As if to show the stakes in the winter term course, “Next Steps for the Youth Climate Movement,” the campus lawns outside Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest remained markedly bare and snowless. Inside, 16 students from around the world—Hong Kong, Singapore, Peru, Alaska, Texas, New York—discussed ways to bring new urgency to the climate issue. Guiding them was a Middlebury alumnus and climate activist, Pic Walker ’93, who has an enviable track record in motivating young people to tackle this difficult issue.
Walker is executive director of the California-based Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), which in two short years has reached more than one million American high school students with fast-paced and entertaining climate-science assemblies and opportunities to take action. In this J-term class, Walker reached beyond the parts-per-million facts of climate change—most of the Middlebury students were well versed in those—and concentrated on tools that motivate people to change their behaviors. From his years in the environmental trenches, and his MBA in sustainable enterprise from the University of North Carolina, Walker has learned to use a wide range of changemaking tools that borrow from business and meet people on emotional ground. His students would learn to grasp those tools and, by the end of the month, have their own project ideas ready to build.
Key among those tools is the story. One of the first class assignments was to read veteran civil rights activist Marshall Ganz’s essay on public narrative, in which he describes “the story of self, a story of us, and a story of now” as essential emotional motivators. Stories of challenges overcome, for example, can create anxiety, but they also illustrate values; change happens when the storyteller can annex that anxiety to hope rather than despair.
Each student wrote a personal story of overcoming a challenge, showing the choices made and the outcomes reached. Getting to know oneself in this way, says Walker, helps point a path to action. “Every change comes with a powerful leader,” he said, “and the lens of self shows us the lens of change.” Students also read business best-sellers such as Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard to understand the difference between the kinds of decisions governed by the heart and by the mind, and how to direct each of them.
And because they were at Middlebury, the students, about half of whom were first-years, had the chance to talk with climate leaders Bill McKibben and with older students whose climate work had taken them from Washington, D.C. legislative campaigns to an Indonesian project providing households with efficient soot-free cooking stoves. Their advice? Join the Sunday Night Group (the student-led environmental incubator where organizations such as 350.org began), find your niche, and don’t forget to have fun along the way. “Climate change is such a big issue that it’ll touch something you care about,” offered Ben Wessel ’12. “Let what you love guide you.”
That guidance is clear for Victoria Buschman ’15. Victoria is an Iñupiat Eskimo from Barrow, Alaska. Her people have thrived there for thousands of years, but climate change is now disrupting their daily life and the traditions that have sustained them.
Like many of the 3,500 villagers, Victoria’s grandmother lives in a wooden house on pilings to secure it above the permafrost. As the permafrost thaws and shifts, her grandmother’s foundation has cracked, leaving the house vulnerable to wind and cold—in fact, the whole village is moving. The sea is rapidly encroaching on the village’s 2,000-year-old burial ground. After an estimated 200-mile swim for solid ground, an exhausted polar bear collapsed on the village shore. Shifting ice has seriously impeded the Iñupiat traditional hunts on which they rely for food. “It makes me sad to hear climate change turned into a political issue,” she says. “Oil companies sponsor so much misinformation.” At the end of this course, however, she feels hopeful and ready to act. “I never thought about starting something on my own, but the class has helped me find myself and how I can take my place in the world.” When she returns to Barrow this spring she’ll begin an online advocacy group, Indigenous Culture and Climate Education—“a community of communities”—to connect indigenous people, whether in the Arctic or the tropics, whose ways and homelands are threatened by climate change.
Some student projects will take root closer to campus. Trevor Quick ’15 plans to build an online aggregator that matches interested people with activist opportunities. Courtney Devoid ’14 and her team are developing a climate education summer camp for kids. Stu Fram ’13 is drawing on his own experience of giving up meat last year because of livestock’s role in producing 20 percent of climate-changing gases. He, Maria Rojas ’12, Rafael Manyari’15, and several other friends are planning an information campaign for the dining halls on the environmental, public health, and nutritional benefits of a plant-based diet. “We’re working hard to ensure that our efforts don’t come across as dietary imposition…[We hope to turn] students into better-informed consumers and promote local food when fiscally and seasonally realistic.”
Time’s running out for action on climate change. Luckily, the timing for these students to activate their plans while at Middlebury is optimal: one of the class’s last meetings took place at the symposium inaugurating the new Center for Social Entrepreneurship. The Center’s training and grants programs join the real-world opportunities offered by Projects for Peace, MiddCORE, the Project on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts, Education in Action, and the Solar Decathlon in giving students ways to act on issues close to their hearts.