“Look Around. We Are an Emblem of Change.”
An Interview with Organizers from the Green New Deal at UCSD’s Recent Climate Justice and Action Rally
Blanca Lozano (pictured leading the recent Climate Justice and Action Rally above) is a 4th year undergraduate Marshall student majoring in Sociology with a Climate Change Studies minor. She is a member of the Green New Deal at UCSD Steering Committee, J.E.D.I (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) Committee and Coalition-Building team lead.
Varykina (Kina) Thackray is a Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences in the UC San Diego School of Medicine. She is a member of the Green New Deal at UCSD Steering Committee and the Energy Systems/Decarbonization Team.
After a year of not being able to congregate in this way due to the pandemic, how did attending this most recent Climate Justice and Action Rally on September 24th make you feel? What was it like being there? What were the emotions that you felt coming from people attending?
Blanca: We had a pretty small, dedicated organizing committee for this rally because everything that we organized took place virtually over the summer. Leading up to the march, it was kind of hectic in the sense that we had to do all of this imaginary, hypothetical planning at a location that most of us haven't even been to for over a year due to COVID-19. The day of, though, all those anxieties went away and the energy within our GND members and overall crowd was so high! During the planning process, I expressed to the committee planners that this rally is needed now more than ever to bring people in, to check people into the reality of what's really going on at UCSD. A lot of my environmental system classes kind of praise the work that UCSD is doing, however, we think that they can do more. I think the rally really opened the eyes of a lot of students in the sense that it changed the way they perceived UCSD as a “climate research leading institution” to ironically being an institution that knowingly enables sooo much GHG pollution. Even if it was just for that one hour, the rally kind of tapped into their deeper consciousness and brought awareness to what exactly is happening here. Overall, the rally was really energizing and great people were involved. So I think it was a great success.
Kina: Yeah, I would chime in that I think we were not sure how it was going to go, given that it was one of the first rallies on campus this fall quarter. I know the grad students have had rallies on campus concerning the issues with graduate housing, but this was our first big one. So we were really pleased that people turned out and again, that it was safe. Everybody was compliant with masking. I felt people were respectful of each other and what's going on. So that's always a great feeling.
I thought it was an incredibly energizing rally. I was holding one of the banners at the beginning of the march and I thought it was really positive and motivating to hear all the chanting from the people in the march. And all the people out on Library Walk and at their various tables, they were all chanting too. So they're really responding, which I thought was a great feeling for the people in the march. And then there was actually, in a way, participation from people [who hadn’t signed up for the march] as we went along, which was fantastic.
Blanca: I also wanted to add, which I think is very important to cover, that we were in communication with UCSD’s administration in regards to the planning process of the rally as we understood this was taking place on the 2nd day of the quarter. We were planning on ending the march at the Triton Steps where we were going to have guest speakers present. A day or two before the protest, the UCSD administration emailed us and said, “By the way, you can't have it here, because this event is going on.” And it really caught all of us off guard because we already had our march planned out and couldn’t reroute our rally since the information was already distributed to those hoping to attend So the day of, we went to go see what was being occupied, as claimed by the UCSD administration, and it was nothing. There was nothing there on the Triton Steps that would require us to reroute our entire rally. I think that they were trying to sway our rally in a different direction as the Price Center is a hub for students. They were trying to silence us which was an even bigger motivation for us to be loud and chant and scream and call the chancellor's name out. The day of the rally I thought to myself “You tried silencing us yet, yet we're still here, and we brought a big crowd with us!” So that was really nice for me to see that we still carried on regardless.
Yeah, that's great. I've always wondered why at public universities, the planning process for protests is so complicated because to me —
Kina: We view it as a first amendment right. So to be honest, it's a courtesy that we're providing information. We're not asking permission. But I think especially because of COVID, they really wanted to know a lot of details, which I respect, but what I was more pleased about was that there was no overt uniformed officer presence, as far as I could tell. So I think as a side note, in terms of the response to situations — they used to have uniformed folks from the police department — the university has changed their policies basically. And I think that was great. I do not think that you need to see uniformed police officers at any of these rallies. I was pleased by that, to see that change.
The GND at UCSD and many other organizations take a multi-prong approach to climate change activism, creating petitions, educating the public, and attending public meetings to put pressure on university leaders. What is unique about physical protest? Why is it essential for activists, particularly in the climate movement?
Kina: I don't know if it's unique for the climate movement, but I think physical rallies and protests are critical for a couple of reasons. One is to just show folks that there are people that care about this issue, right? So it's one thing to receive a petition and you've got a thousand names, but that is not very tangible. There is nothing more tangible than seeing folks out in public, in the street.
And in our organization — even though this is a student organization — we want to have folks from the entire UCSD community involved. So we have staff and faculty like myself, and we want them all to come out to say that we all are caring about this issue because it's such a big, important issue. So I think that's the main thing, the tangibility of the crowd, the tangibility of people who are taking the time out of their day to protest.
The second thing I think is that protest may start small, but it can grow. So again, I think there's that idea of recruiting folks who, the idea of protesting, that may not have occurred to them. They may not have really heard much about the issue. And when Blanca was one of the speakers at the Triton Steps, there were a lot of people coming back from lunch or going to lunch into Price Center. And, in a way, those folks were probably more important to expose to the speakers and the rally, because they're the ones that weren't necessarily already engaged. And so that was really important in my mind as well.
Blanca, do you have anything to add to that?
Blanca: Yeah. It's funny that you asked this question because just yesterday in a class for my climate change studies minor, we were discussing the true power of collective action. A question that was brought to the classroom for us to discuss in our groups was: do you think climate change is solvable? Half of my classroom said no and the other half said yes. The reason why people said no in my classroom was because they think that there's a lack of action let alone collective agreement that climate change is real.
In this particular case, which I believe applies to the overall climate skepticism in this country, the people that don't believe in climate change or think there isn’t a solution to this crisis are internalizing those negative ideas that are prevalent within this society. So when we have these rallies that are big, bold, loud, happy, it clearly demonstrates that there are people out there that do care and are passionate about combating the climate crisis. Maybe the mass majority aren't going to get involved instantly and that’s valid because every individual has their own unique capacities, battles, and time restraints. But there’s so much beauty to having a strong, passionate community that is making solid progress to combat the climate crisis. I think it's important to have these rallies for the climate movement in particular because it does show collective action and that can really encourage individuals, or at least it makes them more inclined to want to join. If they see a community that is welcoming such as the Green New Deal, I feel that’s very inviting to them. Climate change is such a complex issue. If new, eager climate activists don't have every little detail figured out then they have a community that they can rely on for those things. I think that's why it's even more important in climate movements.
I thought that was very interesting. How our professor asked: do you think climate change can be solved? And people said no, because a lot of people don't believe in it. It’s so easy to focus on the climate doom, but it just shows how climate optimism is even that much more important for me to hold on to, to keep reminding folks “I know it seems very daunting, but we can do it.” If we don't believe we can, then we're not going to, but if we believe we can, then we will.
Kina: And I would add that I think people don't necessarily realize what the consequences are from a rally or a march. It can kind of snowball and grow. I was just watching a show about the 1930s. And they were referring to the Jarrow marches, which were led by unemployed people from the town of Jarrow in the UK. They marched from their town to London to present to their parliament a request for building other industries so they wouldn't be unemployed. And at the time, it was this big thing. It was in all the papers. People were on board with them, but the government basically didn't do anything at the time. And they kind of thought that the march had failed. But the interesting thing is, in looking through the lens of history, people feel that was a turning point for the labor movement in Britain. That was one of the things that precipitated this public consciousness to change. “This is not okay and we need to take care of our unemployed. We need to be compassionate. We need to have labor rights and laws.” In retrospect, this march was really pivotal, but the people that were participating at the time did not know that. I think it's this idea of taking that step. And for a lot of folks, attending a rally or a protest is an easier way to engage and represent, and as Blanca was saying, be optimistic about change. Potentially, that can have some major ramifications.
Blanca: One last detail I want to add, as a Marshall student specifically, is that Marshall College came to be because of protests and rallies from BIPOC students. Because of these marches that the students were organizing, it’s why Marshall College even exists as an institution of social justice today. I transferred into UCSD heavily inspired by UCSD’s alumni Angela Davis, she was one of the revolutionists of that era and continues to inspire me everyday. So I think to myself, well, if students did it back then we can do it again now! And though these student rallies are being held for two different goals, environmental justice can only be possible if we center racial and social justice so I think it's important to keep that in mind. So that's why I hold on to climate optimism as my resort because there's no point in dwelling on the million things going wrong when you can focus on some things that are attainable, focus on the baby steps needed to help move these goals forward.
There has been a lot of talk about protest over the past couple of years, particularly in the United States. Various protests from different groups in this country have been described by different people in this country as “riots” or “demonstrations,” and the people involved get an equally diverse set of names. How do you describe yourself as a protestor and what do you believe is an appropriate term to describe the September 24th march?
Kina: I guess for myself, I would be comfortable being labeled — if you're going to apply a label — as an activist. And the reason I would say that is because the word has “act” in it. In my mind, I came late to activism. I would say that I was involved in some mainstream environmental groups for a long time; I donated money and participated in some activities as a scientist, because I'm trained as a biologist. But I didn't really understand the interaction — and Blanca is a sociologist so she probably knows more — but the interaction between people and our planet basically, and how we're not going to get any action unless people engage and act.
And so in my mind, that's one of the important points for going to a rally; it’s representing and saying: “I'm acting. And I want somebody else, whether or not it's somebody in power, to also act.” I loved Greta Thunberg’s “blah-blah-blah” meme where she's telling people to stop talking and do something. So I would say, in the climate action movement, and in terms of issues of environmental justice, in terms of issues of decarbonization, enough talk! We don't need new tools. We have the tools that we need to actually “solve the climate crisis.” We just need to do it. And there's a lot of interests that don't want us to do it, but that's kind of besides the point. We need to act. So for me, I think that’s the most compelling kind of word — activist — even though it's relatively standard. And again, with the march, I think I would go with that theme. We want people to come back to campus. We want them to feel comfortable gathering in large groups again and expressing their voice and asking for action from our administration.
Blanca: I'm looking at my speech here that I gave at the climate rally, and I kind of directly introduced myself as an unapologetic climate optimist. Through this label I am emphasizing how important it is to be hopeful of the future and hopeful of our communities and human relatives that are tapping into a deeper consciousness in this battle of protecting our planet. So I would describe myself as a climate optimist — activist is also a word that I've described myself for many years — but being in the environmental movement I understand how draining and discouraging it is to constantly be in these battles and first handedly witness the lack of action within administrations and national/global governments It's very depressing. So I adopted the label climate optimist because I like the idea of championing for a better, hopeful future, and reminding my community members that there is something bigger out there. That we are, together, an emblem of change. That's what I said at the rally. I said, “Look around. We are an emblem of change.”
So that's something that I would describe the rally as, an emblem of change within our UCSD community. There were 55 entirely new members that showed up to Green New Deal’s first general meeting of the year. That's 55 new, curious individuals that want to learn as to how they can get involved within this environmental movement. That right there is already an emblem of change.
Does the university, in some capacity, usually respond to individual protests? Is there usually some sort of formal response, even if it fails to address your concerns, or do university officials play deaf?
Kina: I think a rally isn't usually responded to directly, unless it's coupled with, for example, a petition or a list of demands that is very targeted. We did, for example, send a letter to Chancellor Khosla with our demands, articulating the urgency of the situation. He’s well-aware, but we were putting it on record that, again, it's now the fall of 2021, so talking about being optimistic, we're thinking he has the wherewithal to act on some of these demands. So I think a lot of the time they play deaf, but I think for students, they should recognize that they do hear. They may be playing deaf, but they actually hear all of this. They're very aware of what students are saying.
I think that they are very concerned about the reputation of UC San Diego. They want to foster an idea that this is a fantastic campus — that it's a great place for learning, that it's a great place to grow as a student. So if the narrative gets disrupted or informed by protest, I think they do listen. The question is: what are they going to do about it?
For example, one of our demands is about campus decarbonization. And I think the article that was in The Triton summed that up pretty well. The chancellor has made $250,000 available. And they spent that this summer, through an engineering firm, figuring out what would be a plan for decarbonization. So that report will be made available this fall, and we're going to meet with the chancellor again, which I applaud him for. The question is though, again, we have the tools to decarbonize our campus: are we willing to spend the money to do it now, as opposed to 10 years from now? In my mind, for our planet, if it's 10 years from now it is kind of too late. So that's really what we will be engaging with. It's not a question of, are they going to do it? It's a question of — all of the UC campuses that have cogeneration plants, for example, or central power plants — when are they going to switch to a fossil fuel free energy source for the powering of their campuses?
I think this one is very difficult to answer: If you continue doing protests such as these and UCSD and the UC system do nothing to dramatically pick up their pace on abandoning fossil fuels, what’s the next step for these protests or activism in general? How do you plan on expanding or evolving this sort of activism as we move into the future now that we’re moving back into a sort of post-pandemic world where greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise?
Kina: Specifically for our campus, now that we're back in person, we're going to start organizing some more targeted protests. In a way, this September march and rally was presenting general demands, but I think there is an avenue for targeted protest for very specific issues. For example, we're going to have a protest later on in October where we're going to be focusing on Chase Bank, because it is a huge funder of fossil fuel extraction, and we don't believe that it should be the bank that is offered to students in Price Center, without any question of their culpability in the climate crisis. There's more education that can be done. And there's more pressure that can be put on for very specific actions or demands.
Blanca: The next steps for me would be to continue to attack the ego that this university has. UCSD wants to uphold this image of being an environmental-centered campus, they want to keep this brand as a leading institution on climate research. They are in many ways due to the inspiring work of past and current students and faculty but I think if we amp up the energy and expose how the UC system itself knowingly contradicts data and research and hit it where it hurts, (which is UCSD’s image), I think that we will really be able to continue moving forward with our demands.
Exposing UCSD can include a variety of methods — getting more media press releases with newspapers like yourself or external news sources that can spread this information to the wider San Diego region that target audiences beyond our UCSD community. I think that would be a really great way for us to move forward if they still don't want to commit to decarbonizing our campus. We need to very much expose exactly what's going on. We're going to scream, we're going to be loud. We're not going to be intimidated by their silence. We're actually going to take that and amp this movement up even more. Through a student perspective, one of my main goals within the organization is to get more students involved, to get more students educated, to build a community that truly understands what's going on here because
UCSD is doing such a great job at hiding everything and greenwashing our community members. So I think hitting it where it hurts — their ego — would be a great way to go at it.
Kina: Right. I totally agree with that, Blanca. And I would say that again, when it comes to UCSD, the university came through the pandemic in pretty good shape compared to some of the other UC campuses, and there was a record amount of money that was given to the University of California from the governor's budget, and presumably will continue. So again, the UC has money. It's what it chooses to spend its money on. So all these new buildings on campus, those are over a $5 billion project, and they're talking about a $2.5 billion Hillcrest project. They have oodles and oodles of money. Some of these asks are more expensive than others, but some they're going to have to do at some point in time anyway, so why not do them now when it actually can make a difference?
So in a way I loved how Blanca in her speech addressed our chancellor and our university leadership about being brave. They have the wherewithal to tackle some of these issues right now, and we're asking them to essentially prioritize this. There's a lot of stuff that's going on on campus, but we don't just have to build infrastructure for the new UC San Diego. You can also change it radically, transform it to be a campus that 1. cares about its community, its students, staff, and faculty and 2. operates in a way that is compatible with a Green New Deal that is sustainable, that is respectful, that is nurturing. I think those are all reasonable things to ask and insist upon. And like what Blanca was saying, we're not going away. So I think they've got to get used to the noise, and we really can get a lot louder. I mean, they've had a break basically for a year and a half.
Blanca: They were able to just kind of brush us off over zoom, but now that we're in person again, we're going to make it real. Things are going to get real and we're going to remind them that we're here and we're not leaving. In my speech I say, “So Chancellor Khosla, let me remind you. We will not give up in this fight. True power has always rested in the optimistic minds of the fearless activists. It's happened continuously throughout history and it will happen once more.” So yeah, the Green New Deal is not going anywhere.
Was there anything missing from this march that you’d like to see more of? Were there any disappointments in terms of logistics, media representation, turnout, etc.?
Kina: It would have been nice to have more media representation. We did contact a lot of the local media; Fox News was the one that showed up, so kudos to them and they had good coverage. I think that one concern is that the climate crisis is all around us now. And I do have some concern that, similar to zoom fatigue, people will get fatigued and they will habituate to a new normal that they're just going to kind of accept. When you hear about an entire summer of floods, hurricanes, and forest fires, people tend to numb. I think the media responds to that: “Oh, people aren't really that interested.”
I think they are interested. They're just, again, like what Blanca was saying, a lot of them feel paralyzed and a lot of them don't know what to do. So I think the media does play a strong role in providing coverage of protests and actions because that can provide people hope. The media plays a strong role in getting the ideas out there.
Blanca: For myself, I wouldn't say there was anything I was disappointed in. But an area of improvement that I think would be awesome for future protests for the Green New Deal would be building stronger student solidarity through having our student organizational allies show up to these protests and have space within these demonstrations because the green movement is intersectional. Given the time that this protest was organized, which was over the summer, it was kind of hard to get this communication going since I didn't really want to bug student organizations on summer break. Moving forward, I would love to have more student representation of other clubs and organizations and sharing their side of the story too, because I think it's important to make space for everyone in this movement. If there's one way that I could improve future demonstrations, I would definitely be increasing collaborations between student groups and the Green New Deal at UCSD.
Do you have any new hopes for the future from organizing and participating in this march?
Kina: As a faculty member, I was thrilled at the passion and the togetherness of the students that participated in this rally. The planning period began roughly about a month ahead of time. And people took time in their summer schedules to engage with this, which was terrific. I think we want to put student voices to the front. We want them centered, in our asks and in our engagement with our community. And I thought they did a great job. I mean, people were passionate, really up on the facts, and gave some really good public speeches. As a part of growing as a student, this is a great opportunity, right? I mean, how many people get to put on their resume that they participated as a lead speaker in a rally? So I think it's awesome to see that kind of growth and the potential of our students.
Blanca: I would say I very much walked away feeling very inspired and motivated, feeling really happy to see my Green New Deal family after a whole year of knowing each other over zoom but not meeting in person. It was so refreshing for me to be surrounded by that sort of energy, especially when it comes to the climate crisis. If someone just says one sentence about this topic, I can go on all day. So having this space for members to just let out everything they've been bottling up is great. When we were meeting up with the chancellor on zoom, most of the time after the meetings a lot of us were just so frustrated at the responses that the chancellor was giving us. Having this event was a pivotal moment for us to just release those emotions of the past year and move forward to this new way of organizing, which to me is really exciting. I'm so happy to be here on campus once again, having this space with my community members to talk about these really harsh topics. So I would say I walked away feeling very hopeful and inspired. As I mentioned, we had 55 new members show up to our general meeting, and I'm meeting up with 6 members next week to help them find their place within the Green New Deal movement. The fact that people are being so receptive and so excited to join us — I think that is a huge success for me. It was amazing.
Kina: I would echo Blanca. In a way, it was cathartic, right? There was a lot of pent up emotion from the last year and a half, and you got to get some of that out and then walk away feeling very energized, but also supported by all these people that did take the time out of their day to turn out on the second day of classes, which was fantastic.
For somebody reading who wants to organize a climate action march, do you have any tips on how they should start, pitfalls to avoid, and strategies to succeed?
Blanca: Be careful to not spread yourself too thin, burnout is a common issue with activism. Take care of your mind and your soul. I know a lot of us are so eager to organize and get these things going now that we’re in-person again, but these rallies and protests take a lot of planning. It seems like it wouldn't, but it does. There's a lot of little details you have to think about throughout this process. So if you really want to do something like this, get a strong group of people that share those same passions as you that you can rely on and trust with these responsibilities. Because if you want to do this all by yourself, you can't. It's really, really hard. For example: you need a MC to bring the crowd along, guest speakers to really bring that motivation to the crowd, graphic designers to create flyers, supporters that will help distribute your rally’s information, etc. So overall, I would just say, go for it. Chase your passions, be loud and unapologetic, but also take care of your own mind and soul and make sure you have a strong community that will help you throughout this planning process..
Kina: Yeah, I think that's really good advice. I would also say, decide who your target is — who are you asking the demands of? Who are you addressing, and what do you want them to actually do? I think being concrete can be helpful, and you can then scale the protest or rally appropriately. Is this a small targeted protest against a very specific thing? Or is this more general for education? So identify goals, do some power mapping to figure out who you are going to target, and then, as Blanca said, there's a lot of logistics, so give yourself some time to plan it.
Kina: Our movement was started because we had a rally two years ago. You don't know what it's going to precipitate, but essentially by having this world climate strike movement, a group on our campus got energized to do a rally and march, and then decided that they wanted to become an organization that fights for these principles and demands on a more permanent basis. That was a catalyst for our organization, which in retrospect was great and fantastic, but it wasn't planned. And then also, you don’t know what's going to happen. That's sort of been our message. You don't know what impact you will have. I think because our organization is very broad across our UCSD community, we've been able to have an impact, for example, on the faculty senate, as well as engaging with some of the people at the UC Office of the President, to change the conversation away from the sort of greenwashing that is going on in terms of the Carbon Neutrality Initiative, and to really start to change it and say, when are we going to do decarbonization?” When are we going to start moving forward with this? And I think in the space of a year or so, that conversation has shifted, whereas before it was all CNI language, now there are components that are within the administration that are saying, “No, we agree with you. We just don't have the funds. We need funds. We need to change our funding priorities to change this.”
As a closing remark, I would encourage folks to actually go out and join or participate in a rally or protest. I would not say I'm an extroverted person; I'm not the type of person whose first thing on their list is to go and shout and scream in the context of my community, but I think people would be surprised again at how energizing and motivating that actually is. And in a way, it helps you figure out a community for you, which I think is especially important now, since with COVID we've recognized how important our communities are, how important person-to-person interactions are. And you can really start to engage and then interact with the folks who are planning the rally, and become involved with an organization or community because of that. So just take a chance. Especially for our students — who are sometimes, like me, a little bit careful and overly planned — a rally is an opportunity to take a chance. To go seek, to go hang out, to go experience, and to see where that leads.
Photos by Erik Jepsen