As I struggled to find meaningful, effective ways to implement change within my local and global community, I stayed in Charlottesville last summer to take a few classes. Unintentionally I enrolled in two politics courses that peaked my interest–Politics of Food and Environmental Political Theory. Through these courses, I delved into the interconnectedness of food on the environment as well as the role of politics in addressing environmental obstacles. Through Ross Mittiga’s Environmental Political Theory course, I struggled with the inherently corrupt political system and learned about environmental activism. We had three guest speakers–UVA students who have extensive experience with protesting in Virginia. I reached out to the students and got involved with the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition (VSEC). I started showing up at community dinners at their movement house and attending public events with politicians. VSEC taught me skills and concepts about the corruption within Virginia’s fossil fuel industry and the connection to state politics. I learned about the influence of Dominion power, the energy monopoly, on Virginia’s politicians through campaign donations. I began connecting the dots and realizing the necessity to take action for the sake of environmental justice in Virginia. I attended my first march on July 23rd, 2016 in Richmond, VA as we marched to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s mansion. As I marched through the streets of Richmond, the place I call home, I felt alive and powerful. We passed by the Dominion Power headquarters as the employees and officials watched angrily. I carried a huge box with my best friend Sydney (that we had snatched from the streets outside Boylan) which was converted into the sign featured below.
I remember watching as one of the VSEC students screamed catchy chants into the megaphone. I thought…that’s not me right now but I hope that will be me one day. After the march we debriefed and connected with students from other schools. In a group circle we shared our goals and aims for the future. At the end we sang a call and response, clapping song that touched me and gave me goosebumps for hours after. It goes…”I can feel my heartbeat. Beating to the rhythm of the freedom song..when I say yes to the beat in me…I can set my spirit free”. After the march we continued political action through bird-dogging, a form of confrontation to put pressure on politicians to take a stand on a particular issue. I attended a Political Action Workshop and learned how to recruit, petition, bird-dog, etc. After the summer of 2016, I studied abroad in Australia through a Sustainability and Environmental Action program. I met and learned from climate activists who worked to protect New South Wales and Tasmania. One woman had lived in a tree for over a year to ensure that the surrounding forests of Tasmania received government regulations to stop logging. I discovered that the Greens party of Australia was formed through environmental activism. The picture below shows the woman who lived in the tree alongside a tree that has metal lock-ons in the trunk, a tactic by protestors to stop the logging companies.
During my time abroad, I worked with the Greens political party in Sydney, Australia on a healthy school lunch campaign. By combining my interest in food, the environment, and politics I learned ways to engage and mobilize the local community around an issue. These experiences opened me up to a whole new realm of politics with different party systems, voting systems, and value systems. This picture below portrays me and a local Glebe resident, a locality of Sydney, while attending the Glebe Street Fair to acquire signatures for our petition.
When Trump got elected, my world came crashing down and all of my hopes for climate mitigation seemed lost in the dust. I arrived back in Charlottesville with anxiety on how our country would move forward. I aggressively indulged in as many actions as possible to protect the environment on the individual, community and political level. I attended the Women’s March on January 21st, 2017–Trump’s first day in office. With many of my best friends by my side, we took to the streets of DC with hundreds of thousands of others. This day was a symbol of unity amongst many who have suffered and been offended by Trump’s regime. This day exemplified the ensuing resistance and energy needed to oppose the new administration. My favorite sign read, “Respect existence or expect resistance”. After the women’s march, I proceeded to attend a multitude of social justice related marches around DC, Charlottesville and UVA.
As the protests and marches ensued, I learned how to write to and call my representatives in Charlottesville, Richmond and Virginia as a whole. By adding Mark Warner, Tom Garrett, Tim Kaine and many others into my phone book, I felt empowered by this opportunity to further connect and voice my opinions. Also, I began volunteering for Ross Mittiga’s political campaign for VA House of Delegates. As my professor of Environmental Political Theory, I have been inspired by the energy and motivation of such a young person to run for office. He runs his campaign on a values-based, progressive platform, refusing money from large corporate interests. In addition, he avidly opposes the two proposed pipelines through Virginia–the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Ross’s campaign and the grassroots movement surrounding his efforts have perpetually inspired me. He has thoroughly disrupted the state Democratic Party, similar to gubernatorial candidate, Tom Perriello. There are strong connections between the work of Tom, Ross, and Bernie. During this past semester, I completed a direct action with seven other women from the Climate Action Society/VSEC. We took the stage of the Democratic Party Fundraiser to stigmatize the Democrats who take money from Dominion and support the pipelines. I nearly peed myself. Although being booed off the stage and scolded by the party leaders, I was proud of our efforts to cause tension and shed light on these pressing issues. The picture portrayed below was taken at the described direct action.
In addition to this direct action, I was selected as a Charlottesville delegate for the 5th District Democrat Convention in May. An interesting factor in local politics is the inaccessibility of information about how to get involved. Although the Democrats pride themselves on being welcoming and open to new candidates, I find this to be corrupted and false. They have withheld information and made it difficult for Ross to run his campaign. Also, the response to our resistance at the fundraiser shows their hypocritical, complacent stance on taking action and making bold change.
On April 29th, 2017, Trump’s 100th day of office, I attended the People’s Climate March in DC with hundreds of young people from schools all over Virginia. Alongside my peers in VSEC and CAS, we marched with a gigantic parachute, which read “Community Centered”.
There were first year students who spoke at the rally before the march. I was truly inspired by the dedication of these young students who just recently arrived at the University. As we walked down the streets, we yelled chants and call and responses such as “WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS” and “U-G-L-Y. Dominion you cheat and lie–you ugly”. Although some of these chants may appear aggressive and disrespectful, I respond by saying that Dominion’s masked treatment of Virginian’s livelihoods is ever permeating and systematically destroying the safety and security of our future generations, which yields opposition. As I screamed my lungs out into the megaphone until a headache persisted, I reflected on my connection and confidence in the climate movement since the March on the Mansion last July.
The energy and excitement ran through my body. I was surrounded by people with some of the largest hearts I’ve ever met. Just yesterday, within the people I encountered, I watched as one girl bought a meal for a homeless man, another who picked up trash off the ground and another who refused to sit on the metro until she knew everyone else had a seat. In addition, I got to catch up with a friend from study abroad who had come all the way from Connecticut simply for the sake of environmental justice. She noted, “we will always keep running into each other since we are fighting for the same cause”. Although a simple and obvious statement, I was moved and had goose bumps. At the end of the march, we gathered in the park near the Washington Monument and debriefed about our experiences. At the end, similar to the end of my first march, we sang a song that I recommended–the freedom song. I knew that for many, it was their first political action, the start to their environmentalist careers. I can feel my heartbeat. Beating to the rhythm of the freedom song. When I say yes to the beat in me, I can set my spirit free. When I say yes to the beat in you, I can let your light shine through…
As the semester comes to a close and I reflect on my growth over the last year, my mind keeps reverting back to one concept–the idea of being connected to the past, present and future all at once. My exploration of environmental activism simultaneously makes me feel connected to both the past, present and future. I have played a role in shaping history and I am carrying on the tradition of the millions of people who have marched in the streets of Washington, DC demanding justice. I felt very present and awake and liberated as I screamed at the top of my lungs for climate justice. I was in my element. And lastly, I feel connected to the future. I fight for the future generations who will reap the benefits AND detriments of our species’ actions. I seek to foster a just, livable, sustainable earth for future generations of the human species.
Although I am perpetually floored by the fact that the current administration does not deem climate mitigation as a necessary action, I am confident in my efforts, alongside many others, in this force of resistance and opposition. I am PROUD to call myself an environmentalist, a climate activist. I am HONORED to be a part of this movement of people who have loving hearts, open minds, and altruistic motives.
I would like to end on another song of resistance that has been sung over many years within the climate movement…
“Solid as a rock
Rooted as a tree
I am here
In my rightful place”
*Special shout out to Sydney Rubin, Laura Cross, and Ross Mittiga– three of my role models and inspirations to get involved in this movement.*
Gabby Levet is a fourth year student majoring in Foreign Affairs and Global Sustainability. She currently serves as the Social Chair for Green Grounds and is a member of the Green Corner Consulting Committee.