A (Loud) Student Voice in Institutional Sustainability

S. Drew Story | October 20, 2016

“I don’t care about the data. Stop talking about the data,” he pleaded to the committee member. “Students want to talk about justice, not about how many ppb’s [of CO2] are in the atmosphere.”

Benjamin Sommerkorn may be the newest member of the University of California Sustainability Steering Committee (SSC), but that certainly does not mean he will be sitting in the shadows of the room, quietly watching the action unfold.

Ben is the singular graduate student from within the UC system is chosen to serve on both the Global Climate Leadership Council (GCLC) and the SSC. And he plans to keep his seat on both for as long as he’s around. Ben explains the difference between the two groups as the GCLC being a think tank, with its main goal being to provide guidance to the UC on how it can meet its sustainability goals, and the SSC being a physician, prescribing specific recommendations to the Executive Vice President for Business Operations. The groups have some predictable synergy, and more than half of the members sit on both, including Ben.

Ben is a third year PhD student in Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Riverside, and has earned the reputation of a sustainability activist who is not afraid to call out the elephants in any room. His boldness stems from his admission that he cannot reconcile being an intellectual, much less someone concerned with injustice, if he does not fight for sustainability in the most holistic sense. That is, recognizing the three pillars of sustainability; social equality, environment, and economic. “It’s the most important issue of our time,” he said, almost nonchalantly, as though it was not even a topic that is up for debate.

President Janet Napolitano’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI) is an integral part of the system’s sustainability goals. It, along with its sister effort, the Global Food Initiative, supports 1-year fellowships for UC students to develop and execute projects with those respective themes. Ben was a 2014-2015 CNI fellow, and has not looked back from the fight for sustainability since that first shot in the arm.

I first met Ben while sitting in the Office of Sustainability at UCR, waiting to hear that we had been accepted to the program. We both shared similar accounts of having become aware of the program through a weekly e-newsletter circulated to graduate students, including the acknowledgement that we are somewhat unusual to have read the whole thing.

The source of that common bond, our similar proclivities to be aware of what is going on on-campus, has proven to be a main difference between our ability to get involved in sustainability and that of the typical UC graduate student. Students are often simply not aware of what the UC is doing behind closed doors, and how they fit into the big picture of sustainability.

Ben could not pass up the chance to peek behind the curtain, to see the cogs and gears moving, once he heard the graduate student spot on the GCLC/SSC was opening up. He knows he wants to be involved in policy after finishing his PhD, so getting involved in sustainability outside of the lab during his tenure as a student is a natural fit.

When asked what he wants to accomplish this year, he mentioned two main ideas. “I want to hold the UC’s feet to the fire to follow through with their declared goals and implement robust change, to concurrently get the system to listen to students and to see the sustainability problem for what it is, something that cannot be ignored, something that needs to be addressed with urgency and commitment, not something that can tolerate the sluggishness of the beast,” he rattled off to me in one breath. When pressed further for more explicit details on what he sees as the problem, Ben admits he’s not worried about the planet at all. “The earth will be fine. But we will not.”

“In academia, we forget that issues of sustainability hit poor people first, persons of color first, women first, long before they hit the radar of the big wigs in their corner offices.” This is Ben’s bread and butter, pointing out the privilege we both have to even be able to talk about sustainability, much less devote time and effort to it. “The level of inequality we have in the US is unsustainable. We constantly produce and enslave poor people overseas to produce “useful” stuff we don’t need. And if the drought persists [in California], it will be the poor people who suffer. Rich people can pay for water no matter the price.”

Ben is committed to advocating for students, not only in the big picture of sustainability, but also at a personal level. “Students are hurting, man,” he laments, “and for us to not have conversations about inequality, funding the UC, administration pay, tuition, all these things that affect our student body’s ability to be change makers, it’s not right.”

“I want to put those students in the face of the GCLC and the SSC members.”

How can other students, not on the GCLC or SSC, get involved in solutions for sustainability? Ben’s answer: “The sad truth is, they don’t.” Ben knows that is not true in the literal sense; he has a manner of speaking in hyperbole when he gets excited. He clarified that there are few visible or straightforward pipelines for students to contribute to the betterment of the UC in terms of sustainability.

“We only found out about this [GCLC] because we were already connected through CNI,” he reminded me. “We need to find ways to make this [type of] information known to students, and galvanize them to be able to make a difference.” A similar explanation applies to our knowledge of the City of Riverside’s Mayor’s Sustainability Council. “We only learned of that through the UCR Carbon Slam, which, again, we only knew about because of CNI.”

Ben predicts the key to bending the curve will be direct action on the part of students. The sluggishness of change in the UC system is such that 4-year students are relatively transient visitors. (This is an almost identical point Will Carlon made in my last piece.) Students must be equipped to leverage what energy they do have with the short time they are here, and that requires them to know what is going on at a localized level and show up. Before that can occur, Ben insists that we must let students know how sustainability affects them. Ben challenges us to illustrate the connection between the tuition they pay, the food they eat, the jobs that will or will not be waiting for them after graduation, and the literal environment in which they will live. All of these things are intrinsically linked to the UC operating sustainably. “I don’t see robust change happening without strong student leadership and involvement, at least not at the pace we need it to happen.”

Ben is doing his part in our collective fight for sustainability, representing all of us at the Global Climate Leadership Council and Sustainability Steering Committee with his trademark candor and spirit. We at CSSC support his efforts and are working alongside Ben to empower and elevate the student voice in sustainability.

Posted in _Featured, California Student Sustainability Coalition Magazine.