October 10, 2012

Southeast Student Activists Demand Action from Elected Officials on Global Issues

This weekend, 300 students came together in Tallahassee, Fl for the 8th annual Southeast Student Renewable Energy Conference (SSREC). I've been to SSREC twice before, but this year felt different. I grew up in South Florida and became a student activist at my university, FAU. Last month, I moved to Washington DC to intern for the Sierra Student Coalition and to be in the heart of environmental policy. It was a difficult decision to leave behind the activist community I knew so well and move on from the local issues I had been fighting for years. So when SSREC came around, I jumped the opportunity to stay connected to this powerful movement of students in the southeast.

I was worried coming to the conference that i would feel like an outsider. I'm no longer a student, or live in the southeast. But the renewable energy part: I am still as committed as ever to the movement for a clean, renewable energy future. Arriving at FAMU on Friday night we gathered for the conference opening speakers. I instantly felt at home. Student activists spoke about the reasons we all came together at this conference, the victories we've achieved, and the fight that will continue in the future.

Saturday started with an energizing morning intro. Students represented their state and shared the awesome campaigns they are working on and the progress their campuses have made on sustainability, clean energy and environmental justice. Everyone then dispersed to their selected workshops to build connections with similarly minded people. Although I'm working on campus organizing for renewable energy, I strongly believe in the real food movement and fair labor. I found that a lot of people at SSREC share that passion in the Food Justice workshop. Panel leaders Kate Klein, Alex Saunders, and Daniella Vargas explored how agricultural practices tie into environmental and social issues and how we can attain a fair, clean and just system of food production. Organizations like Student/Farmworker Alliance and  Real Food Challenge have fought for workers rights to fair wages, safe work conditions, and sustainably sourced  food in university cafeterias. The Real Food Challenge works with students on campuses to ask their university to buy food from local producers who have fair practices.

The second workshop I attended was smaller and we sat in a small circle to discuss the history of Environmental Justice.  Payton Wilkins from the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice started off with a basic definition of environmental justice (EJ). The EJ movement proposes that access to things like clean air, and safe drinking water are basic rights. The movement was sparked when humanitarian leaders noticed that most polluting facilities and landfills are located in low-income and minority neighborhoods. People in these communities don't have the power to fight these big corporations or have access to political officials who can improve their conditions. As activists, one of the main strategies for change is non-violent direct actions. We explored how effective these can be in the EJ movement. Many left the workshop with a new appreciation of how environmental issues tie into social justice.

After a quick lunch break and some amazing local vegan food, the open space session started. I decided to attend the Addressing False Solutions session led by Mandy Hancock, High Risk Energy Organizer for Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. The conversation could have lasted for hours, covering reversing climate change, nuclear energy, fracking, water and so many interrelated issues. Following the open session, I snuck into the Florida state breakout to see what was going on in my home state. Powerhouse Florida YES organizers from all over the state are creating solutions to local and regional issues, while bringing attention to global issues and clean energy. Saturday evening, an amazing plenary included speeched from Georgia organizer Stephanie DuQue, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice's Payton Wilkins, Eriquah Foreman-Williams of National Wilidlife Federation and Energy Action Coalition's EJ Director Lilian Molina.

Feeling reinvigorated and inspired already, Sunday’s rally was full of energy.  SSREC wouldn’t be complete without taking our people power to the street. We gathered on the FAMU quad to march through Tallahassee to the Supreme Court and Capitol Hill.  At the Supreme Court, Mandy Hancock and Florida YES activist Christina Novaton declared that we don’t want any more risky nuclear energy in the Southeast. We then marched over the Capitol building, where our message was clear: We want our elected officials to follow the lead of our generation and take action on global environmental issues and climate change. Speeches from Sierra Club Beyond Oil intern Sara Black pumped up the crowd and Energy Action Coalition organizers Witt Jones and Lilian Molina helped us take out message outside Tallahassee.

On October 16, there is an opportunity to have question from the public answered by President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. At the second Presidential election debate they will answer voters' questions in a live town hall forum.  The hundreds of students at SSREC put our question out there to the candidates, and hope they will follow our lead and start using their power to address the environmental crisis.