By Isabelle and Yasmine. Sep 6, 2018. Within a weekend during summer break, incoming UCI freshman and transfer students from diverse backgrounds came together to share their experience as well as better understand the interrelation between community resilience and sustainability. A cohort of 25 participants, five student mentors, and four UCI staff helped shaped the Student Institute for Sustainability Leadership (SISL) into a weekend of learning, growth, connection, and collaboration. As participants last year and now as mentors, working behind the scenes allowed us both to better understand the intention set behind every activity and discussion as well as see the amount of effort, time, and detail spent.
Day 1: Community Building, Leadership, Equity & Ecology
I remember the nerves I felt at 6:30AM when I made my drive over to Irvine, wondering how this weekend would turn out to be. As much as the backbone of the program had already been set, the participants were the driving factor as to how successful it would be as this program was for them. One of the first activities we were asked to complete was to make “leadership nametags” that we were allowed to freely create but had to include our preferred gender pronouns, name, and a symbol of one of our leadership strengths. I really appreciated this activity as it allowed participants the freedom to be creative and make a nametag of their own liking and to showcase a “symbol” that allowed them to introduce themselves in a deeper way.
During the first day, Joyce Stanfield Perry, the Tribal Manager and Cultural Resource Director of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation, gave a presentation on her and her tribe’s experiences and hardships faced due to colonization. What really inspired me was her vulnerability and willingness to answer our questions as well as how genuine her answers were. I was amazed to see how she transformed the anger she felt for her community into motivation to make changes in present-day society. Her presentation reminded me to constantly remind myself that we are on Native land and to treat the land with respect.
Another moment that touched me was how already on the first day, we fostered meaningful conversations about reproductive justice, anti-black racism, immigrant rights, and LGBTQ+ rights – topics that are incredibly present in today’s society. We were split into four groups and discussed together the impacts, causes, social movements, and connections to the climate/environment. I was inspired to see how the participants were willing to talk about their perspective and how much knowledge was being shared around. With each activity came with some purpose behind it. One of the most impactful activities was the “Council of All Beings” where each individual was to take on and represent some living thing that was non-human whether it be a plant or an animal. We all made signs to represent the living being we were representing, and we were given time to discuss the adverse impacts humans have had on the living being, as well as what the humans can learn from the nonhuman being. Though I was a mentor, I felt that at SISL 2018 I was constantly learning from each participant.
Day 2: Food Systems, Economy, & Community Resilience
As the first day came to a close, I was excited for what was to come after seeing the energy, knowledge, and passion each SISLer had brought. As the second day began, one of our first topics was the food systems – knowing the process of how we get the food that ends up on our tables. By creating posters in which we illustrated a component of an industrial food system or a sustainable food system, we as a whole group were better able to understand the two concepts as a whole. This then led to a discussion towards what is considered an “extractive” vs. “regenerative” economy where in an extractive economy, the main purpose was the “enclosure of wealth & power” compared to a regenerative economy where it was about “ecological & social well-being.”
Every so often we would take the time to pause and reflect. Students shared their new thoughts and ideas with everyone, so that they could see who else had similar ideas for the future of the community and reconnect during free time. These moments of time off from learning and sharing were crucial for SISLers to let their thoughts and seeds of knowledge and awareness come to fruition.
For dinner, staff invited about ten different campus organizations related to sustainability. After dinner they each shared with us what their missions are and how the students could join in the fall if they are intrigued. The campus organizations were all very passionate with their work, and represented ASUCI, campus gardens, CalPIRG, Climatepedia, Theta Psi, the Fresh Needs Hub and more. Their work inspired many SISLers and many are excited to join as soon as the school year kicks off in the fall.
After the campus organizations shared, I myself spoke to students about the EarthReps internship opportunity with the Global Sustainability Resource Center. I told them about how they could use this position to educate others in the housing communities on how to be more sustainable and environmentally aware or even teach people how to properly sort their trash at campus events. Afterwards, a fellow mentor presented on the wonderful UCI Costa Rica Program, telling students about how they can immerse themselves in the amazingly, beautiful nature all while conducting sustainability related research and connecting their findings back to their major. Having gone on the inspiring and insightful program as well, I was so happy to see that many SISLers were eager to apply. Not only were they ecstatic for the research opportunity and sustainable cultural immersion, but many were also super excited to apply to become an EarthReps intern.
Saturday evening was spent racing around campus in a competitive scavenger hunt in search for sustainable and eco-friendly adjustments on campus, such as the solar panels or water refill stations. Students took pictures standing beside their findings and even got creative with them — my group even made a human pyramid in the student center beneath the large anteater sign. It was very exciting for myself to see the students fall in love with the campus, like I have over and over again. By the end of the search only one group took home the prize of reusable water bottles, but everyone took home new memories filled with joy and laughter.
Day 3: Sustainability, Visioning, & Going Forth
Sunday morning we spent visiting some of the gardens in the Palo Verde housing community, which instantly revealed the students passion for caring for the environment and their deeply rooted connection with nature as their eyes lit up while walking amongst all the growth. The plots are all filled with an abundance of plant life. Amongst all the growth seen in the gardens, students saw massive sized kale, gigantic squash, and gorgeous, golden-yellow sunflowers. The beauty of all these different vegetables and assorted flowers growing side by side, beneath the beaming sunlight and something about the essence and freedom of the outdoors, created a refreshing experience for the incoming students. Seeing fellow students take care of the gardens even inspired some SISLers to want to start their own garden.
Following the visit from the gardens, SISLers came together to create “action plans” through a variety of activities such as the eco-footprint assessment. This let SISLers understand how many earths are needed to sustain their current lifestyle if every human followed the same routine. With activities such as this, by the end of the weekend, SISLers felt so fired up and ready to make a positive change. In order to put their thoughts into action, the leaders guided them into making their own plans and provided them with the resources for all their aspirations.
The rest of the day was filled with sharing newly sparked ideas for the school year and students sharing personal sustainability goals with a partner. They spent a solid hour jotting down their ideas and sharing on how they plan on reaching their visions. Many innovative, environmental and community friendly ideas flourished this weekend. Here are some words participants shared about their experience at SISL:
“I learned not only about the environment, but about people, about all of you, about my school, my home, and this community that I already am part of”
“I really came here wanting to learn about the environment and I’m now left with so much information and knowledge and I feel empowered to go teach what I have learned.”
I think it is safe to say that students left motivated for healthy change, ready to start something new and bring their excited minds filled with newly sparked leadership to campus. Being able to mentor such inspirational, excited students left us with a reignited passion for sustainability. Even though we came in as mentors, I felt that we learned so much from these students and the activities in which we participated alongside with the participants. Though it was only one weekend, it was truly an experience that touched us both as it was one where we were able to grow, create new friendships, and learn that we all have the power to make a change in this world. These SISLers came in passionate and left with an even stronger glow that shined as they all said their goodbyes and parted for the time being… until fall!