1995 S.E.A.C. National Conference: A Catalyst for Solidarity and Action
Environmental justice, combined with an optimistic sense of personal transformation and movement forward, were the dominant themes of the 1995 Student Environmental Action Coalition's National Conference, which was held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from October 13-15. Now, with the recent escalation of conservative corporate attacks on the environment, access to education, and the quality of workers' lives, this conference, through the strength of its workshops and the spirit of young environmentalists who converged upon Chapel Hill from around the world, offered hope that organizers in the 1990s can unite to build lasting solutions to the problems that threaten the safety of both people and the ecosystem.
Perhaps the most positive undercurrent permeating this conference was a direct commitment to involving women and people of color in the movement for environmental justice; it was evident throughout the weekend that SEAC was actively attempting to break the stereotypical pattern of a primarily white, affluent membership which plagues the majority of mainstream environmental organizations. A variety of speakers at the general plenary sessions, especially Rita Burgos from the Los Angeles Labor-Community Strategy Center and Meena Raman from the Third World Network, emphasized the necessity of involving the working-class residents of minority neighborhoods (who bear an extremely disproportionate amount of the environmental pollution and unsafe working conditions throughout the United States) in grass-roots organizing. Furthermore, the conference was able to avoid being bogged down in divisive "identity politics;" in her extremely powerful keynote speech, singer and former Freedom Summer organizer Jane March set the tone for the rest of the conference through her exhortations for solidarity and sincere cooperation between members of established environmental justice organizations and the "rest of the people" for whom this movement struggles.
The abstract philosophical commitment to integration was balanced by over forty workshops which sought to provide theoretical and practical instruction, and motivation, towards building action campaigns in a wide variety of situations. These workshops ranged from narrowly-focused sessions which discussed fund-raising tactics and the creation of local alternative media (facilitated by former Freedom Coalition co-chair Jeremy Smith) to more generalized political education discussions concerning the growth of the Green movement in America. One of the highlights of the workshop offerings was a direct-action session conducted by organizers from Earth First! and Friends of the Wolf, which provided a number of humorous and irreverent yet straightforward insights on strategizing for campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience. This session was characterized by a consensus among its attendees that SEAC, and the environmental movement as a whole, needs to re-orient itself away from a reliance upon electoral politics and back towards direct action. The enthusiasm generated in this and similar workshops directly led to the ad hoc formation of an "Action Faction" within SEAC, which aims to coordinate the local campaigns that occur throughout the United States and Canada and to foster increased cooperation between activists for direct action.
In short, this conference, in addition to providing the diverse collection of high-school and college activists in attendance with a renewed sense of commitment and motivation towards effectively organizing towards the vision of an "equitable, healthy, and just" planet, was instrumental in illustrating to the environmental justice movement the necessity of cooperation with, and equitable inclusion of, people of color and workers in the fight for a safer human and natural ecosystem.