Spaceship Earth

Solutions in Sight: Environment

Sierra Student Coalition

A Conversation with
Sage Rockermann
May 1997

The Sierra Student Coalition (S.S.C.) was founded in 1991 by 17 year old Adam Werbach as the student arm of the Sierra Club. They have grown to 19,000 members who work on local, regional, national and international environmental campaigns.

The InSite: How does the organization work?

Sage: S.S.C brings together students who live near each other and are interested in working on similar issues. They also work with local Sierra Club groups. We run training programs for the students to help them learn the skills they need to be more effective activists. How to recruit other students. How to educate people. How to effectively make changes.

TI: Do you work with high school as well as college students?

Sage: About half of the students we work with are in high school. We run two high school summer training programs. One in Southern California and one in Vermont, at The Mountain School. They focus on training high school students to be leaders in their communities and at their schools. The programs are run and staffed by college students. They are one week long and cover everything from issues like air pollution, environmental justice and corporate responsibility to action! Like how to hold a press conference. How to organize a "letter to the editor" writing drive. How to run meetings. The programs end with a campaign simulation in which the students break up into groups and plan out a campaign strategy using the skills they learned.

About half of the students we work with are in high school.

TI: Is the organization broken in chapters?

Sage: Now it is! We have always worked with individual students through the national office and through our training programs. But we've actually just started forming sections within S.S.C. this year. And right now we have about 35 S.S.C. sections. This past spring ['97] we held two national student conferences. One was in Texas and one was in Maryland. So a lot of the different S.S.C. sections came together for the conferences and talked a lot about where they want to go with this coalition next year. Some pretty exciting things came out of it.

TI: What are some campaign successes S.S.C. has had recently?

Sage: I'm proud that the S.S.C. was able to bring the environment into the debate in a congressional race in Massachusetts this fall. We educated the public about Representative Peter Blute's horrible environmental voting record. After the election Blute was asked about his defeat, and he said, "the mailing piece done by environmentalists was particularly damaging." That piece was a voter guide that the Sierra Club put together. It compared Blute's poor record with his opponent Jim McGovern's commitment to stronger environmental protections. The Sierra Student Coalition dropped the voter guide door-to-door all over Blute's district. It was a very close race and ultimately I think environmental issues played a big role in McGovern's victory.

...the S.S.C. was able to bring
the environment into the debate
in a congressional race.

TI: Any others that come to mind?

Sage: Sure. Activists have been fighting to save the California Desert for over 20 years! Senator Kerry was planning on going on vacation to the Caribbean, but we needed him to vote to end a filibuster on the California Desert Protection Act. The S.S.C. organized a "dorm storm" in Kerry's district. We knocked on hundreds of student's doors, and asked them to call Kerry and ask for his vote. The first 200 students that called Kerry's office were told that he definitely would not be at the vote. The Kerry's staff started to look for the Senator, telling the next 200 callers that he might be changing his mind. At that point calls were still flooding his office, but his staff started to tell callers that Senator Kerry would definitely be present to cast his vote. Kerry passed the deciding vote and the bill created the largest national park in the lower 48 states! It was definitely one of our most exciting victories.

TI: It sounds like S.S.C. is very successful at pinpointing environmental campaigns that will lead to success for the students working on them.

Sage: We definitely pick our campaign priorities by selecting the issues which will excite young people the most. The first question we ask students when they come to the S.S.C. is, "Hey, what do YOU want to work on?" We work on campaigns that students are passionate about, and then set realistic goals for ourselves. We get materials together to make it very easy for students to get involved and work with other students on the campaigns. It's really encouraging that as student activists, we've been able to experience so much success.

We work on campaigns that students are passionate about...

TI: Is there a campaign you've worked on that has given you a lot of personal satisfaction?

Sage: A lot of them have! But we've been working on a corporate responsibility campaign that targets gold and silver mining corporation called Freeport-McMoRan and Freeport's CEO, Jim-Bob Moffit. They have mining operations in Louisiana, Texas and also in Indonesia where their environmental and human rights abuses are out of control! The trailings, which are chemicals from the mining, have contaminated the clean water supply in the area, poisoning the indigenous people's drinking water. They are being forced away from their homes.

TI: This is in Indonesia?

Sage: Right! But there a also lots of problems that Freeport is causing to water quality and wetlands here in the United States.

TI: So what have you been doing to stop this mining corporation?

Sage: S.S.C.'s public education campaign is making people aware of what they are doing. Students are pressuring their universities to "divest" from [take investment money out of] Freeport. When a large corporation gives a ton of money to a university, it often prevents students from having the resources they need to speak out against the corporation's abuses. Also, if the corporation is providing the funding for a chemistry professor, for example, their environmental science and policy statements have to be called into question. We are looking for as many schools as possible to stop taking money from Freeport. Universities should be places with free open debates. The campaign has been really exciting because a lot of students have gotten really involved in it and we've had some success.

We are looking for as many schools as possible to stop taking money from Freeport. Universities should be places with free open debates.

TI: What kind of response have you gotten from this corporation that you've targeted? They know what you're doing, don't they?

Sage: Yeah, they do! [laughing] It's really interesting. They've actually sent letters to some of our activists threatening to sue us for slander if we speak out against Freeport. But they can't do anything about it, as long as we just state the facts. So that's what we've been doing. You don't need anything else but facts to work on this sort of campaign. They speak for themselves!

TI: Aside from the letters threatening to sue (which shows that you've gotten their attention) what other progress have you made on this campaign?

Sage: We've made a lot of progress, getting students more aware about what is going on. We haven't made much progress in actually changing Freeport's activities yet. There has been a shareholder's resolution introduced which asked Freeport to clean up their act in Indonesia. It will be interesting to see how it turns out. So it looks like some progress is being made when you hear that share holders are getting upset with the corporation's actions.

TI: That's excellent! So what's S.S.C.'s overall goal?

Sage: I'd say it's to get more students involved in the environmental movement and provide a structure which allows them to work with other students, access training and resources to help them work on different conservation campaigns so we can actually accomplish a lot as students.

TI: Well there's certainly lots of environmental work to be done and it sounds like S.S.C. members are right in there doing their part.

Sage: Yes. We are!

We run training programs for students to help them learn to be more effective activists. How to effectively make changes... [How] to be leaders in their communities and at their schools...



Want to find out more?

Call Sierra Student Coalition [toll free] at 1-888-JOINSSC.

Or write to them at:

Sierra Student Coalition
145 Waterman St., 1st Floor
Providence, R.I. 02906

Visit their web site at

Questions for Sage?
email her at
[email protected]


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