by Grace Sandel
The UC Berkeley climate strike on September 20th of 2019 brought over a thousand people together, united by the urgency for climate action. Year-round, numerous student organizations and individuals engage with environmental activism. The environmental community at UC Berkeley comprises students with diverse backgrounds, voices, and interests — making students particularly disposed to consider the justice and human facets of each environmental issue. Sarah Xu and Gabrielle Ambayec are students actively involved in UC Berkeley’s environmental community. Both exemplify a dedication to addressing environmental issues while keeping environmental justice values at the forefront.
Sarah Xu, a third-year Environmental Economics and Policy major, is the Community Engagement Associate at the Student Environmental Resource Center (SERC). SERC seeks to “strengthen the collective effectiveness of the sustainability community” and provide the resources necessary for students to create an “equitable, socially just, and resilient future.” Xu’s primary areas of interest are environmental justice, international environmental policy, and the impact of mining on climate change. “All three of these issues are deeply intertwined,” explained Xu.
As the Community Engagement Associate at SERC, Xu works on the SERC membership program and organizes environmental events for the community. Through the membership program, Xu provides opportunities for students to get involved in SERC. The events organized by Xu also provide a chance for others to learn about environmental topics and how to get involved. Her interest in environmental issues began in high school with Model United Nations. “I learned so much about international climate change policy through the research I did for different policy simulations and it really sparked my interest,” said Xu. Later in high school, Xu’s interest shifted towards climate advocacy and her interest was solidified during her first year at UC Berkeley. “I really got involved with the day-to-day work of climate advocacy at UC Berkeley when I lived in the Global Environmental Theme House freshman year,” explained Xu.
Xu is involved in the Students of Color Environmental Collective (SCEC), which engages in environmental justice issues through advocacy and their conference for students of color interested in environmental issues.
Reflecting on environmental activism on campus, Xu noted the solidarity of the Mauna Kea Protectors at UC Berkeley with COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) during March of 2020. Mauna Kea Protectors at UC Berkeley is a student community advocating for the university to divest from the controversial telescope project cited for Mauna Kea, a mountain sacred to indigenous Hawaiians. Environmental advocacy and social justice are closely connected on campus, often intersecting. Xu mentioned Sage Lenier, Sarah Bancroft, and Dante Gonzalez as notable students dedicated to environmental activism. “Students for Climate Action, led by amazing folks like Sage Lenier and Sarah Bancroft, have been the driving force for large collective action, and Dante Gonzalez who has worked tirelessly to raise the voices of those usually left behind in environmental activism,” said Xu.
As the environmental movement grows at UC Berkeley, Xu hopes for strengthened advocacy and increased solidarity among the social justice movements. “This is especially important as we see the institutional cracks in our systems widen and grow in response to COVID-19 and issues like the Green New Deal gain more broad traction,” explained Xu.
Gabrielle Ambayec, a second-year Molecular Environmental Biology major, is the Environmental Justice Associate at SERC, which entails facilitating community educational programs relating to environmental justice topics. At these events, Ambayec educates others about environmental justice and provides a space for discussion and reflection. Ambayec was exposed to environmental injustice as a child, watching and reading stories about the Philippines, where her family is from. “I would see photos of solid waste flooding into residential areas, of children swimming in water filled with trash, as well as read stories about the displacement of peoples due to factors such as land deforestation, pollution, land buyouts, etc.,” said Ambayec. At a young age, Ambayec did not recognize those issues as environmental injustices, but Ambayec explained, “it has always been in the back of my mind.” Similar to Xu, Ambayec began directly working in environmental justice and advocacy once she came to university.
In December of 2019, Ambayec hosted an environmental justice community space event. The aim of the event was to provide a chance for discussing environmental justice and sharing of personal experiences with environmental injustices. Amabyec’s presentation on environmental justice introduced the attendees to “new movements and figures that they hadn’t considered before when thinking about environmentalism and environmental activism,” said Ambayec. For Ambayec, the event was a success because the attendees gained a new perspective. “I would definitely want to recreate this event in the future,” added Ambayec.
Climate Justice Week 2019 and the student leaders involved stood out to Ambayec. According to SERC, “Climate Justice Week aims to create an intentional space to engage the wider UC Berkeley community on the intersections of climate change and social justice.” A host of workshops, documentary screenings, panels, rallies, and art builds all related to environmental topics occur during this week. “The visibility of the climate justice movement, the rally held in Sproul Plaza during Climate Justice Week 2019, for example, is incredibly empowering,” said Ambayec. “There’s always going to be more potential to build upon the amazing precedent that has already been established by students in the past, so to watch it reach new heights in the coming years and continue to include new voices into the community would be amazing,” said Ambayec.
Grace Sandel is a first-year studying Society and Environment. Grace joined Perennial to share environmental topics and issues with the Berkeley community. She is especially interested in ocean ecosystems and marine life. In her free time, Grace enjoys going to the beach, hiking, and spending time outdoors.