On Nov. 29, the University’s Climate Action Group, in conjunction with the Wesleyan Democrats, hosted a panel discussion entitled “Environmental Activism at the Local Level.” The panel included Professor of Biology Stephen Devoto, Marcus L. Taft Professor of German Language and Literature Krishna Winston, and Hartford Sustainability Coordinator Shubhada Kambli ’99. The panel discussion targeted climate and sustainability activism, focusing on local regions, particularly via policy actions.

Kambli opened the event with a presentation of the work she has been doing as the Hartford sustainability coordinator. Her recent efforts have centered on engaging community members in city-wide sustainability efforts. She explained that the Climate Action Plan for Hartford centered on six major points: energy, food, landscape, transportation, waste, and water.

“Ensuring that everything we do has a positive benefit to our residents is incredibly important to us,” she emphasized.

Kambli’s office has a multitude of city-wide projects that gather information about the environmental effects of city projects, emphasizing the importance of quantitative and qualitative research. She also noted that student involvement has been central to her efforts, explaining that her office has had many local student interns over the years.

“We have a number of different types of projects that have been identified, and colleges and universities are starting to express interest in them,” she said. “We’re looking at the possibility of doing positive food campaigns at the university level, providing technical assistance to small businesses including retail locations…waste reduction, and toxic-use reduction.”

Devoto spoke after Shubhada, about ways students can make an impact environmentally in municipal and local governments. Devoto is the chair of the Middletown Planning and Zoning Committee, and in this work he has made serious strides to promote local sustainability.

“We are the seven elected officials that have complete power to change the zoning code, to determine how many parking spaces your store can have,” he explained. “How far back the road has to be from your neighbors. How many units of housing can be built, and where.”

Devoto noted that he’s working with the zoning committee towards environmental sustainability within Middletown, getting inspiration from other cities that have policies including allowing people to commission higher buildings if they have green roofs, or specifying the minimum amount of tree coverage. Devoto explained that the support of students, especially at the public meetings, can have an impact to make these changes occur within Middletown.

Devoto also emphasized the importance of working with local governments rather than solely focusing on nation-wide environmentalism, as efforts can often be more effective on a smaller scale. He noted that even a small number of students, if they’re willing to put in the effort, can have a major impact.

Winston, who is a faculty member within the College of the Environment and the German Studies Department, spoke last. Her talk focused on environmental efforts within both a school-wide and city-wide region.

“Sometimes just a few interventions can really sway the direction in which policy-making and decision-making goes,” she explained. “I’ve learned so much from going to city council meetings, from going to commission meetings, going to agency meetings, and I think it’s a tremendously valuable thing to do. The beauty of Middletown is that it has some big-city problems, but they’re on a scale where we can actually make a difference.”

Winston explained that she and her colleagues sent a letter requesting information on the pesticides used to evaluate and potentially prevent the effects.

“Our next project actually involves a look at this institution of higher education…the lawns here appear to be on steroids,” she said. “Often if you’re walking a dog or hiking, or biking, you will see those little signs. But those little signs are required to be posted for only 24 hours, so they get whisked away, but the effects linger in the air, in the soil, in the grass.”

The latter portion of the panel was dedicated to questions from the audience. A student asked which ways panel members suggested were the best for political and environmental engagement, which Devoto answered.

“A lot of lobbying…is doing the work of the government, in terms of writing position papers, doing background research, looking at best practices, sometimes writing the law,” Devoto explained.

Another student posited a question to Kambli, noting the impressive nature of Hartford’s environmental efforts, and asked what ways Middletown can emulate Hartford’s example.

“It seems like Hartford’s one of the most environmentally friendly cities that I’ve heard of,” the student said.

Kambli explained that it took a lot of work, but that engaging community members directly and having a governmental Climate Stewardship Council that focuses on environmentalism within the city, are two important ways of effecting change.

Alexander Olvera ’20, who is an active member of the sustainability community on campus, said he was glad to have attended the event.

“I like what the speaker from Hartford said, and I think Middletown really could work and implement what they’ve done, and change how Middletown works, including green initiatives for the future,” Olvera said.

Luke Green ’20, who is one of the student leaders of the Climate Action Group, noted that this event is part of an ongoing effort to involve University students and the local community in environmental political action.

“We thought about in the beginning of the year the direction that we wanted the club to go in, and we thought that action at the local level was the main thing we wanted to focus on,” he said. “This event is a representation of what our club wants to be. We thought this would be a good way to present what our club is, and ways to go forward.”

Green explained that he felt the event was a successful one.

“I was super super excited; it went a lot better than I thought it was going to,” Green said. “The room was packed—I was expecting like ten people and we got about 30 or 40. And I think the reason that happened was because we collaborated with other student groups, which I think is an important thing. So I think it went super super well.”

If you’re interested in joining the University’s Climate Action Group, feel free to contact Green at lwgreen@wesleyan.edu.


Emmy Hughes can be reached at ebhughes@wesleyan.edu and on Twitter @spacelover20.