SEAC Made Student Groups Strong Through Solidarity

Posted by Lamar
Sep 21 2015

seacSEAC-affiliated groups have established recycling programs at 900 universities in the United States, lobbied successfully against the James Bay hydroelectric project in Canada, set up environmental oversight committees at their universities, and engaged in a boycott of one of Ohio’s worst polluters, British Petroleum. In October 1990, a national SEAC conference featuring Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Robert Redford and United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez drew 8,000 students to the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

The nationwide SEAC network is divided into 17 regions, each with a representative on the National Council. Proposals for the organization’s campaigns originate with local groups and regional committees, and are then submitted to the National Council for a vote. This decentralized approach allows SEAC to remain responsive to issues its members are most concerned with, rather than dictating policy from a remote national office. With this local focus in mind, SEAC decided not to hold a national conference this year, but rather to concentrate on organizing on a local level. The network, which obtains its funding from membership dues and foundation grants, provides its members with advice, contacts and issue updates, in addition to a newsletter, ThreshoId, published monthly during the school year.

The growth of SEAC has outpaced any of its founders’ expectations, according to Alec Guettel, one of the organization’s original members. He attributes the network’s phenomenal success to student’s dents’ passion for social change, even in the absence of generous funding.

“We have no money or experience, but we have an almost unlimited volunteer base and enthusiasm,” he says.

At first SEAC focused on traditional conservation issues such as recycling. Recently its mission has been expanded to take on social justice issues such as access to health care and education, the impact of poverty, and racism as a factor in pollution. Guettel says this change reflects many SEACers’ belief hat the definition of environment should include all living environments, whether urban, rural or wilderness.

“The range of issues SEAC deals with has been broadened, which has made us a lot more politically salient and effective,” he explains.

Says SEAC development coordinator Ana Micka, “To turn that commitment [to environmental justice] into action we added positions on our board to ensure that people of color represent 50 percent of the National Council. If you’re working on environmental justice you should have cultural equality in your organization first.”

In tackling multi-cultural social justice issues, SEAC groups have lobbied against the U.S.-Mexico free trade pact, which many students see as a direct threat to the health of workers and the environment on both sides of the border. SEAC activists were vocal in demanding more commitment to environmental protection for citizens in both the North and South from participants at the Earth Summit. And some groups have participated in the 500 Years of Resistance campaign to publicize indigenous peoples’ struggle for autonomy.

SEAC’s international arm, Action for Solidarity, Equality, Environment and Development (ASEED) cooperates with European Youth Forest Action to educate eco-warriors in lobbying, policymaking and direct action strategies. The network cooperates with campus groups in 53 countries worldwide.

Guettel says one of the most surprising developments in SEAC’s evolution has been the growth of environmental groups in high schools. Last spring SEACers organized conferences for hundreds of nascent teenage activists, who have established 600 environmental groups of their own in high schools nationwide. SEAC’s New York office receives calls daily from high school students interested in working with the network.

Micka says SEAC’s aim is to create a powerful student movement based on the ethic of building a sustainable society.

“We’re working to change the idea that uninhibited economic growth is the way for international economies to head,” she says.

This renaissance of student activism has prompted Forbes magazine to compare SEAC members with the youthful radicals of the 1960′s group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and to complain that SEAC is more interested in “bashing capitalism” than in protecting the environment.

But the 1,500 campus groups represented by SEAC vary widely in their positions on the political spectrum, Guettel says. Radical student activists and their more conservative peers are sometimes at odds over the tactics needed to bring environmental concerns to the political forefront.

“There are people in SEAC who voted for Bush in 1988 who are just into recycling, and there are people in SEAC who’d like to throw eggs at the presidential limo … It makes us healthy having that kind of political tension,” he says.

According to Carry Eskridge, a student at the University of Houston, SEAC has allowed his group, Students for Environmental and Resource Protection, to obtain organizational materials and the lessons of other groups’ experiences.

“The greatest thing about SEAC is the morale that’s created by knowing we’re not alone working on these issues. We learn from each other’s mistakes, failures and successes,” he says.

Eskridge says that many students in the United States, especially in the western states, are resistant to being subsumed under the banner of a monolithic national environmental group. He emphasizes that SEAC assists small groups without forcing them to compromise their individual agendas.

Adam Berrey, outreach coordinator with SEAC, is optimistic that the student activists of today will become tomorrow’s leaders of the movement for environmental and social justice, noting that many SEAC organizers have continued their environmental activism after graduation. He is confident that ten years from now, the friendships, goals and principles forged during SEAC’s evolution will continue to flourish.

“This is a generational movement. In ten years this generation will still be working together. We’ll just be ten years older.”