INTERVIEW WITH VERONIKA MICHELS (CALPIRG): STUDENT ACTIVISM TO FIGHT CLIMATE CHANGE
BY VEER SHAH
Art by Sophia Hidalgo
Veronika Michels is an alumna from UC San Diego and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Physiology and Neuroscience. She joined CALPIRG Students as a senior, where she took on the role of campaign coordinator for the Plastic-Free Seas campaign which was focused on passing comprehensive policy in California on single-use plastics. After graduating she joined full-time staff as a campus organizer working at UC Santa Barbara for a year before returning to organize with the UCSD chapter. In that time, the chapters successfully ran a campaign to get the UCs to pass policy to phase out nonessential single-use plastics like bottles, utensils, and plastic containers, and most recently Veronika organized the California Climate Action Summit, a gathering of top experts, youth activists, and elected officials, to focus on climate solutions like accelerating the timeline for 100% Clean Energy in California to 2030 from 2045.
What got you interested in student activism?
The thing that got me interested in student activism was really just getting my start doing activism in college. I think for a lot of people, college exposes you to new issues, new ways of thinking, new people and new problems you didn't know existed or at least didn't know the severity of, so it pushes you to think critically about what you're doing to solve them. I think that's why students have been leaders in social movements throughout history - look at civil rights, anti-Vietnam War protests or voting rights -- it's been young people that have led the way forward because they aren't satisfied with the status quo. How can you be learning about issues like climate change, racial injustice, pollution, inequality, and not feel moved to make a difference? But you don't learn how to effectively do activism in college, that's why organizing on campus and providing a space for young people to get civically engaged and learn how to run campaigns on any given issue is such a great opportunity.
What are some ways to get involved in activism as a student?
I think you should start with figuring out which issues matter most to you. Activism can be hard, so you really need to be passionate about the work you're doing and have your heart in it. Joining an organization like a nonprofit is a great place to start because you can learn skills from experienced organizers and contribute to a movement that will go on even if you're too busy to keep doing it or graduate. We have lots of students that join CALPIRG, learn skills, and go on to apply them to other social issues to make a difference. Many students also keep taking on more leadership with us directly and go on to be organizers after graduating, and that's great too! No one learns about being an organizer in kindergarten, but there's full-time jobs in activism and really we need more people doing it all over the country so we can keep winning victories for the public.
Why are the voices of students/student activism important in political matters?
The most important reason student voices and voices of young people are important in politics is because they bring in a new pair of eyes to a system that older generations have become accustomed to. Not only can they recognize and call out the problems, but they can imagine a better world and actually have the time and energy to fight to make that vision a reality. With every coming generation we need the youth voice to push us to be better. They're also the generation inheriting society's problems right alongside the benefits and should have a say in decisions being made that will impact their lives moving forward.
Why is student activism a necessary movement/action to combat climate change?
Student activists feel the urgency of climate change so strongly, and therefore simply cannot just let the status quo continue. We all know that transitioning to 100% clean and renewable energy won't be the easiest thing to do, that phasing out single-use plastics will take adjustments, but we really don't have a choice. When scientists are giving us hard deadlines when we need to have tackled emissions or else we'll pass tipping points on climate, we simply need to change our ways. The choices we make this decade will have major impacts on what our lives look like when we're older. So it's incredibly important to have the young voice that's reminding everyone else about what the right decisions are for the future. Student activists will never have enough money to compete with the fossil fuel industry and the lobbying power they're able to fund, but we can build up the people power through organizing that we need to get our elected officials to take bold action.
What are some key principles that a student activist must always keep in mind?
We always say: "Don't agonize, organize." You should set clear goals, and have a plan, be strategic in how you're running your campaign so that you actually have a theory of how you can win, but then just go do it. Activism takes a range of skills, and you can hone them over time and get better, but anyone can be an activist. You don't need to be an expert to make your voice heard, your personal story in itself is powerful, and when it comes down to it, building a movement is all about one on one conversations that amount to a force of hundreds and thousands of people coming together behind an issue.
What are CALPIRG’s goals and mission and how does it foster and promote activism among the student body?
Our mission is centered on this central belief that students have the power to shape the future we will inherit. We work with professional staff at colleges and universities to make sure our peers have the skills, opportunities and training they need to create a better, more sustainable future for all of us. Our chapters provide the training, professional support and resources students need to tackle climate change, protect public health, revitalize our democracy, feed the hungry and more. Students have been at the forefront of social change throughout history, from civil rights, to voting rights to protecting the environment and that's why for over 40 years we’ve helped students to get organized, mobilized and energized so they can continue to be on the cutting edge of positive change. It's not just about winning one campaign, it's about developing student activists over time and creating a true movement of young people actively engaged and ready to take on the most pressing issues of their time.
Do you think that the current state of student activism is inclusive enough?
Well, student activism isn't just one thing, and there's no single way to be an activist. It's kind of like an ecosystem of movements, or issues, of organizations, of people, with different strategies, tactics, messaging, stories. There's no good way to pinpoint what it is and so it's hard to say if it's inclusive or not. All I can say is cast a broad net and put in the work to try and reach out to a large swath of people and groups in the community, provide people with opportunities for leadership, and know when to lead from the front vs. giving you labor and time or funds to the group that's really representing the community's voice. But also I'd say a challenge is that while anyone can be an activist, not everyone has the time or funds or energy to do so. So helping make sure people have basic needs covered so they can even consider opportunities to either be part of or start a movement is important too.
What advice would you give to student activists when dealing with classmates/members of the public who believe that climate change is a figment of your imagination, or leftist-liberal propaganda?
When it comes to climate, the science is clear, and the majority of the public agrees it's a problem and is concerned about its impacts. The fact is that you won't be able to get 100% of people on your side, but with 80% behind you, you can win victories, you can take action, you can change systems, to make sure we're living in a habitable world in 2050. I do think it's important to understand where people are coming from, and we know just dropping facts or statistics won't change someone's mind. Creating more division in our country won't help us move forward. So it's important to have conversations, but if you want to win on climate change you can't get bogged down with the loud voices of a select few, you need to organize the majority of the public and focus your energy on solutions and how we can implement them, vs debating if the problem exists in the first place.