Environmental Activist in Action: UMass Amherst MASSPIRG

Massachusetts Student Public Interest Group (MASSPIRG) is an organization that works with professional staff at colleges and universities to bring educational and training opportunities for students to tackle climate change, conserve public health, and strengthen our democracy. Marissa Zampino, the Campus Organizer with MASSPIRG at UMass Amherst, is the professional staff member who supports students by giving them the skills and resources they need to work on the campaigns they want to run. I was also joined by student members, McKenna Sellitto and Caroline Williams, to discuss their defining activism initiatives within UMass Amherst MASSPIRG.


As the coordinator for the “Save the Bees” campaign, McKenna helps to run events and works on projects that will lead the University of Massachusetts Amherst to become a certified “Bee-Friendly'' campus in the state of Massachusetts through Bee Campus USA. She also helps work on projects that increase pollinator habitats on campus, such as establishing bee hotels in the Franklin Permaculture Garden.


As the coordinator for the “100% Renewable Energy” campaign, Caroline is helping to get Massachusetts to commit to 100% Renewable Energy through the 100% Renewable Energy Act, which includes lobbying legislators and getting petitions signatures. They are also trying to get UMass Amherst to commit as well.


At Seaside Sustainability, to continue to educate and make meaningful impacts in our communities, we asked UMass Amherst MASSPIRG, “how do you educate people and take action in your organization and surrounding community?”. As a recent graduate of UMass Amherst, I am proud to have had the opportunity to learn from their experiences.


Q: What are some of your favorite things you have done relating to advocacy and why?


McKenna: My freshman year, I was a service learning intern for the Bee Campaign, meaning that my role was to offer service learning projects to kids in the local area. One day I created a lesson plan for first and second-graders and we went to the local elementary school where I taught them about advocacy, environmental activism, and the importance of pollinators. It was really inspirational to see kids that young interested in things like that and it’s a good feeling to teach them.


Caroline: I’ve done a lot of great things with MASSPIRG, but one of the experiences I've had was the climate change marches. Being with so many people and feeling the energy [and enthusiasm with everyone], that’s something I really miss now that we are virtual. It’s also really great to lobby people in person.


Q: What are the ways you try to get students involved in your projects or ways you educate them about sustainability?


McKenna: Before COVID-19, we did a lot of petitioning at dining halls and in common spaces like the campus center [at UMass Amherst]. We also displayed signage and handed out flyers. Virtually, we like to do class wraps which is when you enter someone else’s zoom class session and give a 5-minute information block on what we’re advocating for; things like sustainability movements, what MASSPIRG is about, and if they want to get involved.


Caroline: We do a lot on social media, [phone banking], and events as well. We make sure people have things to do and they meet with someone to make sure they’re comfortable and to keep people involved.


Q: What does switching to 100% renewable energy on campus entail, including the process or action steps the campus has taken to do this? What has been the progress so far in taking these steps?


Caroline: Chancellor Subbaswamy tasked the Carbon Mitigation Taskforce (CMTF) [to develop a plan and achieve carbon neutrality from 100% renewable energy on the main campus by 2030.] [...] Geothermal is the main source of energy, along with some solar and renewable energy credits (RECs). Scientists and experts in the field have done this at other campuses as well so they brought their expertise to this CMTF. The next steps are how to implement the plan. It's mostly focusing on how to convert buildings to be more efficient in heating [hot water] and cooling [low temperature] because that’s where most of the energy consumption comes from. However, right now things are at a standstill due to COVID-19.


Q: Can you talk about the projects involving the community (bee farmers, administrators, and students) that support why bees are important to the environment?


McKenna: We recognize that bees are essential for our food supply, the ecosystem, and the environment being that they pollinate the vast majority of the foods we eat. There are declining bee populations, and no bees means there’s no food. We work on collaborating with permaculture, and sometimes reaching out to local bee farmers on reducing the usage of pesticides. We mainly offer educational courses and service learning projects to enhance pollinator habitats on campus working on rebuilding “bee-friendly” areas on campus.


Q: What advice would you give to other people hoping to join the environmental movement?


McKenna: Don’t feel intimidated to get involved. Choose what you’re most passionate about and focus on that because you can’t fix climate change while saving the bees. Do your own research on your own time and make sure you’re knowledgeable about the topic before you immerse yourself in it. Reach out to different people and organizations and ask for ways you can get involved.


Caroline: Do what you can and take one step at a time. Climate change can feel overwhelming—where is my place and what can I do to actually help this? Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to do everything because that’s when people may feel like they want to give up. Turn your mindset from “I need to fix this” to “every [sustainable] action I take is helpful.”


To learn about other campaign initiatives by UMass Amherst MASSPIRG: New Voters Project and Make Textbooks Affordable, visit UMass Amherst MASSPIRG.

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