Solutions in Sight:
A Conversation with
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
The InSite: How does the
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
TI: Do you work with high school as well as college
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
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
...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
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
TI: Is there a campaign
you've worked on that has given you a lot of personal
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
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
and wetlands here in the United States.
TI: So what have you been doing to stop this mining
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
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
Call Sierra Student
Coalition [toll free] at 1-888-JOINSSC.
Or write to them
Visit their web site at
Sierra Student Coalition
145 Waterman St., 1st Floor
Providence, R.I. 02906
email her at [email protected]
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