It’s a Monday evening, and I’m standing barefoot in Birge Hall in front of 160 people, giving a lecture about access and equity in the American food system. I’m in my final year of my undergraduate degree and this is my fourth semester teaching the DeCal called Solutions for a Sustainable Future. As I wrap up the lecture and open the floor to questions, two of my friends, Tess and Sohum, raise their hands from their seats at the back of the auditorium. The question, “Wasn’t it your birthday yesterday?” starts an earsplitting chorus from the entire room. I leave the room with a reporter from a local newspaper, flushed and smiling from ear to ear, telling her, “So long as I live, I’ll never forget that so many people sang me happy birthday during my final year of college.”
This DeCal I created was something of a personal project that spiraled way out of control: What started as an attempt to teach others about making sustainable changes in their own lives turned into an “Everything You Need to Know About Saving The Planet 101” course. The class focuses on regenerative solutions to resource management, urban development, food systems, economic growth, climate change and so much more, always looking at these topics through an environmental justice lens — who is being harmed, benefited, impacted?
One of the main emphases of the class is connecting students with as many resources for getting involved with these issues in the Berkeley community as we possibly can. And the impact is real: Dozens of students over the course of the seven semesters the DeCal has been taught have reported that this course was “life-changing,” “transformative,” “foundational.” People have even told me that they’ve changed their majors, decided on new career tracts and taken information back to their hometowns to start new environmental initiatives.
I’m still baffled that this little project of mine has actually had an impact on so many lives, and it’s both humbling and encouraging to be able to carry that around in my heart. But as I’m writing this, I know that if I were reading this article I would be more inclined to think, “Damn, sounds like a vanguard,” than “Wow, that’s amazing!” I was 19 years old when I launched a run-of-the-mill DeCal, and I was only 21 when I began hosting lecture halls of 300 people, something that had never been done before at UC Berkeley. I made many, many mistakes in the process of stepping into the heavy responsibility of being a leader in the Berkeley eco-community, and my simultaneous battle with ego and crushing self-doubt left bruises that I’m still healing and learning from.
It’s been a year since I graduated, and I ask myself all the time what I would change about my environmental work at UC Berkeley if I had the chance, knowing what I know now. It always comes back to one thing: centering community. Because man, I tried. I used the platform of the course to the best of my ability, starting each week by encouraging people to show up to demonstrations for various environmental justice campaigns happening on campus and in the Bay Area and rooting the curriculum in the Berkeley community as much as possible. But it wasn’t enough, and looking back, I think I know why.
My teaching team had set our sights on obtaining funding to bring our program to other schools. And in an attempt to attract press and garner support in the age of youth climate activists, I felt I had no choice but to sell a specific image of a singular leader. In doing so, I didn’t give myself the option of stepping back, asking for help or sharing the load with my team. I took on so much that it wasn’t sustainable for my health or the longevity of the project. But I’ve learned that the environmental movement doesn’t need vanguards or singular leaders. Movements are stronger when individuals come together to uplift a community, rather than a community rallying behind a single, naturally flawed individual.
The ecological crisis truly is the biggest fight of human history, and if humanity is going to win it, we’re going to have to denounce the vanity projects and money grabbing that have started to sidetrack the movement. We all need to be honest with ourselves about the limited impact “spreading awareness” has. Instead of wasting time putting environmental activists on pedestals and squabbling over who gets credited first in headlines, we’re going to have to dig in and actually do the work.
A year later, my team — Annie Mitchell, Victoria Bartoszewicz and Lova Lagercrantz — and I are finally starting the process of expanding the program to other colleges. I’m currently working on a book, Solutions for a Sustainable & Just Future, teaching online with Zero Waste USA and launching a new educational social media project soon. I started teaching because I realized the biggest impact I could have rested in helping to create a better equipped and better educated environmental movement.
But education is only half of the equation. It’s not enough to simply be aware of environmental problems — we need a vision for a better future than the one we’re looking at now, and we have to effectively organize ourselves, be that in our neighborhoods or international politics, to restore the Earth’s ecosystems and to ensure that every generation to come will have the right to dignified life.
Sage Lenier is a recent UC Berkeley grad working as an educator in the environmental justice sphere.