Nursing students, leaders of environmental clubs, economics majors—over 100 students from a dozen schools across the state gathered in the Diamond Building for Colby’s Maine College Climate Action Summit on Nov. 9, united by their commitment to combat climate change.
“The goal is for this [summit] to have been a starting point for a launch of sustained collaboration and hopefully empowerment of these students to stay involved and find the ways that they can have an impact,” said Gail Carlson, assistant professor of environmental studies and director of the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment.
The full-day summit was organized by the Environmental Studies Program and the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment. Throughout the day, participants listened to speakers, connected over lunch, attended workshops, and discussed ways to continue their work in collaboration.
“Student action, student understanding of the issues and the challenges, and then their participation in things like this, where they can work with other students from across campus, across Maine, across the Northeast, is exactly what needs to happen,” said philanthropist and conservationist Sandy Buck ’78. Speaking to the students about the issues that Maine is facing and the pro-environment steps that the state is taking after a period of stagnation, Buck encouraged the audience to go to polls and vote out those who don’t believe in climate change.
A short movie produced by award-winning documentary filmmaker Charles Stuart in partnership with Colby’s Buck Lab was also premiered at the event. The first in the Colby Climate Storytelling series, the film detailed regenerative agriculture practices in the 89-acre Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Windham, Maine. The story ideas came from Conor Larkin ’20 and Megan Andersen ’22. “In this day and age, it’s easy to get caught up in this all or nothing mentality. If we aren’t making every effort to save the world, then we’re not doing enough,” Andersen said. “This summer helped me reconnect with how the average everyday Mainer is taking their occupation or their passions and looking at it through an environmentally conscious lens and how powerful this can actually be.”
In a video message to the conference, environmentalist and cofounder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, who was Colby’s 2015-2016 Mellon Distinguished Fellowship in Environmental Studies, urged all to come together to become a big enough group to enact change. “The most important thing an individual can do is be a little less of an individual,” he said.
Unifying was also one of the main messages of the keynote speaker, the Reverend Lennox Yearwood, a longtime national community activist and president and CEO of Hip Hop Caucus. He called attention to the devastating impacts of climate change, such as Hurricane Katrina, especially on vulnerable communities. He then brought the audience back to the movements that happened in the 1950s. “In about five months will be the 50th anniversary of Earth Day,” he said, wearing a hat that read “Flint Still Doesn’t Have Clean Water,” and reminded the group that there are not another 50 years left to work on this issue.
Yearwood not only voiced the need to build an inclusive and widespread movement in a timely manner but also discussed how to get there. “What I do know [is] that right now we are unified as human beings fighting for our existence. And I do know that, throughout history, organized people beats organized money every single time,” he said.
The students, moved by Yearwood’s remarks, went on to discussions over lunch to learn from each other. Emilie Pilchowski ’22, for instance, learned how the University of New England (UNE) students do community building in their environmental club. “They go to Goodwill together, and they go thrifting and talking about sustainable fashion,” said Pilchowski. “It’s something that we could bring to our school, too.” She also learned how UNE students often talked about marine conservation, which is not a part of the conversation at Colby, she said.
Students participated in workshops to learn more about organizing, climate policy, food and climate justice. For instance, attending a workshop on food systems, “that’s a side of climate justice that I’m not really familiar with,” said Bowdoin student Ayana Harscoet, who felt energized and hopeful to be among other young people fighting the same fight.
Mafe Farias Briseno, of the College of the Atlantic, said: “it’s really nice to hear people and their experiences, their frustrations, and any advice they can give us because at the end, we are entering this fight with no clue.” She said students have passion and good intentions, but not always the knowledge to understand how systems are working.
This was also a new learning opportunity for Bates student Salem Al Derei, as this was his first environmental conference. “I’m a politics and economics major, and I feel like those people get a lot of the blame from what’s happening to the world related to the issue,” he said, emphasizing how he hopes to not become like them by becoming more informed.
Sylvie Fenderson, a junior from the University of Maine at Farmington, was drawn to the event for its networking aspect. “I try to do some sort of climate action regularly in my life because I think when I am not connecting with other people, I start to feel isolated on this issue; it can feel very daunting.” In the workshop “Intercollegiate Coalition Building for Campus Climate Leadership,” Fenderson and other students planned ways to create a “support and solidarity platform” for each other, and stay engaged.
“We also hope that the student collaborations are not dependent upon a summit, that in the next year there will be new things created, new collaborations or new campaigns or new projects,” said Carlson. “What we would like to see is that this summit happens annually, and we would welcome other colleges in Maine hosting it.”