“There is no bigger milestone in the history of sustainability at Clemson than what you all accomplished last night.”
Wow, it’s been a long and hard fought campaign to establish a green fund at Clemson University. After more than two years of work, countless conversations with students and faculty, and discussions with sustainability directors from across the country, we have finally secured clemson student government support for an $8 optional fee on tuition.
Just A Little Background
The campaign for a green fund at Clemson started more than two years ago. A student in Students for Environmental Action (SEA) named Gabe began to do some preliminary research and reached out to faculty and student organizations for support. From his work, a document was produced highlighting green funds and why Clemson should create one. Gabe took this and began to develop a campaign – a campaign called the Student Sustainability Initiative (SSI).
In Fall of 2011, I joined SEA and went with them on a trip to Asheville, N.C. for SSREC (Southeast Student Renewable Energy Conference). The conference inspired me to get involved with environmental activism on campus, so Gabe plugged me into the SSI campaign. For the remainder of my freshman year, I served as head of student support for the campaign. I wasn’t good at this, but Gabe knew that giving me a leadership role so soon was an investment. My team reached out to other organizations, began an online petition, created a art contest for our logo, and published an article in the Tiger. Another team worked on creating a bill to present to Student Government and generating cool ideas that this fund could finance. We made some decent progress but finished the year without bringing this through Student Government.
Over the summer, I landed an internship with Greenpeace USA in Washington, D.C. The program focused on grassroots organizing especially on college campuses. This was exactly what I needed. I not only gained confidence (petitioning on the streets of DC is tough), but acquired the skills that I needed to bring the SSI to the finish line. I was able to train with some of the best organizers and bring knowledge and skills back to Clemson.
Let’s Do This
Coming back to school, I knew that completing the SSI was going to be one of my top priorities. My first step was convincing the rest of the team that we should refocus on the SSI (we had lost a lot of steam from last year). This proved difficult, but soon enough, everyone was on board and we built the campaign back from the ground up. As new members came into the club, we quickly plugged them into the campaign. During the early part of the semester, we set our eyes on a petition goal of 10% of the student body. Because of Greenpeace, I was able to train our group on how to petition and some tips that I had learned. Seeing them nervously stumble over their first petition attempt then just an hour later confidently pitch the SSI was so inspiring. At the same time, Gabe and I began to polish up the bill and do some research for our presentation.
In order to get the SSI passed through Student Government, there were three major steps. First, we had to give a presentation to the senate about our initiative and provide some context behind a green fund. We walked through examples from other universities and showed how the SSI fit into our overall goals and direction as a university. The next week was the bill presentation. During the time between these two checkpoints, we were able to make last minute revisions to the bill and meet with senators. We also reached out to some faculty members for help. Student government seemed to be in support of us, but had trouble with two words from our bill; “opt-out”. We knew this was going to be a point of contention, but at this time, began to see that it was a bigger deal than we had previously thought. Coming into the bill presentation, we had talked through our defense a little bit, but were not able to hold up to the attacks from senators. Their problem with the SSI could be summed up in one phrase: “you are sneaking this past the student body.” And they didn’t like that.
We came out of our bill presentation on our heels and ready to give in to our opposition and change the bill. But, we had some time, so we reached out to everyone we could. Along with more faculty discussions, I called my contact at Greenpeace. He was in full support of whatever direction we took the SSI, but was firmly opposed to an opt-in fee. With some research, I learned that only one school out of over 100 has an opt-in fee and it hasn’t proven to be successful in raising funds. Although I was worried about the strength of the opposition to an opt-out fee still, I knew we had to keep this opt-out at almost all costs. I also reached out to some of the national leaders in the push for green funds on college campuses. During the week, I had conversations with sustainability directors from literally across the country. All of them were in favor of keeping it opt-out and helped us strengthen our argument with statistics from other schools. So, with days left before the final debate, we created a document fleshing out our argument for opt-out and shared it with the senators that had expressed support for our initiative. Our argument was strong, but would it be enough?
The Final Vote
It all came down to one night. We put everything into this night and we brought the students with us. In an almost unprecedented move, we filled the senate chambers with students from across campus. You could feel the weight of this vote. We started off with an opening statement and reiterated the importance of establishing a green fund at Clemson. Then, the debate began. Gabe and I could only be called on for specific questions, so we anxiously watched as the senators fought for and against the SSI.
Quickly, the debate turned to opt-out versus opt-in. At this point, our main opposition pounced and introduced a hostile amendment to change our bill to opt-in. Here we go. We had expected this, but there was little we could do to prevent our bill from being radically altered against our choosing. The room got very tense. The opposition took the floor and the debate switched to the amendment.
Thankfully, the arguments they made for opt-in were very weak and the amendment failed. Then another twist occurred. A senator introduced an amendment to change it from “opt-out fee” to “optional fee.” Hmm… was this what we wanted? I frantically talked to our bill authors and to Gabe and we decided that yes, we wanted this. Student government does not administer fees, so this just pushed the opt-in/opt-out debate up to administration. We were still good. Finally, the debate settled and the room hushed as the vote became imminent. After two hours, the final vote was finally here.
The student government voted almost unanimously for the SSI. YES!
The SSI was the culmination of years of hard work and to see it pass in Student Government was a massive milestone. Our team was overjoyed and we began the celebrations. I can’t believe we did it. Now, we bring our bill to the administration and sell to them why it should be administered as an opt-out fee. Once this process is completed, the SSI will added to tuition and the fund will start to fill up. Until then, we begin work on establishing the committee to handle the funds, bylaws of the committee, and drumming up student support and ideas for the SSI. We are so excited for the future of the SSI and so thankful for all that have helped. SSI!