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Unity College Students Put Boots on the Ground at Climate Rally

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On February 17, 2013, an estimated 35,000 people rallied in Washington D.C. to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline project. By all accounts, it was the largest climate change rally in history. Unity College students were in attendance, no strangers to taking a stand on critical issues, given that the College was the first to divest its financial portfolio from fossil fuel.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is a proposed tar sands pipeline that would cut through America’s heartland and purportedly unleash unbridled development, extraction, and use of Alberta, Canada’s tar sands oil, an enormous threat to our global climate. The emissions from burning that oil will essentially lead to devastating consequences for the climate.

Attendees were there to ask the government to move forward on climate change and specifically to put a stop to the Keystone XL Pipeline project which, if initiated, would put people and wildlife at risk from toxic oil spills, polluted water and more.

At 7:00 pm the evening before the rally, the bus departed Unity with students and other college officials on board. After gathering others from nearby Colby College, the group arrived on the Mall in Washington, D.C. at sunrise the next day.

One of the coordinators of the trip to D.C. was Unity College Professor of Humanities/Director of the Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities John Zavodny.  From his perspective, Zavodny said that it was amazing to watch the Unity crew at work, and he is impressed at how everyone has come together, including Unity College’s administration and Board of Trustees to demonstrate just how committed the College is to sustainability and the future of the environment.

“What I love about Unity College is that saving the planet—yes, I realize how bold this is going to sound—IS the curriculum,” said Zavodny. “I love that ‘homework’ for our students is doing the right thing, and that applied understanding of divestment from fossil fuels is more than a ‘learning goal’. It is necessary for students to be able to explain Unity's leadership position in the world.”

“It is extremely important that environmentally-concerned students do not have to choose between their own future and the future of the planet,“ said Zavodny.

Sam Longo ’15, an Environmental Policy, Law, and Society major, was among the Unity College students in attendance.

“When I heard that there was a group of my peers at Unity College going down to Washington D.C to protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline I knew that I had to be there,” said Longo.

With her interest in politics, leading up to the 2012 election Longo became involved with many grass roots campaigns, particularly those focused on how to address the challenges of climate change and supporting innovative clean energy. 

“I wanted to urge President Obama to show leadership on the world stage and take the first step in denying big projects that promote fossil fuels and climate change, such as the Keystone XL Pipeline,” Longo said.

Together with Unity College Sustainability Coordinator Jesse Pyles, organizer of the trip to D.C., students in Zavodny’s Environmental Communication class worked on the messaging that they wanted to bring to the event. The key concepts of "patriotic," "scientific," and "serious" guided the way the students dressed, the signage they created, their demeanor, and the language they used when they were speaking during breakout groups and with other event attendees.  The students felt it was important for them to help make the case that science is patriotic and that climate change activists are constructive, concerned citizens.

Pyles clearly believes in the importance of extending Unity's sustainability education beyond the classroom and campus.  “If we're to have the kind of impact that's needed to salvage a livable planet, we have to demand climate leadership on a global scale,” says Pyles.  “Sending a student contingent to the biggest climate rally in American history is one way to connect Unity's efforts to the larger global picture.”

Overall feedback from the Unity students who attended the Keystone XL Pipeline protest has been how powerful it was to share a united commitment to the issue of climate change. The sense of combined effort of making sure that we build a sustainable future was powerful, and the students were proud to have taken part in such an historical event.

Sass Linnekin ’14, an Environmental Writing and Media Studies major at Unity College, was another student among the 30+ people who rode in an uncomfortable bus for a total of twenty-four hours in a thirty-six hour span. According to Linnekin, this was one opportunity as part of a larger effort to try and make a difference in what Unity College President Mulkey has aptly dubbed the biggest thing humanity has ever faced—climate change.

For Linnekin, one of the biggest highlights of the trip occurred even before the rally started on Sunday. Very early in the morning at the W Hotel, there was a youth convergence organized by several groups including the Energy Action Coalition, the Greenpeace Student Network, the Sierra Student Coalition, the NWF Campus Ecology Program, and 350.org. Witnessing the enthusiasm and feeling the energy amongst the hundreds in this group of Generation Ys gave Linnekin the sense that this generation is anything but apathetic, despite what the media sometimes leads us to believe. In the room, she saw how committed these young people are to the issue of clean energy and its importance in building a sustainable future for generations to come.

“What a feeling it is to be a student at the college that was the first to choose to divest from dirty energy,” said Linnekin. “To be supported by our faculty and president when we walked the talk by making our presence known in the battle against a climate killing project like the Keystone XL Pipeline is remarkable. The fact is, climate change is settled science and going to D.C. to shout that loudly was probably one of the most memorable experiences I'll have at Unity,” Linnekin stated.

Monday, March 04, 2013