Sunday, September 27, 2009

Folk Singing & Green Thinking at YSEC Conference

Yale students/folk-singers-extraordinaire sing at
Dwight Chapel to close out the YSEC conference.


When you are facing a task as daunting as greening an entire college campus, the best thing to do is seek to the advice of those who have fought similar battles. That's what I was hoping to do this past Friday, when I hopped on a Greyhound bus for an eight-hour ride up to chilly New Haven to attend the Yale Student Environmental Coalition (YSEC) Conference. On Saturday, October 26th college students from across the Northeast gathered at Yale's Dwight Hall to learn how college campuses can halt climate change. Representatives from Greenpeace, Slow Food USA, the National Wildlife Federation, the Energy Action Coalition and many other environmental organizations led a series of rapid-fire, information-rich panels on subjects ranging from ecovillages to bioregionalism to basic campaign-organizing skills. The expereince was very much like that of Powershift '09, except the smaller number of attendees (each panel had enough room for about 15 students, as opposed to the hundred or so that attended each Powershift panel) meant that discussions were more intimate, could revolve around real-life examples from students in the room, and allowed plenty of time for each student to voice their opinion or ask questions.

I am still sorting through all of the information from that busy Saturday, but one idea jumped out at me as applying directly to MICA's SF/SC. A student representative from Wesleyan University introduced me to the idea of a green fee. Similar to the Activities Fee that MICA students already have to pay, a green fee is a small, optional fee - usually $10/semester - that can be used to fund green initiatives on campus. Some schools, like Oberlin in Ohio, divide the green fee into two seperate uses: grants for green projects that are valuable but have no significant economic return (hosting an event like the YSEC conference, for example), and a revolving loan fund. Revolving loan funds, as I understand them, are invested into projects that generate a significant financial saving. Installing wind turbines, for example, would generate huge energy savings over time. The savings from these initial projects are used to fund subsequent green initiatives, and so on.

The potential to make change with green fees is enormous; many sustainable projects, like solar panels, require big capitol investments that MICA simply can not shoulder at this time. Our biggest challenges will be convincing students that a green fee is worth paying, and ensuring that every student sees the benefits of green-fee spending.

On the more tactical end of the spectrum, I attended a very informative panel about Powermapping. Powermapping is a method used to formulate a winning campaign strategy by identifying who you have to influence to make change. We are fortunate to attend a school that is small enough that the administration is readily available. Some students I spoke with were baffled by the idea of talking to - or even seeing - their university president. In my experience, MICA's administration has always been a phone call away and been more than happy to help. But it's still useful to know how to go about organizing a major campaign.

The model for the discussion was Greenpeace's successful campaign against Kimberly Clark, a company that, up until recently, was using 100% virgin trees from boreal forests in Canada to make their Kleenex tissues. (I know, wtf.) Here are the steps for making a Powermap, as applied to a university setting:
  1. Who? Identify who you need to influence to win your campaign - the president of the university? the head of purchasing?
  2. What are their characteristics? Research the people you must influence. You should have enough information that you can plot them on a scale from 1 - 8, 1 being the least environmentally-friendly and 8 being the most.
  3. Choose a subject. Of the people you feel you need to influence, who is the most important? (You may need to choose two and make two separate Powermaps.)
  4. Identify their influences. What are the public, fincancers, VIP and personal influences on your subject(s)? Here are examples: public - local newspapers, the Princeton review, the student body; financers - donors, alumni, prospective students; VIPs - board members, deans, faculty; personal - friends, religous leaders
  5. Highlight those influences that are most important.
  6. Star those influences that you can actually contact.
  7. Note those influences that your opposition can contact. Make the decision whether or not those who fall into category 6 and 7 are worth fighting for, or if you should concentrate your time and resources elsewhere. Focus on those who fall into category 5 and 6.
  8. Define your goal. Make sure your goal is SMART: Strategic, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable and Timebound.
  9. Determine a plan for winning over those in categories 5 and 6.
  10. Win!
YSEC attendees gather in Dwight Hall to meet other students from their
state. Four students from McDaniel College were also representing MD.


To close the conference, participants gathered in Dwight Chapel to hear remarks from Billy Parish, the coordinator of the Energy Action Coalition (EAC). Parish urged attendees to recognize that all of the basic structures of our society - food, housing, transportation - are unsustainable. They are also in various stages of failure. In order to reshape our world and put an end to climate change, we have to tackle all of these areas. Flush with ideas from a non-stop day of learning, students were eager to share their plans. One woman had decided to work on an eco-village that summer. Another student hoped to take part in the complete restructuring of our economy and government, moving away from centralization towards smaller, regional systems. Overflowing with ideas, we spilled out onto the lawn in front of Dwight Hall and joined together to spell out the number 350, the parts-per-million carbon dioxide that our atmosphere can hold and still sustain human life. (The photograph of the student created number, taken from the fourth floor of an adjacent building, will be submitted to 350.org's campaign.)

The YSEC conference has filled me with optimism; every group in attendance - student and national groups alike - had humble beginnings. The EAC was dreamed up by five students. Five. It was pulled together and preserved through various power struggles because of the hard work and tireless determination of 20-22 year olds, and now it is a major force in the national student environmental movement. If a handful of twenty-somethings can form the EAC, then I have no doubt that SF/SC can bring change to MICA.

Photos & Words - Zoe

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