Students hopeful their activism will have large-scale impacts
At a recent Fossil Free UC Davis (FFUCD) meeting, the 10 students in attendance planned the next steps in the movement to demand that the University of California (UC) divest from corporations tied to fossil fuels. Spirits and hopes remained high despite the meeting that had occurred a day prior with UC officials who, according to group members, repeatedly deflected questions, ignoring concerns over the sheer magnitude of the $2.5 billion that the UC has invested thus far.
“I just felt like this was a campaign that could really shake up the UC and make a big statement,” said Cameron Clay, a fourth-year evolution, ecology and biodiversity major who attended the meeting. “Right now is a really important time for the UC to step up and make this divestment. It just seemed like such a clear connection: UC claims to be a climate leader and it also has $2.5 billion invested in fossil fuels. It’s time to break that relationship.”
FFUCD’s divestment movement is working in conjunction with Fossil Free groups on other UC campuses, and recently four chancellors have come out in support of the movement, including Interim Chancellor Ralph Hexter.
On the UC Davis campus, there is an array of politically active, environment-related groups attempting to effect change. The success of such groups or specific movements can be hard to measure, according to Clay.
“Often a movement will appear unsuccessful because it doesn’t necessarily get its goal, despite a lot of public support and hard work,” Clay said. “For our movement, […if] the UC moved to divest those fossil fuel holdings and never reinvest them, that would be an obvious victory. It is tricky when something can feel like a win and when you can feel defeated despite doing really good work.”
One impact of change-oriented groups can be heightened awareness about a cause. Environmental Justice for Underrepresented Communities (EJUC) is a newer group on campus, having formed in 2016, that focuses on increasing awareness of and education about environmental justice. The group has been invited to give educational presentations at Black Family Week and Native American Culture Days.
Yajaira Ramirez Sigala, a second-year sustainable agriculture and food systems and Chicano studies double major and the publicity chair for EJUC, said starting the discussion is the “first step toward liberation.” Ramirez Sigala is also an ASUCD senator and said she has noticed a greater incorporation of environmental justice ideologies in Senate discussions since the formation of EJUC.
“It’s not just the few folks who are in EJUC — folks are incorporating it into their dialogue,” Ramirez Sigala said. “EJUC [is] opening a space to have these dialogues about environmental injustices […] in our own communities and our own backyards.”
Recently, the ASUCD Office of Advocacy and Student Representation (OASR) partnered with EJUC for the Flint Water Crisis Learning Demonstration event, in which 112 water bottles — each one symbolizing 10 days that the city of Flint, Mich. has been without clean drinking water — were displayed near the Quad, wrapped in informational labels alongside educational signs.
“It was supposed to be a very passive demonstration,” said Parker Spadaro, a first-year political science major and deputy campus organizing director. “We were just trying to raise awareness that it’s still fucking happening, it’s still a huge issue [and] it’s not an isolated incident. Knowing is a great jumping point into getting more involved.”
Incorporating environmental justice into curricula is amongst the list of demands included in a letter EJUC sent to the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Science. The organization has been in contact with the head of the department who has proposed a seminar solely focused on environmental justice — one of the stated demands.
Edith Ruiz, a second-year animal science major and the record keeper for EJUC, emphasized the importance of engaging in efforts to effect change.
“Part of our education here at a research institution teaches us that nothing new comes out if you don’t challenge it,” Ruiz said. “If everything stays the same, nothing is going to be improved.”
With the knowledge that action effects change, one victory of the three day sit-in FFUCD organized at Mrak Hall was raising awareness, according to Seth Strumwasser, a third-year ecology, evolution and biodiversity major who is involved with FFUCD as well as Strategies for Education and Ecology Diversity and Sustainability.
“Environmental issues are, in my opinion, the biggest issue facing our civilization,” Strumwasser said. “It feels super helpless when you look at the scale of the problem. I can become a vegetarian and I can recycle, but that’s not going to make a difference. Even if our actions are not going to totally solve the problem, I think the symbolism of it is important.”
In terms of agency, Clay said “it’s hard to feel like you have a real impact.” However, he remains hopeful that the actions of FFUCD will bring about tangible change, especially in light of Hexter’s support following student pressure. Ruiz also said that she believes change is inevitable given enough student action.
“What a student can do is great,” Ruiz said. “We can do great things, especially when we come together, […] agree on something and we see it as a common issue. If it’s something that we feel strongly about, I do think student voices are a big power that we have. Our voices can be heard.”
Written by: Hannah Holzer – firstname.lastname@example.org