Does a Changing World Necessitate a Change in Tactics? UCR’s Reborn and Student-led Earth Week as a Tool for Education and Recruitment.

By. Kyle Ritland

The past year has challenged the sustainability community like none other in the recent memory of most students. It has drawn into focus the contrast between their ideals and present circumstances, and made evident the necessity of action to alter the destructive course of our species. As a result, many campuses now teem with restless energy, as concerned students consider what action they might take to address the onslaught of issues facing the planet, and how they might make their voices heard.

At the University of California, Riverside, a reimagined and reborn Earth Week has recently demonstrated the shifts in thinking and organization necessary to incorporate direct student involvement in ways previously overlooked. Rather than simply educating students on green habits and choices, this new Earth Week set out with a different goal in mind: to cast a net further and wider than ever before, and draw in new hearts, minds, and voices toward the vessels of conservation and sustainability.

One of the details that made this year’s Earth Week at UCR unique to those past is the fact that it was almost entirely student-organized. With the weakening of UCR’s Office of Sustainability, there likely would have been no Earth Day or Earth Week events without the intercession of the Graduate Sustainability Network, a student organization formed by a small group of graduate students led by Drew Story and Peter Byrley, with the purpose of improving the environmental and social sustainability of UCR graduate student life.

Not even a year old, GSN is still working to find its feet and its voice in the UCR community, but from the beginning student leaders have fueled the organization with their enthusiasm, taking time away from their official responsibilities to passionately pursue sustainability projects. When it comes to Earth Week, GSN took on the project out of a combination of belief and necessity.

“Previously, there wasn’t a large student contingent interested in organizing Earth Week,” says Drew Story, one of the founders of GSN. “The Office of Sustainability had tried, but it was just two people with full time jobs. And so I think now with the student passion behind it, it’s really become something better.”

That student passion comes in the forms of Ryan Conway and Ella Deyett, a pair of Graduate students in the sciences, who took on the responsibilities of planning, organizing, and executing this new incarnation of Earth Week at UCR. I spoke with Ryan and Ella in the week leading up to the events, hoping to learn more about what drew them to this particular event, as well as their specific intentions in its planning and execution.

Scott Evans, a Ph.D. student in Paleontology, gives a talk on how fossil collecting can answer some of our biggest questions about science. Photo by Peter Byrley.

“The campus had previously had some Earth Day celebrations in the past,” Ryan says. “But we knew that some of the other UC schools were doing much bigger events throughout the entire week. UC Davis has an Earth week where they see 30,000 people show up.” So Ryan and Ella got to work on planning events, incorporating as many different departments as they could.

Ella rattles these off as though she could say them in her sleep: “We have involvement from Dining, from Transportation and Parking Services, we have people from the HUB, we have Vice-Chancellors, we have Risk Management, we have people from the WELL. It started with a few events which we knew we really wanted to plan, and then we included some other department’s events, and it kept growing and growing, and now we have a ton of events happening across a full week.”

When the discussion turns to the expected size of the event, Ryan is quick to clarify that they have no immediate plans to challenge the attendance of UC Davis, or some of the other more established events across the state.

“This year we’re expecting it to stay pretty small,” he says. “But we want it to keep growing in years to come, and use it as a gauge for interest— what the local community cares about as far as sustainability.”

This is an idea which comes up repeatedly in our conversations, and one which has begun to emerge as a founding principle of UCR’s new Earth Week. The descriptions and explanations Ryan and Ella lay out make it clear that they did not organize this event to see the same old faces; they did so with expansion in mind.

“I really would like to reach out to those people who haven’t currently been thinking about these things,” Ryan says. “Hopefully that means that people who are really interested in this stuff are bringing their friends who don’t usually care about it.”

And how would they plan to accomplish this at Earth Week? Through a mix of tradition and novelty in their events. Alongside obviously sustainability-centric events like Vermicomposting and the 0-Waste Workshop are those events with a more general appeal, like natural Tie-Dying, a fundraising 5K run, and, of course, lots of food.

Chris Kane of the organization Post Landfill Action Network gives a talk about zero waste on campus. Photo by Peter Byrley.

Ella describes how a major goal in their planning has been to create a space that’s welcoming to newcomers— an introduction to a new world, for those who may only recently have started to take seriously the tenets of sustainability. Earth Week can be more than workshops and lessons, they tell me. It can be a gathering place for the rising ranks of activists.

“I think a lot of times people have these opinions or mentalities they believe in,” Ella says, “but especially when things aren’t mainstream, or are controversial, it’s hard to promote them. But if you can find groups that already have the same mentality, then that gives you courage to go talk to other people, and share your own ideas.”

And this, at its core, is what UCR’s reborn Earth Week was designed to offer students— a venue in which to share the ideas and concerns they may not otherwise have known how to voice.

Ryan sees this idea manifested most clearly in the Earth Day celebration on Saturday, which they constructed through collaboration with March for Science. “We really aimed for a lot of turnout from both students and the community. We imagine it as a forum to discuss what people are caring about and what they want to see change on campus, as well as throughout Riverside.”

But the larger goal does not end with Earth Day, of course. Ella explains to me how the entire week is in one sense a prompt for further action— a sign to the administration that this issue demands attention. “The goal was to get a lot of support from students, to show the administration that sustainability really is something students care about.” Ella sees student involvement as a powerful message, and a unified student body as a force not to be underestimated. “There are more students than administrators, and the more people we get to care, the more we can get this campus to do.”

Ryan agrees, and believes that an event like Earth Week can help convince students of the power they command. “Every student on campus is casting a vote everyday,” Ryan says. “If students stop purchasing plastic water bottles or disposable plastics, that’s a vote they’re casting. And if they start talking to the administration when they’re bothered by something, whether it’s water waste or disposable plastics, they’re voting against those destructive practices.”

And to him, this is the idea that Earth Week can communicate— that students command much more influence than they realize, especially when they come together.

“I definitely think the concern has started to shift,” Ryan says. “It’s started to move away from that idea of, ‘I care about this, but I can’t make a difference.’ Now it’s our job to show that even if you feel you can’t do a lot as an individual, as a group you can.”

Volunteers set up for the Sustainability 5K. Photo by Peter Byrley.

For many student leaders like Ryan and Ella, this may be a time of challenges and trials, but it is also one of optimism. When support from the UCR administration waned, Earth Week was not abandoned— it was reborn. Why? Maybe because events like these strike a chord in the deep ranks of students who are just beginning to take conservation and sustainability seriously.

“Sustainability is contagious,” Ryan says, as he reflects on the many conversations and months of planning that have gone into the event. “And my goal is just to get as many people to care as possible.”

When I ask Drew how it feels to watch this next generation of student leaders take the reigns of sustainability at UCR, he becomes visibly excited. He compares UCR, where the sustainability movement is young, to the other UC campuses, but he does so optimistically. To Drew, young programs like GSN and events like Earth Week are signs of a new grassroots and student-led style of sustainability.

“In some places where you have a deep tradition of sustainability, your own influence may or may not be all that great,” he says. “Here, we have the potential to make a world of difference. So that’s exciting. And at the same time daunting.”

But that’s what life is for a student— an offering of possibilities and potential, available for acceptance and implementation by anyone with a passion for a brighter future, and a growing belief in the power of their own voice.

Posted in _Featured, CSSC Blog, UC Campuses.