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The Planet
It’s Hip to Be Green

Sierra Student Coalition: Will wear orange space suits to save the planet

By Brian Vanneman

Meighan Davis leaves no doubt: "We are the next generation of environmentalists."

If it sounds like a sound-byte, well, maybe it is. As the 22-year-old director of the Sierra Student Coalition, Davis is comfortable with contradictions—like activists who want to shake up the system, yet know how use the system to get on network news. On a recent trip to the Sierra Club’s San Francisco headquarters, she was determined that her many scheduled meetings not muscle out all of her shopping time.

But she believes that shaking things up is the greatest thing that college and high school students can offer to the environmental movement—or any social movement, for that matter. To that end, she’s spent much of her two-year term as the coalition’s leader fusing fun with environmentalism. "I have an Abbie Hoffman fascination," Davis says. "I’m reading one of his books right now—he writes that young people’s asset is their creative energy." Last summer, she and other SSC leaders followed the alternative music festival Lollapalooza around in a rented hybrid car, collecting signatures and connecting with young music fans outside of venues. In the fall, the SSC was in Iowa, in advance of the primaries—this time dressed in orange space suits inspired by the Apollo Project, a joint effort of the labor and environmental communities.

Whether it means dressing in space gear or meeting rock stars, Davis believes that students get engaged through action. "When you start talking too much about bills and laws, people tune out," says Davis. "Being creative or goofy is fun, gets people involved, and ultimately educated. Young people are action-based." For example, Davis believes that the place for student environmentalists is not exclusively at tabling events in front of the library, but at the football stadium. "That’s where all the students are," she says. On next season’s agenda are game-time events in which several dozen students hold up placards spelling out an environmental message. Davis seems to have come to the startling conclusion that environmentalism can be—even ought to be—hip. And she’s determined to have a good time while getting her generation to buy into that concept.

SSC leaders—members of a group that has been called Generation Y and the Why Generation among other names—say their peers have for the most part rejected the political apathy for which their predecessors in Generation X became known. And young people will be essential to the Club’s Building Environmental Communities work of going door-to-door to talk about the Bush administration’s assault on the environment. Anderson Beckman, the SSC’s Forest Campaign coordinator, says that her generation has grown up volunteering: "Community service has almost become a requirement." After several years of pitching in at beach cleanups and other one-day events, she sought out a venture with more far-reaching implications, and found the SSC. As the Forest Campaign’s coordinator, she will be leading a group that in just the past two years helped to win major victories by forcing mega-retailers like Home Depot to stop carrying wood products made from old-growth trees.

Davis also finds that Generation Y is bound together by the health hazards caused by poor environmental stewardship, like asthma. "My brother has asthma. Everyone knows someone with asthma," she says. The disease, caused by smog and other types of air pollution, is disturbingly common. By 2001, more than 31 million Americans, including 4.2 million children, had been diagnosed with asthma.

Getting the point across. Nick Salter, who coordinates the SSC’s World Bank campaign, at a 2003 FTAA protest in Washington, D.C.

The SSC is heading into this spring and summer full of momentum and ready to take the lead in Generation Y’s environmental movement. On Earth Day, April 22, the SSC will be on 10 of the nation’s biggest college campuses attempting to make contact with 30,000 students. First, Davis and other SSC leaders will be "Hanging the Bush Administration’s Dirty Laundry Out to Dry." Almost literally. They’ll string up a clothesline from which to hang oversize t-shirts and boxer shorts, on which will be written details about the Bush administration’s assault on America’s environmental safeguards. Since many schools schedule spring music festivals for late April, this display will often take place on a central quad, near thousands of concert-goers. Next, the SSC will do the leg work: walking dorm room to dorm room to inform thousands of students about the Bush environmental record, and ask them to sign postcards to elected officials urging that they help to reverse the damage to our air, water, and wildlands.

Then the SSC will switch gears from getting the word out to its generation, to focusing on training a corps of environmental activists with SPROGs. What are SPROGs? Davis herself is hard-pressed to connect actual words with yet another Sierra Club acronym, but she can explain it. "SPROGs are training sessions; week-long summer programs where we teach students how to think and act like organizers," she says. And according to the SSC, organizing is a skill that just like any other, can be taught. "Our extremely knowledgeable and experienced trainers incorporate the Sierra Club’s more than 100 years of organizing experience—and that’s what sets us apart from other student groups," says Davis.

Beckman, who attended a training as a high school sophomore in 2001, agrees that the trainers made the difference. "It was great to meet all the Sierra Club staff actually coordinating the Club’s national campaigns," says Beckman. "I realized that things weren’t really hierarchical, that I could do whatever I wanted. And I was armed with facts to argue my point of view."

Given the facts, enough energy to go door-to-door in neighborhood after neighborhood, and a knack for public theater, the SSC just may be able to motivate their generation and educate the public at large.

To get involved with the SSC’s Earth day events, apply for a SPROG summer training, or bring the SSC’s year-round training academy to your community, visit, e-mail, or call (888) JOIN-SSC.

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