Post 3: Learning about Justice from the Sierra Club

While working remotely for Sierra Club’s Massachusetts Chapter this summer has been a challenging, often isolating experience, the internship has also been incredibly rewarding. I applied to Sierra Club’s political internship program in late January, weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic upended everything, with the hopes of better understanding how policy-making intersects with environmental justice and activism. In the first weeks of work, after being assigned to Erika Uyterhoeven’s State Representative campaign in Somerville, I really struggled with being confined to staring at my computer screen, in my house, an hour away from her district, while the rest of the campaign staff got their hands dirty building a grassroots movement. I had envisioned myself working in Sierra Club’s office or the Massachusetts State House, helping candidates and elected officials create and pass the critical environmental policies we need for a sustainable and livable future. Instead, I was sitting in my bedroom making phone calls and writing emails for a campaign fifty miles away.

Campaign volunteers making calls for Erika. (I’m in the bottom row, second from right)

However, I quickly became invested in Erika’s platform and, despite my challenges, began truly enjoying the work I was doing. Erika is a lifelong activist and community organizer who has spent her career fighting for affordable housing, vibrant public education, healthcare for all, racial and economic justice, and–most relevant to my interests–a bold and substantial approach to mitigating climate change. As I spent my days calling voters and volunteers, drafting social media and digital content, fundraising, conducting policy research, and writing about the need for a progressive voice in Somerville, I learned that I was a part of something bigger.

Although my days were exhausting, and it sometimes felt like I was doing inconsequential “busy-work,” I came to realize that the time I was putting in was actively contributing to building a better world. Social justice work is making change, and while I would prefer it to be a quick and painless process, pursuing justice takes time, energy, and a movement of people. By fighting so hard to elect Erika, a candidate whose values I believe in, I played a small role in making real change. If she is elected, I know she will fight for justice, give a voice to the oppressed, and work tirelessly to solve the challenges that our state, country, and world are facing. As a part of her movement, I also have a part in the outcomes she will create.

In reality, the work I was doing was not insignificant. Over the course of the summer, I made close to two thousand phone calls for the campaign, having hundreds of conversations with voters and advocating for Erika and the values she represents. I was named the campaign’s “Social Media Coordinator,” responsible for brainstorming, drafting, and curating daily posts on each of Erika’s platforms. These posts included fundraising asks, volunteer recruitment, sharing press releases, and announcing policy positions. I also created content for her webpage, wrote emails, applied for endorsements, and helped manage campaign databases.

The diversity of tasks I was assigned also gave me numerous opportunities to learn, as I was exposed to the complex and dynamic challenges of building a grassroots campaign. Each day was different, and while I was primarily interested in finding solutions to environmental issues, I was required to read about, research, and understand all of the policy areas that make up Erika’s campaign. Environmentalism cannot happen in a vacuum. Rather than simply protecting the planet and its biodiversity, we must also protect people and human rights. I grew to understand that environmental justice cannot be achieved if it is only focused on the environment and not also on the other issues our communities are facing. By working on this campaign, I learned a lot about what it means to pursue social justice.

Although this summer provided me with huge opportunities for personal and professional growth, I wish I had begun with a better perspective of the emotional burden of social justice work. The effort required to build a movement and advocate for your beliefs, especially when all of this is done virtually, during a pandemic, can make change feel impossible and hard work feel fruitless. However, by advocating for Erika, a Sierra Club endorsed candidate fighting for environmental justice, I am also fighting for environmental justice. This justice may be realized gradually, but without the movement of people behind it, change cannot happen.

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