out of our caucus discussions?” “How can we realize our goals more fully on the local and national levels?” These are only a couple of the thought-provoking questions that came up in the first few hours of our meeting.
As we sat down for lunch with warm bowls of homemade chili, lentils, and rice, I could hardly wait for the afternoon meeting — to be in a room of driven, intelligent young people, forming our concrete visions of what SEAC will grow to be.
But first I snuck away to conclude this ever-so-brief snapshot of my life. If I have any closing thoughts, any last-minute words I want to send into cyberspace, they are: Not only is a life of working, loving, studying, and grassroots activism possible (however busy), it is more fulfilling than I could ever have imagined. There is power in youth, and there is a movement, a current of change flowing through our schools and businesses and communities. I hope we will realize our strength and solidarity as a collective force uprooting injustice and constructing an equitable society.