A Call to Action

Middlebury students on strike, circa 1970

“Back in the day, if students wanted to get something done, they would stage sit-ins overnight in the administrative office and refuse to leave until they got what they wanted. Nowadays, you start a Facebook group”. –Shirley Collado, Dean of the College

Compare the quick ease of clicking “Join” or “I’m attending” on Facebook to sacrificing a weekend, and the possibility of disciplinary action, picketing ankle deep in snow. I’m talking about unified direct action, with policy depth and creative messaging. This past year I’ve sensed weariness among friends disappointed by the empty rhetoric of politicians who call for change without enacting it. There’s disillusionment with the international climate process and politicians’ inability to set aside national economic interests and collectively commit to strong and legally binding emissions reductions. The pulse, from what I can tell, is to take a stance of compromise and call for moderate “politically feasible” asks. My fear is this: Young people have historically stood as a strong force advocating civil rights. It’s what people expect. If our enthusiasm, public action, and voter turnout wane, decision makers dismiss us as apathetic and are not held accountable for acting in our interest. That’s pretty terrifying.

I spent the last two weeks of fall term in Mexico attending the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The last evening of the conference, youth delegates stood on the steps of the negotiating center counting together, one by one, to the number of people who have died because of climate change since Copenhagen last winter. We counted for those most vulnerable to climate change, those who are already feeling the effects of political and social inaction. We held vigil for 21,000 people whose voices have been silenced by political inaction. Our banner read, “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.”

An hour into our protest, U.N. security officers asked us to leave. We continued to count. Two thousand three hundred and twenty four, two thousand three hundred and twenty five, two thousand three hundred and twenty six… We were told to leave. We linked arms and continued to count. We were once again told to leave and told we would not be allowed to return to the U.N. negotiations the next year. Fourteen stayed on the steps, continuing to count. We held onto each other tightly, counting together. UN security grabbed us from behind and herded us towards a bus, pulled us around and hoisted us into a bus. We rushed to the windows and pushed our signs against the glass, continuing to count.

That night in plenary, negotiators gave a three-minute standing ovation applauding the Mexican leadership for saving the U.N. process. We have yet to save the planet. And as they applauded weak compromise, we cried for justice delayed. We were made into criminals. We were branded as radicals. To me, there is nothing more peaceful than standing beside friends and holding vigil for the dead. There is nothing radical about fighting for survival.

Our actions must voice injustice. We must speak loudly so that those who are now silent will be remembered. As much as climate change is a scientific crisis, it has a profound human effect, and therefore becomes an intensely moral issue as well. As young people, we often pigeonhole our messaging around the future, and the future of generations that will follow us. We shouldn’t stop caring about the future, or stop campaigning around it. But we need to care first about what is happening right now and care about people whose lives are at stake. My thought is this: Politicians can no longer postpone progress, but we can’t wait to act until they do.

In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’ve been thinking about the importance of civil disobedience and the trajectory of the climate movement as an iteration of values and tactics presented by the civil rights, women’s and queer movements. What can we learn from this rich history? Nonviolent resistance demonstrates our commitment to climate change as our number one issue and shows that we are willing to put it all on the line (even arrest) because we recognize the urgency and gravity of the crisis we have inherited. Onlookers expect college students to garden and compost, expect us to take classes on climate policy or international development, and expect us to expect us to write eloquent papers on the subject. Let’s surprise them. Let’s be brave and take subversive action that shakes the system.

The success of The Hunt this past week demonstrated that the potential for visible, creative, and unified action on campus. What if we shaped flash mobs, tattoos, and satire around a social justice issue? If we can be motivated by $1,000, my impression is that we can certainly rally around human life.

As part of the Martin Luther King Jr. programming and the Scott A. Margolin ’99 Lecture in Environmental Affairs, the college invited Dr. Antwi Akom for a keynote lecture entitled “Growing the Global Heart: Race, Power, and Building a Youth-Driven Climate Justice Movement.” His provocative lunchtime workshop and afternoon address challenged conventional notions of the climate movement’s focus on polar bears and carbon as he spoke of sustainability, equity, and diversity in the context of education, healthcare, and activism.

At Middlebury, we pat ourselves on the back for our strong “green” image- our renowned Environmental Studies department, progressive biomass plant, and ambitious commitment to carbon neutrality by 2016. But to some extent, we are limiting our scope. How do we move our ideas beyond the classroom or Proctor lounge and coordinate with people outside our sphere? How do we expand our traditional notions of the “climate movement” to holistically address conversations about race-, class-, and gender- based privilege and oppression? How do we unite social justice groups on campus to share tactics, ideas, and support for each others’ projects?

The people most vulnerable to climate change are those with the least privilege. By privilege I mean that the probability of their ideas, knowledge, and needs counts the least. We can’t stop counting those who have been forgotten. We can’t stop thinking that our own voices count. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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4 thoughts on “A Call to Action

  1. Well put, Abigail. I wonder what it says about our campus if the most inspiring example of students mobilizing as a cohesive group (The Hunt) was brought about by a cash incentive.

  2. Great, articulate post.
    Sometimes I wonder whether Middkids’ involvement in social change stalls at awareness. Student organizations, individuals, and the College alike host countless lectures and presentations and lunches and screenings aimed at raising awareness about issues beyond the Middlebury bubble. Are students overwhelmed by the sheer volume of these events that they can’t commit to a deeper involvement in something? Is broad awareness inhibiting “unified direct action?” Is our dedication spread too thin?

    I am by no means suggesting that Middlebury cut its lecture offerings. Awareness, of course, is necessary before change can take place. But are there ways that students can be motivated to take that next step from awareness to ACTION? How/should organizations and the College support this, or is it each students’ individual responsibility to get over feeling inundated and just choose a cause to get deeply involved in?

  3. I struggle with similar thoughts. In some ways, I regard college as a time to consciously remove from the rest of the world, immerse ourselves in classes/lectures/performances, and engage in conversations that will inspire action after our four year college tenure. But as I wrote, I believe we need to move our action beyond our insular campus. Any conscious member of this community will gain broad awareness by attending college programming. This type of education is central to the liberal arts.

    If we care about what we learn in the classroom and what we talk about in the dining hall, my feeling is that we need to make our concerns more public. Student organizations organize elaborate dance parties, why not marches, guerilla art exhibits, forums for open discussion, satire ad campaigns, or community outreach? Let’s take a page from the Yes Men and have fun!(http://challenge.theyesmen.org/challenges)

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