Environment central to grassroots political initiative led by students, professor

On Sunday night, Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debated in Flint, Michigan, the city facing a devastating lead-contamination water crisis. The issue dominated the early part of the debate as the candidates called for increased federal resources and Gov. Rick Synder’s removal from office, and vowed not to forget about the city once its crisis fades from the national headlines.

On Tuesday, Michigan residents will head to the polls for their state’s primary.

“With the debate in Flint, environmental justice is front and center in a presidential debate for the first time ever,” said Daniel Faber, professor of sociology and director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative. He should know. Faber literally wrote the book on it, Capitalizing on Environmental Injustice.

For several Northeastern students, as well as Faber, the debate hit home on a very personal level—as the environment is central to a grassroots political initiative they’ve been building in recent months.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a big focus early in Sunday night's debate between the Democratic candidates for president. Photo by Ben Gordon/Flickr-Creative Commons

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a big focus early in Sunday night’s debate between the Democratic candidates for president. Photo by Ben Gordon/Flickr-Creative Commons

The group launched Environmentalists for Bernie to highlight Democrat Bernie Sanders’ positions a range of climate and environmental issues. The volunteer effort, which is not directed or funded by the Sanders campaign, has also involved direct outreach to prominent environmentalists and other public figures to support the Sanders campaign over his stances on environmental issues. The group developed an online toolkit to assist people who want to help educate fellow voters about Sanders’ environmental positions, and how they can take action in the election.

This effort, according to several of the students, has both deepened their understanding of complex environmental issues and cultivated their interest in political activism.

The group created a website featuring summaries of the candidate’s past record and current positions on issues such as climate justice, natural gas fracking and mountaintop removal for coal, and environmental justice. To create these summaries, the students thoroughly researched the topics and meticulously combed through a wealth of material, including Sanders’ own public speeches and legislation the candidate has introduced or supported.

Third-year student Marley Kimelman, S’18, closely examined issues around the Keystone XL pipeline and fracking. From his experience with Environmentalists for Bernie, in addition to his coursework, Kimelman said he’s also come to realize that the chemical industry is “extremely unregulated” and “does not receive the national attention that it deserves.”

This piqued his interest in learning more about this issue, and ultimately led to his current co-op at Clean Water Action, where he’s involved with activism around toxic chemicals and responsible chemical policies for communities. (He’s splitting his co-op this cycle between Clean Water Action and Green Cambridge, an environmental advocacy group.)

The environment has been at the heart of Kimelman’s co-op experiences. Last year he worked in Cape Town, South Africa, in the city’s Environmental Resource Management Department, where he reinvigorated a stagnant water heritage project, helped promote the city’s green initiatives, and started a blog to share from his visits to locations such as a recycling facility and an organic composting farm.

For another third-year student, Elizabeth Olson, her strong connection to the environment dates back to her youth, when she ran around the southern foothills of the Adirondacks in upstate New York, playing in the leaves, and looking at bugs. “I grew up in the woods,” said Olson, S’18. “I used to visit a nature center, and I could identify animals by their footprints.”

Now, Olson fittingly is studying environmental science at Northeastern. But it was her Environment and Society course, taught by Faber, in the fall of 2014 that first introduced her to the concept of environmental justice.

Her work for this project, in part, focused on researching Sanders’ food policy. She already knew quite a bit about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, before joining Environmentalists for Bernie but through this experience she says she learned a lot about legislation around GMOs from her research. She was surprised to learn in fact, that Sanders proposed an amendment to the farm bill that supported the labeling of GMO products.

Olson said she supports food labeling because consumers should have the right to know if their food is genetically modified. “Consumer education is a powerful tool,” she said.

For some students, like Olson, this experience has been a first foray into activism. For others, such Kimelman and Jeremy Love-Epp, S’19, it’s a continuation. For his part, Love-Epp volunteered during the Missouri governor’s race this past summer and was intrigued by the opportunity to join the Environmentalists for Bernie effort this fall.

Love-Epp’s research focused primarily on fracking, through which he noted has provided him a much greater understanding of how environmental issues are viewed though the lenses of politics and policy. The experience, he said, has opened his eyes to how someone can take the leap from caring about an important issue to taking direct action.

“What I’ve really liked about this project was the focus on making environmental issues very relevant to an election,” said Love-Epp, a second-year student and combined major in environmental studies and international affairs. “That’s something that has always bothered me, that we never really give the environment its due diligence.”