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The Planet
January/February 1999 Volume 6, Number 1

Sierra Student Coalition

Student Stars


by Camilla Feibelman

It's Halloween night. The doorbell rings. At the stoop are clipboard- toting youth. Or, rather, a ghost, a farmer, a pumpkin and a playing card. A foreboding chant fills the crisp autumn air, "Global Warming Is Even Scarier Than Halloween!"

The Sierra Student Coalition (SSC) group at the George School in Newtown, Pa., decided that a little Halloween trickery was a good way to raise awareness about global warming. The students knocked on doors and talked about global warming and then asked for signatures on a petition to President Clinton and a local congressperson. "We dressed up and scored some candy, but the primary goal was the petitions," said SSC organizer Terri Ross, 18.

The Halloween petitioning effort was part of the SSC's global warming campaign. SSC groups in high schools and colleges around the country work on national campaigns like this one, in addition to their own local issues.

The SSC was founded in 1991 by 17-year-old Adam Werbach, and by 1995 it had thousands of high-school and college-age members. Ross conceded that apathy is a problem with some kids. "But SSC is a great network for those of us who aren't apathetic. Now I'm a freshman at Brown, and the organizing skills really help."

Members of the SSC claim certain advantages over other Sierra Club members. Oliver Berstein, a high school organizer from Florida, said, "My group is working against an airport in the Everglades. The same adults always speak at public hearings. When we speak, people listen to us because we represent a fresh voice."

"There is no meaningful environmental movement without students," said Rita Turner, SSC national director. "We are the future. We have to live with the consequence of what happens today."

And lawmakers will have to live with - and adjust to - students' ability to mobilize quickly and effectively, as they did in Maryland.

The Montgomery County Student Environmental Activists (MCSEA), an SSC group, was founded in 1996 by Dave Karpf, now SSC's training director. "We had organized an effective high school group, but we hadn't really reached other high schools," said Karpf. "My friends and I figured that there were probably three or four people who could really make a difference in each of those schools, so we formed MCSEA to help the really dedicated people work on the big issues."

In 1997 the group wrote itself into the annals of Maryland conservation history. The state was not meeting national air-quality standards. Environmentalists pushed the state to initiate mandatory car-emissions inspections. But a bill on the governor's desk would make those inspections optional. The governor was undecided. Larry Bohlen, then chapter conservation chair, called Karpf on Monday at 10 p.m. "He said that we had 48 hours and we needed 1,000 signatures to push the governor over the edge."

Karpf passed out the petition to SSCers at four local high schools. They had 1,000 signatures by the end of the first day and more than 2,000 on the second. "They faxed the petitions to the governor's office for two days," said MCSEA member Ofelia Cabrera. "The governor had to shut down the fax machine. He vetoed the bill. To this day the governor's office recognizes MCSEA."

SSC activism is exemplary of a Generation E, not X. As Turner said, "Students bring to the movement energy, creativity, dedication, indignation and newly aware, furious strength that is unique to the young."


Go on to the next article, "Around the World with Hand-Lettered Signs"


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