October 31, 2014

“Out of the classroom”: an intern observes environmental activism up close

Author Frances Swanson (second from right) with (left to right) Chapter conservation organizer Jess Dervin-Ackerman and fellow summer interns Vanessa Gerber, Isabella Bustamante, and Thomas Munzar.

Author Frances Swanson (second from right) with (left to right) Chapter conservation organizer Jess Dervin-Ackerman and fellow summer interns Vanessa Gerber, Isabella Bustamante, and Thomas Munzar.

As the Rolling Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.” I walked away from the Senate Energy Committee Meeting on June 23 with mixed emotions. A patchwork of frustration, hope, and excitement mingled together while feelings of empowerment and disempowerment played leap-frog. At the end of the day, we—those fighting Assembly Bill 2145, the Utility Monopoly Protection Bill—got what we needed, but not what we wanted. Community Choice Aggregation in California was no longer saddled with an opt-in provision, but the bill still passed.

When I drove up to Sacramento that Monday morning, I did not know what to expect. Before that day I had attended meetings of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and the Oakland City Council, but this was the first time I would experience decision-making at the state level. In fact, just about everything I did that day I did for the first time: going to a press conference on the steps of the California State Capitol, running around to senators’ offices in an attempt at last-minute lobbying, waiting for over an hour in a crowded hallway for the hearing to commence, and speaking in front of the committee during the public comments period.

I spent the majority of my day watching and listening. I decided to intern at the Sierra Club this summer because I wanted to experience what environmental activism looked and felt like, and this was a perfect opportunity for me to observe. I observed as the Bay Chapter’s conservation organizer, Jess Dervin-Ackerman, debated with a man there to share his support of the bill. I noticed how both of them were simultaneously joking around while being deadly serious about the matter. I saw how the people around them turned an eye and an ear to their conversation in the hope of seeing some action. I saw how both were truly listening to what the other had to say, while maintaining their own firm stance.

I observed the audience of the Senate Energy Committee meeting react throughout the hearing. I saw the woman sitting next to me raise her hands and wiggle her fingers in support of someone’s statement. I saw activists making pointed eye-contact and whispering to one another. I observed the blank faces of the senators sitting on the committee. I saw the fear on the No on 2145 organizers’ faces when thirty people stated their support of the bill. I saw the energy in those same faces when seventy people stated their opposition to the bill. I experienced the butterflies right before I got up to the microphone and the smile on my face as I walked away.

I observed all of the anger, patience, annoyance, fear, optimism, and passion of the day. While I have many, many more things to observe, people to meet, and thoughts to consider, my trip to Sacramento and the four weeks of planning and organizing leading up to it gave me a bitter-sweet taste of environmental activism out of the classroom and in “the real world.”

—Frances Swanson, SF Bay Chapter intern

Read more about AB 2145 in “AB 2145, renewable energy wrecking ball: down but not out” and “Alameda County Board of Supervisors votes to move forward on Community Choice.”

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