Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
He's Young, He's Hip, He's Your President

by Marie Dolcini

If you haven't heard by now, you're either just returning from a two-month Antarctic vacation or have completely given up on the mainstream media. From the New York Times and all major TV networks to National Public Radio and Wired magazine's Web site, the press coverage of the Sierra Club's youngest president as "hip" and "media-savvy" continues. But beyond the novelty-focused headlines, what does the election of this gregarious 23-year-old as the Sierra Club's 46th president mean for members and activists? At a minimum, it will boost outreach to a younger constituency.

"If the primary purpose of the Sierra Club is to be concerned about the future, it seems natural that young people take responsibility for it," says Adam Werbach. For him that call came in the second grade when he began collecting signatures on the Club's "dump James Watt" campaign. By high school he had founded the now 30,000-member-strong Sierra Student Coalition. For the past two years he has served on the Board of Directors while majoring in political science and cultural studies at Brown University.

"Ever since the Watt petition, I've been trying to figure out new ways to get young people involved in the environmental movement," says Werbach. Today, that means refuting the 'Generation X' classification of anyone under 30 as disengaged and apathetic.

"You begin by saying to young people, 'You are involved and you're doing great - your successes have been monumental,'" says Werbach. "From getting Flipper out of tuna, to calling key legislators to pass the California Desert Protection Act - those are things that kids really did."

Besides using new and emerging technology to spread the Club's conservation message, Werbach wants to reach out "in the way young people learn" - be it through music, film, television, fashion or art. "It's not their job to come to us, it's our job to go to them. If they don't read our books then we need to go to MTV." And he has. Last month he met with programmers at the popular music television station to pitch some of his suggestions for environmental reporting, including a news-oriented "green minute."

Werbach's goal is to reach out to as-yet untapped allies. One way of achieving that is to put more Club resources into environmental justice efforts focusing on the health and safety of local communities. "The Sierra Student Coalition ran a national lead education program that showed inner city residents how to avoid lead poisoning. We need to continue to ask how we can be of service on such issues."

At the moment, he is focusing on helping mobilize the Club for the November elections. "I'll be spending at least half my time on the road with chapters and groups, working side- by-side with our tremendous activists around the country," says Werbach.

While the biggest change in his life since assuming the new job remains a lack of sleep, Werbach says he looks forward to meeting and getting to know every Club member and activist that he can. "I want to hear their stories and learn what their issues are and how we can work together to really change the way politics in this country work," he says.

"And we should show our stories whenever possible," he says. "If you're working on toxics, introduce reporters to children with elevated asthma rates. If you're working on air quality, show them dying trees. Simple stories resonate. "We need to be a groundswell," Werbach adds. "It's our job to help show people how their interests are being subverted and to give them opportunities for change."


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