More than a hundred students of all years and majors came to MaryPIRG’s kick off event in the Adele H. Stamp Student Union last Monday evening. With overviews and breakout groups for all five current campaigns, food donated by Stamp, and a special guest appearance by College Park Mayor Patrick Wohjan, the event was a rousing success.
According to Chapter President Sonja Neve, one aspect of the kick off—and MaryPIRG in general—that attracts students is PIRG’s continuation of “the legacy of young people leading current [social and environmental] causes.”
In her opening speech, Neve thanked everyone for attending and described her own start in MaryPIRG and why she’s a part of the organization: the chance to build coalitions, rally, and spread awareness with our peers to make a difference on the issues that directly affect us.
Mayor Patrick Wohjan, himself a PIRG alum, spoke next, describing his work as a campus organizer for WISPIRG at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, prior to law school. Wohjan recounted working on a campaign to protect the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling, as well as sleeping out with other students in the Wisconsin winter as part of a campaign to address hunger and homelessness.
Following Wohjan’s words on the importance of the work PIRG chapters carry out, each of the campaign coordinators stepped onto the stage to explain the goals of their respective campaigns.
Kate Rush, leading the Fossil Free UMD effort, emphasized the need to shift away from the campus’ current reliance on fossil fuels in order to mitigate climate change. Her campaign aims to get the administration to commit to 100% renewable energy rather than sign on to another 30-year contract with the natural gas power plant that currently powers much of campus—an effort to break the “fossil fuel cycle” and reduce the carbon footprint of UMD.
In his speech, Juvenile Justice Coordinator Patrick Peralta shed light on mass incarceration of minors in the U.S., describing how thousands of young people are stuck behind bars without the chance to salvage their futures. He called for the prioritization of education and healthcare, and the mobilization of students for “economic and social reinvestment” and reform in the prison system.
Sean Thompson, campaign coordinator for Zero Hunger, described his team’s plan to work closely with the campus food pantry, which struggles with limited visibility and little resources, by organizing donation drives and designing promotional and informational materials. His campaign also hopes to lobby for further resources on campus as well as federal legislation, including the Campus Hunger Reduction Act.
“20% percent of students are food insecure at some point in college,” Thompson stressed.
Branson Cameron, coordinator for the Affordable Textbooks campaign, cited a recent study that found “60% of students reported skipping buying or renting textbooks.” To help students that might otherwise resort to not buying important material or even dropping classes, he pitched adopting open textbooks on campus—free, open-source, online, and peer-reviewed texts that other schools have already begun to adopt.
Lily Byrne and Casey Ottenwaelder spoke last for the Campus Working Conditions campaign, focusing on mobilizing student support to combat discrimination against employees, improving the overall campus working environment, and facilitating student-employee communication and interaction.
Following the speeches, the campaigns’ breakout sessions began.
The students that flocked to Affordable Textbooks’ corner discussed upcoming campaign meetings and activities, such as participating in a national textbook survey, the results of which could be used to refine tactics and messaging.
The Fossil Free UMD group brainstormed a list of approaches to climate activism and messaging, discussing nuances such as how people get defensive out of fear and how fear doesn’t inspire long-term action. They also discussed how climate change affects individuals and how it will have increasing personal significance as it disrupts day-to-day life. This culminated in a letter-writing session, where students penned notes asking the administration to commit to 100 percent renewable energy.
The Zero Hunger breakout talked about partnering with the campus pantry and began planning out donation drives and visibility tactics, as well as ways to expand the pantry’s resources into the campus health center. Other ideas that were discussed include a meal swipe donation system and an expanded emergency meal program.
The Juvenile Justice organizers brought in posters with various sections that students could add their own ideas to—bills and lobbying, coalitions, educational and awareness events, and more. Political advocacy was a primary topic, as well as partnering with numerous organizations on the local, regional, and national level.
Finally, the Campus Working Conditions group began planning two worker appreciation events for the semester, one in November and one in October, as a remedy for the fact that students rarely interact with employees off the job. They also talked about lobbying for key policies, such as a guaranteed protection for workers who speak Spanish and other languages on the job.
“Students have the power to make conditions better for workers,” the coordinators said.
They’re right. Students have the power to make conditions better in many areas—from the health of the planet to UMD students’ lives to our flawed criminal justice system—and MaryPIRG’s campaigns are going to work to facilitate that change all year.