8 Questions for Kentucky Sierra Club Volunteer Cara Cooper

From rallying youth voters to the polls or getting local communities involved in environmental causes, Sierra Club volunteer Cara Cooper is a woman of many green talents. We recently caught up with her to talk about what the experience has been like volunteering for the Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter.

Cara Cooper, a Sierra Club volunteer for the Kentucky Chapter, organizes youth for environmental causes

You have roots in Kentucky. Did your upbringing shape your love for the environment?

While I was born in Kentucky and have many roots here, I actually grew up in a small town in central Florida. Growing up, I spent a lot of time playing outside and enjoying the natural beauty around me, and I’ve always loved animals, so my environmental awareness definitely stems from my upbringing. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that making sure everyone has access to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment is a responsibility that we all must share, and that’s what continues to drive me to do environmental work.

You received a master's degree in environmental studies from Florida International University. How did this inform or change your views about the environment?

It was during my time at Florida International University that I was introduced to the world of activism. While I learned a lot of really important lessons in the classroom, I feel like it was the experiences I had outside of the classroom that have really shaped me. Through founding our environmental organization on campus and getting connected to other young people across the country, I’ve realized that we can make a difference when we work together and organize. Attending both Power Shift 2009 in Washington, D.C., and the Sierra Student Coalition’s summer program -- also known as SPROG -- were two opportunities I was able to take advantage of as a student that absolutely helped on that journey.

After graduating, you worked on the Power Vote 2012 Campaign with the Sierra Student Coalition in Florida. Tell us a little about this experience.

I struggle a lot with electoral organizing. While the idea behind Power Vote -- to turn out young voters to cast their ballot for environmental candidates -- is a good idea in theory, it can really only be effective if we have strong environmental candidates to vote for. I hear a lot from older generations about apathy among young voters. I would say apathy is not the problem. The real problem is a lack of inspiring candidates and the overwhelming influence of money on politics that keeps young voters at home on Election Day. I don’t think that we will see young people inspired to go to the voting booth until we see an end to Citizen’s United, and have bold candidates who are willing to take on the issues that are important to my generation -- things like systemic racism, student loan debt, legacy pollution, LGBTQ rights, and sustainable economies.

You were the 2014 recipient of the Sierra Club’s Joseph Barbosa Award, which recognizes a Club member under the age of 30 with a demonstrated record of service to the environment. How did it feel to receive this award?

I was extremely honored to receive the Joseph Barbosa award, especially when I realized that I was nominated by my local chapter. I feel grateful every day for the opportunity to work with the amazing young people in Kentucky to make tangible changes in our communities, and I’m glad that the Sierra Club recognizes the importance of the work that we’re doing and the success we’re achieving in reaching strategic environmental goals at the national level. I’m hopeful the national Sierra Club will continue to recognize and prioritize local work. I think that’s extremely important.

In 2013, you joined the Student Environmental Action Coalition’s staff. What has it been like to work with kids and help get them excited about environmental issues?

My work with SEAC is super rewarding. It’s really my dream job to help train, empower, and connect young people with environmental issues, and I am continually amazed by their commitment to building a better future here in Kentucky. The folks that I work with are already passionate about the environment and protecting their communities from the impacts of environmental degradation, and they know what needs to be done. I get the honor of introducing many of them to community organizing and equipping them with the skills they need to be successful in making their ideas become reality. I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing with my life.

Youth participants in The Kentucky Environmental Student Coalition

A group of Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition participants led by Cara Cooper

You’re now a member of the Kentucky Sierra Club’s executive committee. What is your vision for the Cumberland Chapter?

I still feel like I’m wrapping my head around what role I would like to play on the Cumberland Chapter’s executive committee. My hope is to help make the chapter a place where younger and more diverse members feel comfortable and welcome. I also hope to offer suggestions on how to make our meetings and campaigns more effective and train our state leaders in utilizing social media for recruitment and storytelling.

What's your environmental vice?

While I truly believe that we are in a place where personal choice is no longer going to be enough, I really strive to walk the walk when it comes to being environmentally responsible. I guess maybe my biggest environmental vice is almond milk. I think it’s delicious, but I recently learned that almond production uses a lot of water. I should probably try and cut back.

When you aren’t helping to save the planet, what occupies your time?

Digging in the dirt, growing and cooking yummy food, hiking in the Red River Gorge, hanging out with my kitties and chickens, and drinking local beer while enjoying the local music scene.


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