Planting Seeds

A Many-Headed Student Group Gets Out the Green Vote

In recent years, young voters have deafened pollsters with their silence, heralding the arrival of what could be seen as a new silent majority for our time. In the 1994 congressional elections, only 15 percent of eligible young people voted.

The Center for Environmental Citizenship (CEC) is using a green message to try and turn that apathy around. The small nonprofit group is an expanding resource to teach young people to become environmental and political leaders on their campuses and in their communities. “Once you turn people out at the polls,” says Rani Corey, field director of CEC’s Campus Green Vote, “politicians will listen.”

CEC was started in 1992 by Brian Trelstad upon his graduation from Harvard University. While at school, he had worked with various environmental organizations on local Earth Day events, but noticed that none of the groups were targeting 18- to 24-year-olds, or environmental issues in campaigns. “I felt we could bring the students’ interest in the environment to bear on the presidential election of 1992,” says Trelstad. “Many of us were unhappy with Bush’s record on environmental issues.”

Trelstad and student partner Chris Fox were able to raise money on the strength of their organizing principles, and spent the election season urging young people to “Vote Green!” The result was the largest national youth turnout since 18-year-olds were enfranchised in 1972. The Center for Environmental Citizenship was established soon after because, Trelstad says, “I thought it would make sense to have the group focus on environmental citizenship, not just political participation.”

That initial idea has evolved into CEC’s Campus Green Vote program. While several organizations focus on just getting them to the polls, “We do a lot of work to give young people the skills they need to hold their elected officials accountable, and make sure they’re actually out there working to protect the environment,” says Corey.

The results have been significant. During the 1998 election, so many University of Washington students turned up to vote that two polling stations ran out of ballots. At St. Mary’s College in Maryland, Campus Green Vote activists used a skit to educate voters, and offered free rides to the polls, getting 80 percent of the students they registered to vote.

“We focus on students and campuses to maximize our resources,” explains CEC Executive Director Susan Comfort, “but we also do other programs for high school kids, and for young people who aren’t students.” For instance, CEC offers Summer Training Academies, which are four-day, low-cost programs held across the U.S. The idea is to teach young people political skills for effective environmental activism, on either “campus” or “community” tracks. Local activist speakers focus on organizing campaigns (including such nuts and bolts issues as running a phone bank) . During the nightly sessions, small groups work on a practice campaign that they present to the whole group at the end.

“Some people say they learned more in four days than they did in four years of school,” says Corey. In response to past participants’ feedback, the workshops try to focus on regional issues. CEC also keeps students together according to their home or school’s region, so they can form a support network of area activists. “We try to teach what it means to be a citizen—and an environmental citizen,” says Comfort. “Citizenship doesn’t begin and end at the voting booth.”

To extend its reach, CEC also offers EarthNet, which began in 1993 as a project to teach environmental groups how to maximize Internet resources. “For a movement that’s short on resources and long on problems, the Internet is an ideal organizing tool. It’s a cheap, quick way to communicate,” says Comfort. The largest of its kind, EarthNet updates over 5,000 listserve subscribers on environmental issues in Congress, information on conferences, grassroots efforts and job announcements. A recent brief in the “Shadow Congress” section alerted readers to a pending Senate vote on logging subsidies, while the “Corporate Corner” gave an update on and the Bureau of Land Management’s consideration of further exploratory oil drilling inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. “Quotes of the Week” are another popular feature of the updates, which can be e-mailed or just viewed on CEC’s website.

Yet another CEC project, the National Environmental Wire for Students (NEWS) , was launched after a study revealed that 95 percent of college students read their campus newspaper at least once a week. NEWS taps into that readership by offering campus newspaper editors free environmental bulletins. During the school year, NEWS e-mails and posts current articles on its website daily, and follows up with calls to offer additional information to editors. Features are campus-focused, and include such topics as the toxic impact of class ring production and revelations about university investments, in addition to regional and national environmental updates.

Last June, the NEWS division sponsored the Environmental Journalism Academy (EJA) to teach almost 100 aspiring student journalists from across the U.S. about environmental issues. Speakers during the six-day program included environmental journalists and editors from The Washington Post, National Public Radio, Navajo Times, and High Country News. Workshops covered interviewing, finding and pitching a story, job search, and the differences between reporting and activism. A mid-week field-trip to see an inner-city youth group’s efforts to clean up Washington’s Anacostia River put the EJA participants in the middle of a breaking story.

In the works for the 2000 political season are pre-primary conferences, forums for candidates, specialized training academies and a new publication written by and for student activists. “2000 is a big year for us and for the entire environmental community,” says Corey. “It’s a chance for us to get issues out there in the media in a way that people can get excited about.” The group’s members are hoping to influence the debate with a green message that will trickle down to local races. Joining Campus Green Vote is an impressive coalition of such like-minded groups as the League of Conservation Voters, the Youth Vote Coalition, Rock the Vote and the Public Interest Research Group.

CEC is still run by an executive director and staff who are under 30, a rarity even among nonprofits. And the group’s own board is balanced with input from a student advisory board. “CEC will continue to have a focus on students, so our work will never be done,” says Comfort. “Every fall there is a new class of freshmen, and every spring more graduate. We try to focus with our three programs on change, and hope our little bits of change will have a ripple effect.”