Nearly a year after graduating from Eastern Mennonite University, I found myself back in the middle of an EMU class I’d taken my junior year: Environmental Risk and Policy.
The class, taught by Doug Graber Neufeld, professor of biology and director of the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions, introduced me to the world of environmental policy and eventually connected me to the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.
Now, I had the opportunity to return to that same class to teach the students how to advocate for just policies that address climate change — an issue that has become my full-time job this year through a fellowship with CSCS, in partnership with MCC U.S.
I was eager to share this knowledge because I’ve become convinced the most effective way that we can get our nation to address climate change is through collective pressure on policymakers.
While individual actions to reduce our own carbon footprints are important, we need to act on the national and global levels too.
Our faith mandates that we confront injustice. Migration, public health and food production are all impacted negatively by climate change.
At the end of the class, the students met with staff in their senators’ offices to discuss federal funding for the Green Climate Fund. Supported by multiple countries, the fund helps low-income countries adapt to the pressures of a changing climate and reduce their own emissions.
The students were attending these meetings at a strategically beneficial time, as Congress was beginning the annual appropriations process.
None of these students had met with staff in a congressional office before. Some were nervous, but they carefully prepared a series of talking points and went into their meetings equipped to share their perspectives. Accompanied by either Neufeld or me, they told stories and asked questions of the congressional staff members.
What follows are excerpts from five students’ reflections after their meetings. I’ll let them tell you, in their own words, why you should start advocating for improved climate policies:
From Rodrigo Barahona, a sophomore who met with staff of Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia:
As much as we can change our lifestyle to promote environmental sustainability, policies play a massive role in the way environmental issues are handled. Meetings such as this one provide a unique opportunity of connecting with those who have the capacity to achieve major strides on any particular issue. While meetings might have felt short and inconsequential to some, just the act of letting policymakers know what we deem important could make a big difference in the long run.
From Andrea Troyer, a sophomore who met with staff of Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia:
I found this experience life-giving because I was making an impact on a sustainability issue I deeply care about. The worries and tension eased up a lot when we learned that Sen. Warner would very likely support the Green Climate Fund and that energy and the environment are topics he finds important. [The staff member] even said, “I wish Senator Warner was on this Zoom because he would agree with each of you,” which put a smile on my face.
I think it’s important that we continue advocating because it brings the perspectives of all people to light to address issues that citizens care about. I would tell others who are considering visits to their public officials to do it. We need political participation more now than ever, and it’s life-giving to advocate for an issue one passionately cares about.
From Anika Hurst, a first-year student who met with staff of Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania:
[The meeting] was a little frustrating because it felt like we were not going to make a drastic difference in the decisions or opinions of the congressman and his [staff]. However, it was still a good experience that taught me a lot about advocacy and the importance of voicing beliefs even if there might not be an immediate result.
I would tell others [interested in advocating] to continue to find ways to reach out and connect with their local officials. If more people connect with them and voice their opinions, then the representatives will gain a better picture of the public’s beliefs, and they may be more willing to do some more research and advocate on the public’s behalf.
From Levi Geyer, a junior who met with staff of Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa:
I wanted to make sure I conveyed my passion for the subject and decided to use the story of my family’s farm to accomplish this. Story has a powerful honesty, a non-aggressive way of taking a firm stand. I spoke of our farm and how we are making changes to be more environmentally friendly. I wanted to show [the staff member] that we were willing to make changes and imply that he and other Iowans could, too.
From Micah Buckwalter, a sophomore who met with staff of Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia:
Climate change is something I am passionate about fighting, but sometimes it feels overwhelming to think of how much destruction has already been done and how much needs to happen for us to make significant change. Through this experience, I realized that advocating [to] our senators and representatives to show them how important this issue really is can be a great way to make an impact.
The advocacy these students did is something anyone can do. Visiting a legislator’s office, either in person or virtually, is straightforward. You don’t need to have an in-depth understanding of the policy. You simply need to understand its relevance and connect it to your personal convictions and stories.
Every year, MCC U.S.’s advocacy offices are joined by the efforts of thousands of constituents around the United States. Now, the world has gained 15 more young advocates who are equipped and empowered to advocate for climate justice.