Interview: Rachel Ackoff "It's Our Turn"
Student activists rise to the planet's biggest challenge
By Reed McManus
It's a group effort: Rachel Ackoff with fellow climate crusaders at Swarthmore College.
YOU'VE GOT TO CATCH UP with a campus environmental activist whenever you can. Sierra's chance to chat with recent Swarthmore College graduate Rachel Ackoff came last summer while she was at an Econo Lodge near the Kansas City, Missouri,airport, in between a leadership training for Harry S. Truman scholars and an internship with the South African Environmental Project in Capetown. The boundless enthusiasm that fuels college students is nothing new, but Ackoff embodies it to a supernatural degree.
A member of the executive committee of the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), the Sierra Club's student arm with more than 14,000 members in 250 high school and college groups, the political science major garnered the Earth Island Institute's Brower Youth Award in 2003 for her work training activists on fair-trade campaigns, the Morris K. Udall Scholarship in 2005 for her interest in pursuing an environmental career, and the Truman scholarship for her commitment to public service. Those honors all look great on her résumé--and will surely end up benefiting the rest of us too.
Sierra: What motivates student environmentalists today?
Rachel Ackoff: Students are overwhelmingly excited about working on energy issues. Not just in the SSC, but in all student environmental movements.
In 2005, student environmental groups around the country decided to focus on one campaign, the Campus Climate Challenge. Right afterward, the Club made energy its priority, too, at the Sierra Summit. Because of the issue's urgency, global warming has been an incredible unifier. It feels like a hopeful time for working together.
Sierra: Why do energy issues strike a chord with students?
Ackoff: Students recognize that we're at a critical point and that there has been a lack of political will to do anything big on these issues. We recognize that something has to be done in the next couple of years or the effects of global warming could be irreversible. It's our generation that will be feeling the impacts the most. We see it as the challenge of our generation. It's our turn.
We can work on saving individual pieces of land, but unless we stop global warming, much of what we've saved will still be vulnerable. Also, the human impacts of global warming resonate with students. The world's poor countries will see the first and most devastating effects of rising sea levels. Students rally around that.
Sierra: There doesn't seem to be apathy or fear around this enormous issue.
Ackoff: That reflects how the Campus Climate Challenge is presented to students. Global warming will take massive action on a massive scale. Students see that they can be part of the solution by running a campus climate campaign locally, by convincing their school to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases it's emitting. But it's a piece of the larger puzzle too. By focusing on these local victories and then leveraging them at the municipal and state level, we can make a larger change.
Sierra: What actions do groups like the SSC suggest to students?
Ackoff: It varies from school to school. The basics include "dorm storming," where activists go room to room canvassing, and more-traditional efforts like teach-ins.
At Swarthmore, the campus purchases 8.5 percent of its energy from wind; after a year-and-a-half effort, we convinced the administration to increase that to 35 percent. Students put on an a cappella concert for the cause. We weren't raising money; the singers were there to voice support. We collected signatures on a giant roll of butcher paper that was rolled down the main walk of the campus. We had students dress up as smokestacks and windmills and duke it out in a public place. These are classic grassroots tactics.
Sierra: How receptive are students to working as a group?
Ackoff: Students on campus get it. Sometimes the high-flying students applying for fellowships like the Truman don't get it as much. For example, the SSC turned down funding for a single stipended position that we were offered through the Club's Building Environmental Campus Community program. My group said, "We do this all together." Campus groups recognize that we all have to take time out of our busy lives to devote to these critical issues.
Sierra: Tell me about one of your most successful projects.
Ackoff: I'd been organizing the SSC's Pennsylvania network and planned a Pennsylvania Clean Energy Summit. Our goal was to have 60 students attending. In the end we had 80. We had a lobbying day at the capitol, where students talked to their state representatives about the state's clean- vehicles program, which adopts strict emissions standards. It was opportune timing. There was a state senate Republican effort to overturn the program, but we helped kill it. [Pennsylvania's clean-car program takes effect this fall. --Ed.]
Sierra: What first interested you in environmental issues?
Ackoff: The Sierra Student Coalition has an activity called "Green Fire" where students talk about the experiences that ignited their passions. The name comes from Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, where he sees a mother wolf dying and the green fire burns in her eyes.
My "green fire" was a trip with my family when I was eight years old to Sequoia National Park. I was standing with a group of children at the foot of a giant sequoia with Ranger Frank, my favorite ranger. He had a ball of string that he passed from child to child, christening each a different forest plant or creature to show us how interconnected everything is. I still have a really strong memory of that day. Since then my family has gone on many camping and hiking trips to various wild places. But we make an annual pilgrimage back to Sequoia to see Ranger Frank.
I got involved with environmental organizing when I was a sophomore in high school in 2000. I got a brochure in the mail--because my parents are Sierra Club members--for a joint Amnesty International-Sierra Club youth summit on globalization in Washington, D.C. I had to beg my teachers to let me take my finals early and my parents to let me fly alone from Los Angeles.
That was when I was introduced to the connection between trade and the environment, which I worked on for the next three years. And it's where I met a lot of the Sierra Student Coalition leaders I've been working with ever since.
Sierra: Where do you see yourself heading next?
Ackoff: After graduating, I've got an internship in Washington with the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups, where I'll be researching energy policy. I'll be working with its national campaign director, Dan Seligman, whom I met at my first Sierra Club conference when I was 16 and he was running the Club's responsible-trade program. I've come full circle.