Sharing stories with Earth Guardians youth in a small workshop at Uplift Conference, a youth gathering in Durango, Colorado.
When I transferred to Naropa University, I wondered how I could stay politically engaged while in college. I was worried that school would be like an all-encompassing universe, or black hole, causing me to abandon the environmental and social justice work that is core to who I am. I worried it would all have to wait until I graduated.
I’m a twenty-four-year-old Peace Studies major from North Carolina, who loves to play mandolin, be outside, and make food with friends. I am passionate about restorative justice to address historic trauma and violence playing out today, working with young people, and addressing the climate change crisis, which I see as the greatest human rights issue of our generation. I’m white, Jewish, straight, and male, which all inform how I see the world and move through it. Because these identities afford me access and social standing that others are systematically denied in our society, I also suggest you the reader to seek out other perspectives, especially stories from writers of color, women, and people who are in the first generation of their families to attend college. My reflections and stories here are representative of my perspective only, and are not universal.
I arrived at Naropa just days after returning from Paris, where I had been at the COP21 UN Climate Talks as a youth activist. I’d met and heard stories from people around the world facing unimaginable loss. I remember shaking with anger, unable to hold back tears, after conversations with youth from the Marshall Islands, whose homeland is literally sinking due to our addiction to fossil fuels. And with the Sami people, indigenous to the Arctic, who are experiencing severe impacts to their ways of life. They are all fighting tirelessly to protect their homelands. I returned from Paris both heartbroken and inspired. I was transformed from hearing so many stories of destruction, witnessing, and taking part in courageous acts of resistance and advocacy to push the United States and other nations to take bolder action to reduce our negative impact on the rest of the planet. As I entered Naropa in the depths of winter, I brought this fire, this emotion, this passion, with me into the classroom.
When I was younger, like many high school graduates, I’d internalized the cultural myth that the only way to be successful was to go to college. It's a familiar script for youth like me who were expected to attend college: three months after graduating high school, I found myself enrolled at Tufts University, lost and confused about my purpose there, wishing for something more raw, authentic, and real. I longed for meaning, connection, and intimacy with the wider world. I felt so isolated from the world by the invisible walls of the campus.
I spent much of my time at Tufts as an activist with the fossil fuel divestment and anti-Israeli-occupation movements. We organized sit-ins and marches, held countless meetings, wrote opinion pieces, and stretched our moral, visionary imagination beyond what the classroom and dorm room meant to offer us. When we eventually gained enough momentum to meet the president of the university and the board of trustees, I was incredibly frustrated by their lack of willingness to acknowledge and act on the greatest social and environmental crises of our time. We were told by university leadership that they thought they should keep investing in fossil fuels because they were a “reliable investment.” After five semesters of this, I knew I didn’t want to be part of an institution that ran on an ideology of private profit, extraction, and compliance with global oppression and environmental harm. I’d learned so much fighting a system I didn’t believe in, and wanted to immerse in communities that were leading the way to build the world I so long to see come into being. After years of student protest, thousands of petitions signed, and both the student and faculty governing bodies voting to divest, Tufts still invests in fossil fuels to this day. Naropa, meanwhile, has fully divested from fossil fuel companies.
I left school during my junior year and begin a new chapter of learning and adventure. I worked with a Jewish urban farm project in Berkeley, growing food and educating young ones about where our food comes from. I traveled down the West Coast meeting people who lived wildly different lives than the one I’d imagined for myself, in alternative communities, challenging and re-imagining patterns of consumerism, disembodiment, and disconnection that constitute United States mainstream culture. Once in California I joined Earth Guardians, the organization that would bring me to Paris for the UN Climate Talks where the Paris Agreement was signed.
In my second semester at Naropa, I was accepted to return to the United Nations Climate Talks with a storytelling delegation called SustainUS, a youth-led organization dedicated to uplifting previously unheard narratives within the UN. I dropped all but two classes and switched to being a part-time student, utilizing Naropa’s pay-percredit option which allowed me to work, be part of the SustainUS delegation, and do my own reading and writing about social change. In November of 2016, I traveled to Marrakesh, Morocco for three weeks to live in immersive community with SustainUS, launching actions, campaigns, and media pieces telling stories of climate justice. When I returned to Naropa, my permaculture class held a space for me to share my experiences, including meeting people doing sustainable agriculture work in Northern Africa. I did my final permaculture presentation on soil-carbon sequestration strategies, a permaculture technique to address climate change, following on research I’d done to prepare for the Climate Talks. At the end of this semester, I’d proved to myself that being in school and following my passions support and resonate with each other, and that Naropa could be a laboratory of learning to amplify and integrate my life.
As I prepare to enter my final semester before graduation, I’ve been reflecting on what Naropa has meant to me and what I’m taking away from the experience. I’ve learned that college truly is what we make of it. Reckoning with our larger political context is the greatest opportunity we have for personal learning and growth. Our country is in crisis. Climate change, systemic racism, gender violence, mass incarceration, wealth inequality, political corruption: these issues are all tied together and all growing in scale each day. Systems of life and culture around the world are unraveling. But if there is an antidote to fear, it is action. Being part of movements for social change can be the great initiation into our life’s work.
Amidst rising tuition prices nationally and record-breaking student loan debt, we students have the opportunity and responsibility make college what we need it to be for our lives and the lives of others. Learning isn’t something that is done to us, it is something we generate ourselves, in the moment. For me, active learning has taken place both within and outside of the classroom. Through weaving life on campus in Boulder with my experiences in the climate justice movement across the country and the world, I have learned to take ownership for my learning and to find ways of shaping the malleable clay that is the structure of Naropa into multifaceted forms that empower me to live a life I love, and do meaningful work in the world.
There are many paths to find one's calling and role in social and environmental justice movements. And very few have the privilege to attend Naropa University. There is an urgent need in our world for Naropa students to contribute the skills of mindfulness, ecological consciousness, social justice awareness, and healing to the world. I have learned that our contribution doesn’t stop with matriculation, or start with graduation, but is alive in each and every moment. Naropa asks of us: what is ours to do? We just need to go out and do it.