When we try to engage people politically we never know who will respond, or when someone will shift from reveling in their apathy to taking powerful public stands. With Earth Day coming up, here’s a striking example of one such transformation.
Virginia Tech freshman Angie De Soto didn’t vote in the 2004 election. The president, she thought, had nothing to do with her life. She didn’t care who won. Instead, she and friends played a drinking game in one of their dorm rooms. Nobody cared who won the election, so they divided into random “red” and “blue” teams, and chugged a beer each time new results on TV favored their team. Angie woke up the next morning hung over and with no idea of the election outcome, but it hardly seemed to matter.
When Angie started college, she focused mostly on her social life and picked her classes almost at random. But midway through a resources geology lecture course, her professor told the students, “I’m going to talk about an issue that’s going to change your whole future.” For two days, he discussed global climate change, and Angie, who’d never heard of it, was stunned. She called her mother, who worked as a teacher, and said “Mom, I just learned about global warming. What is this? Have you heard about it?” Her mother had no idea what Angie was talking about even after she tried to explain it. “Neither did any of the girls on my hall,” Angie said. “I just kept asking myself why I hadn’t heard about something this important, and why more people weren’t doing anything about it. Didn’t they know? Didn’t they care? Did they just not know what to do?”
Virginia Tech had a nascent student group called the Environmental Coalition, but Angie had never encountered them. The group’s presence was negligible on the school’s largely politically disengaged campus of 28,000. Angie was too shy to approach her professor, and she didn’t know what to do beyond trying to learn more through searching out related websites and taking an environmental policy class.
Then, while Angie was walking across campus one day, a young woman from the Environmental Coalition approached her to sign a petition for a green fee, by which “students would pay a bit extra to support the campus recycling program and small efficiency projects.” Angie started going to EC meetings. Although she liked the people and the effort they were making, she felt they weren’t making the impact that they could; they did little to bring in new members, and administrators wouldn’t return their phone calls or emails. That changed when Angie received a scholarship to attend a student climate conference. “They taught us everything about how to organize: how to recruit people, plan events, run effective meetings, develop leadership, raise money, and lead large-scale campaigns. I came back incredibly charged up, eager to teach as many other students as I could what I’d learned. For the first time, I began to feel like this was my calling. That one class changed my life with a sense of what we’re facing. I felt I finally had the skills to do something about it.”
Through her involvement, Angie learned about the Public Interest Research Groups, the PIRGs, which combine campus organizing with neighborhood canvasses and legislative campaigns. After finding a Sacramento, California, PIRG office that was working for a state cap on climate emissions, she accepted an aunt’s invitation to stay with her there. Angie worked 13 hours a day as a field manager, knocking on doors to talk with people about the issues. Angie had been working since her first year of high school, including fifteen hours a week in the Virginia Tech dining halls, and “this was more hours for less money than any job I’d had. But I loved it. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
The PIRGs helped pass the California state climate change bill, and Angie returned to Virginia “on top of the world. Before, I was too intimidated to approach people because we just didn’t talk about environmental issues on our campus. Now I’d go up to everyone.” She kicked the EC into high gear, setting up a major concert with local bands and training members to approach local media, gather names for the email list, and table at the student center. “We’d approach people as they walked by and ask if they wanted to stop global warming. Then we’d talk about the issues and try to get them involved. I had grown a thick skin from getting the door slammed all those times when I was canvassing, so if they didn’t respond I just asked the next person.”
As Angie’s involvement deepened, she found more ways to act on her newfound convictions. She brought over 100 Virginia Tech students to Power Shift, a national student climate change conference held at the University of Maryland. Angie also helped plan the entertainment, and as she looked out from the stage at 6,000 students, “felt for the first time like we really have a movement.”
Working with 18 other student groups, the EC also built a Coalition for Campus Sustainability that even included the college Republicans, which delighted Angie because, as she stressed, “this was an issue that should transcend political parties.” Meanwhile, the campus recycling department hired her to coordinate and train a team of 30 student volunteers who educated dorm residents on environmental issues and ways to reduce their individual impact.
In the process, the EC became one of the school’s largest student groups, with a 1,600-name listserv. And they finally got a meeting with college president Charles Steger. “We went in very organized,” Angie said. “We dressed professionally, were professional in our tone and word choice, and brought thoroughly researched proposals.” The group members asked Steger to join 600 of his peers who had signed the national Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Steger balked at just signing a statement and instead offered to create a comprehensive campus plan, which he said would mean far more. He commissioned a committee of administrators, faculty, and students to draft a plan by fall. The committee hired Angie, and she spent the summer pulling together ideas and highly specific implementation plans from the EC group and from other schools. “This issue can be so overpowering,” she said, “but if we bring it down to what we can do as individuals and as a campus, people feel they can make a difference.” Although administrators initially said no to some suggestions, “we didn’t freak out. You have to keep approaching them, coming up with new ideas, offering reasonable and feasible solutions.”
After the group completed the plan, Angie was hired to carry it out as university policy. Among the many changes, the school enacted comprehensive recycling procedures, switched to high-efficiency light bulbs, installed energy-saving occupancy sensors in the classrooms, and took steps to ensure that new buildings would meet strong environmental standards. The campus saved $200,000 in just one month by lowering winter thermostats to a still-comfortable 68 degrees—and would save more by slightly raising the summer settings. The dining halls decreased food waste by 38 percent by eliminating trays and developed a plan for composting the rest. The university also pledged to explore alternative fuels, make environmentally responsible purchasing a priority, and look into additional efficiency gains, including phasing out their aging coal-fired boilers.
“I started out just an apathetic drunken party girl, with no clear path in my life,” Angie said. “Now I’m implementing our campus sustainability plan. People change and even massive institutions can change.”
From “Soul of a Citizen” by Paul Rogat Loeb. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of “Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Challenging Times,” whose wholly updated new edition will be released March 30; of “The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,” named the No. 3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association; and of “Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus.” See www.soulofacitizen.org.