Walk for climate has deep roots at Middlebury College

MIDDLEBURY — In January 2005, tsunamis had just killed more than 200,000 people along the coasts of the Indian Ocean. George W. Bush took the oath of office for his second term as president of the United States. The Second Battle of Fallujah — the bloodiest engagement of the Iraq War — had just come to end, and Iraqi citizens were preparing for an election.
That same month, a Winter Term class taught by Middlebury College Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Jon Isham gave birth to a new climate movement.
In fact, the course itself was called “Building the New Climate Movement.”
Fourteen years later, Isham fondly recalls the first day of that term.
Just as he and his 19 students were settling in, a young man burst through the door looking for an entirely different class. Isham didn’t know where to send him, so he invited him to stay.
“OK,” the young man said, and took his place as the 20th student in the class.
That student, Jon Warnow, along with a handful of his classmates and a host of others, including author and activist Bill McKibben, would go on to found the climate justice organization 350.org.
A lot has happened since then.
“I think the whole area of climate organizing has a completely new lens,” Isham told the Independent recently. We spoke to him in preparation for a march scheduled for April 5-9 that hopes to raise awareness and prompt action around climate change.
As 350.org Executive Director (and Middlebury alum) May Boeve said last spring, when she visited one of Isham’s classes via Skype, “When we started 350 we were seven white kids out of Middlebury and Bill McKibben.”
Now, Isham said, “if you look at (350’s) staff, it’s folks of color, it’s folks from all around the world, it’s LGBTQ folks. It’s exactly the kind of leadership that will lead us into and through this amazing challenge we have.”
Current Middlebury College students Divya Gudur and Cora Kircher are two such leaders.
“I’m just learning so much from doing this work all the time,” said Kircher, a junior from upstate New York who helped organize the March 15 Climate Strike in College Park. “Getting these tools to translate things or giving people pathways to enter conversations they wouldn’t always be able to access — that’s a skill that all of us have really had to develop.”
While Kircher’s interest in organizing and social change inspired her to pursue a sociology major, Gudur connects to the climate justice movement, at least in part, through the lens of science.
Gudur used to believe she could effect change through research alone.
“But I’ve realized that that’s not enough. Sometimes you have to combine that with trying to convince people and trying to organize people to believe what your research proves. It’s been really important to me to make the connection between what I’m learning in class with issues of justice.”
Kircher agreed.
“It’s a mistake to think that academia exists in a vacuum,” she said.
In a course called “Contested Grounds” Kircher has begun to understand how the environmental movement’s legacy is “inextricably linked to white supremacy and eugenics. That’s something people in the environmental justice movement have to be thinking about all the time. What is our legacy? If your campaign isn’t actively anti-racist, then it’s probably racist.”
To illustrate how the climate movement has evolved to include the concept of justice, Isham cited the course Kircher’s taking.
“It used to be called ‘Visions of Nature’ and then ‘Nature’s Meanings,’” he said. “It’s notable that it’s now called ‘Contested Grounds.’ The evolution of that course captures the way we as professors and teachers are thinking about what ‘environmental studies’ is. Those conversations have become much richer, much more challenging, full of difficulty for people like me (who have privilege). This is a deep way of thinking about the world and it’s incredibly good for a new climate movement.”
Isham also pointed to Middlebury College’s new Energy 2028 plan as a great example of merging traditional classroom-based learning with engaged, outside-of-the-classroom learning.
Energy 2028, unveiled this winter, sets ambitious 10-year goals for the college:
•A complete shift to renewable energy for its power and heating needs.
•Reduction of energy consumption.
•Elimination of direct fossil-fuel investments in the endowment.
•Creation of new opportunities to help empower future generations of environmental leaders.
“That effort was led by Middlebury students, in part based on what they have learned in the classroom but also based on their own hands-on work among themselves,” Isham said. “Their collective good work was guided by the vision of President Patton, who artfully orchestrated conversations among students, staff, faculty and Middlebury’s Board of Trustees in a process designed to Get to Yes.”
Isham emphasized, however, that Middlebury is not dedicated to teaching activists.
“I have faced pushback, some of it reasonable,” he said, referring to his 2005 course. “How do you balance training folks who are going to lead, but also make sure that they’re analytical and humble? That’s a tricky balance.”
Mobilization that involves all action and no reflection is not the kind of mobilization the climate justice movement wants, he said.
Reflection is in some ways at the heart of ‘Next Steps,’ a 53-mile walk from Middlebury to Montpelier organized by 350 Vermont slated for April 5-9.
“We’re walking because we’re in an emergency — a climate emergency, a justice emergency,” wrote the organizers on their website. “We’re walking to center this situation in a new way, both for ourselves and the broader community.”
Each day of the five-day walk — which will pass through Bristol, Hinesburg, Richmond and Middlesex, before ending at the Statehouse — has its own theme:
•Reunion: building community and relationships.
•Resistance: bearing witness to the Addison County Natural Gas Pipeline.
•Reimagine: shifting consciousness.
•Recreate: seeking solutions, alternatives, transitions.
•Reform: speaking truth to power.
The structure perfectly illustrates what Isham would call “praxis,” or “action/reflection,” a concept used by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire.
“Praxis is when people act together upon their environment in order to critically reflect upon their reality and transform it through action,” Isham explained.
This involves thinking about how to liberate people and help the oppressed liberate themselves, he added, but it’s also a reflection on that process.
“That model is something that works for all of us.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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