Sight: Social Justice
Student Environmental Action
A Conversation with
When Chris, now 26, was growing
up in Arizona he saw the city spread until it took over
areas that used to be rural. This awakened his desire to
protect the environment. As a college student he was looking
for a group with which to do environmental work. When a
friend told him about S.E.A.C. (pronounced "seek") he found
his life's work.
The InSite: What is S.E.A.C. all about?
Chris: We're a student run and student led
national network of progressive organizations and
individuals whose aim is to uproot environmental injustice
through action and education. For us the "environment"
includes: physical, economic, political, and cultural
conditions. By challenging the power structure which
threatens these environmental conditions, S.E.A.C. works to
create positive change on a local and global level. We were
founded in 1988 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by a group of
students who thought it would be a good idea to form a
national network of student groups working on environmental
issues. They put an ad in Greenpeace magazine looking for
interested students and they were overwhelmed by the number
of responses that they got. We now have 10,000 members in
over 600 chapters across the country. Each of our chapters
is completely autonomous. That means they work on whatever
issues they want to. And we are the only [national
environmental] group in the country that is entirely run by
students and youth.
TI: There are lots of young people who are very
committed to doing the right thing. They just need to
gravitate towards other people who are going to do it with
TI: Can you describe some of your current social
Chris: We've taken on as a national campaign the
Restoration of Democracy in Burma. We work very closely with
the Free Burma Coalition which is run by Burmese exiles and
is the first major organization that was founded, run, and
completely operated over email. Right now it is the fastest
growing student movement in the U.S.
TI: Specifically what are you doing to restore
democracy in Burma?
Chris: One way is by boycotting corporations that
are doing business in Burma because the people of Burma have
asked that sanctions be imposed on all those organizations.
Unical is the biggest U.S. corporation doing business in
Burma right now. They are in partnership with Total Oil to
build a huge pipeline through Burma which is being built by
...when the soldiers
get close to the town they force the people to work on the
TI: Slave labor?! Are these people who are
Chris: Some are incarcerated. Others are
villagers... when the soldiers get close to the town they
force the people to work on the pipeline.
TI: And S.E.A.C. has confronted this U.S. company with
Chris: Yes! Many, many times.
TI: What do the people at the Unical say?
Chris: Basically their position is that they are a
corporation doing business and that they don't get involved
in the politics of the country they're doing business in.
TI: Sounds pretty lame!
Chris: Yeah! [laughing]
TI: What do S.E.A.C. members do to show Unical that
you guys mean business?
Chris: We hold demonstrations at Unical gas
stations across the country and at their headquarters. We
write and make phone calls to the president of the
corporation and officers telling them that we are opposed to
it. We contact our Congress persons and the President and
let them know that we are opposed to their practices in
TI: What successes have you had?
Chris: Pepsico is a major corporation that just
pulled out of Burma because of the pressure that we put on
TI: How long did it take for you to accomplish
Chris: It took about a year and a half.
TI: Not bad! So how did you swing it?
Chris: Basically schools across the country like
Stanford, University of Wisconsin, Harvard, and others were
canceling their contracts with Pepsico.
TI: This is the company that makes Pepsi?
Chris: Yes and they also own Frito Lay, Kentucky
Fried Chicken, Taco Bell. So we were applying large amounts
of pressure on them. We had a huge boycott going on. And
they found that they were losing more business in the U.S.
because of their practices in Burma than the money that they
were actually making in Burma.
TI: Did Pepsico ever acknowledge that what they were
doing was contributing to a bad political situation in
Chris: No. They basically said, "We're losing
money. We'll stop doing it."
Levi Strauss [said]
it was impossible to do business in Burma without directly
supporting the military dictatorship.
TI: So you don't really care if you change their mind
as long as you change their behavior?
Chris: Exactly. Now when Levi Strauss pulled out
of Burma in 1993 on their own, they wrote a statement saying
that it was impossible to do business in Burma without
directly supporting the military dictatorship.
TI: What is left to focus on, aside from Unical, in
Chris: The U.S. just imposed some weak sanctions
against the Burmese government. We want full sanctions. We
want all U.S. corporations to pull out of Burma. 'Cause the
U.S. is Burma's largest supporter through U.S. corporations
doing business there. Most notably Unical but also Texaco
and ARCO as well.
TI: Have you established a boycott of these oil
companies in the U.S.?
Chris: Yes we have.
TI: And how is that publicized?
Chris: Mainly through email over the Internet.
Like I said, this is the largest movement that is almost
completely run over the Internet.
TI: Do you have any other social justice issues in the
U.S. that you are targeting?
Chris: Yes. One of our big things is immigration.
We are completely opposed to the attack on immigrants that
this country is embarking on right now. We try to operate as
an educational book and inform people as much as possible
about the truth. What's really going on. On campuses
S.E.A.C. chapters set up tables, hold demonstrations, and
tell other students what's going on. Contact
TI: You probably are faced with very vocal opposition.
What might be a typical argument you hear from the other
side of the immigration issue?
Chris: Basically that immigration takes away
American jobs and that we are paying for the immigrants
being here through welfare. And that immigration is
bankrupting the U.S. government.
...the majority of "welfare"
goes to corporations,
not to immigrants.
TI: And how do you respond to that?
Chris: We tell people that immigration is actually
helping the U.S. economy. And if you look at welfare as it
is, the majority of "welfare" [free money in the form of tax
breaks] goes to corporations, not to immigrants.
TI: How did you personally get involved in this kind
of work? Were you one of these kids who was always looking
for a cause?
Chris: Yeah, exactly! I grew up in Phoenix,
Arizona, and I saw the city just completely grow around me.
We lived in what used to be the extreme outskirts of the
city and now it's basically in the center of the city. So it
was always something that was really visible to me. The loss
of habitat. Expansion. Those sorts of things. So I grew up
with it. For one of my classes at Arizona State University I
had to read "The Monkey Wrench Gang" by Edward Abbey, and
that pretty much put me over the edge. Then I moved to
Seattle and tried to get involved in the environmental
movement, but it was pretty tough 'cause all people wanted
was canvassers [people who collect donations door-to-door].
So I moved back to Phoenix, and this friend of mine came to
visit and he said, "Chris, you really have to move to
Tuscon. I'm hooked up with these people - Student
Environmental Action Coalition. It's exactly what you want
to be doing!" So later I moved down here and got involved.
TI: What would you say to young people who are
interested in environmental and social justice issues but
are not actively involved in anything?
Chris: The main things I'd say is that they really
can make a difference. S.E.A.C. chapters all across the
country... we've been stopping incinerators, fighting
logging, we've been really helping get ahead today. We've
been changing many people's outlooks. We've had many, many
victories. And it is possible to make a difference in this
world. And you should go for it because we need you out
TI: What do you see yourself doing in five years?
Chris: I see myself still working on environmental
justice issues. I've dedicated my life to changing the world
as it is today and making it a better place where all people
are equal, justice prevails, and we don't have environmental
TI: What would you say is the most harmful thing to
Chris: Apathy. There are a lot of people who feel,
"Oh I want to work on something..." There are certain people
who have a certain edge, something in them clicks where they
want to get out and do something. For a lot of people there
are a lot of social pressures where they don't want to get
involved because maybe their friend might not like it or
something like that. That plays a major role, especially
when we're organizing on campus, you can really see that. So
we try to make our demonstrations fun to show that it's a
cool thing to help the world. The main thing is to explain
what's going on around you. You say you don't have time for
this but if you keep on saying you don't have time for this
eventually you're not going to have what you have. It's all
going to float away from you because you're not doing
anything about it. You're not trying to protect the world.
You're not trying to protect yourself. In order to do what
you want to do you need to get active!
Want to write to Chris? Email him
at: [email protected]
Check out S.E.A.C.'s web site at
...if you keep on
saying you don't have time for this eventually you're not
going to have what you have.
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