by Quentin James, National Director, Sierra Student Coalition
Some people say I have a gambling problem. No, its not that I go and lose hundreds of dollars in casinos, but rather I take too many lofty risks based mostly on hope. An example of this is when I dropped out of school in 2007 to go and work for then Senator Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign. As an African-American male, leaving behind a full scholarship at one of America’s most prestigious private universities wasn’t received well by anyone. In fact, there was even some campaign staff that didn’t think it was a good idea. But I took a risk because for the first time ever, I felt I could make a difference because a politician believed in my generation and me.
Fast-forward four years later, and many young people and black people have started to wonder if President Obama will keep true to candidate Obama promises and rhetoric. Admittedly, I was one of those critics, but after yesterday’s State Department decision to reassess the Keystone XL pipeline; I feel the tide shifting dramatically. When I started at the Sierra Club in May, I was told about this lofty goal to organize young people to try and stop this pipeline and I thought that will be extremely difficult before the end of year. Nonetheless, in August, the Sierra Student Coalition gathered its top 50 youth leaders in St. Louis, MO to talk about our work for the upcoming semester, and there our “Stop Keystone” youth campaign was launched.
Over the course of the past few months, young people participated in both the official State Department public comments process, as well as used untraditional methods to bring attention to President Obama. In St. Louis, students from Washington University organized and raised grassroots dollars to attend an Obama Campaign fundraiser, where they asked the President directly about the pipeline. At the University of Colorado, students also organized to ask the President about the issue during a speech about recent student loan assistance.
These actions coincided with a campaign from the youth climate movement entitled “100 Actions for 100% Clean Energy” where young people organized over 100 actions all across the nation to stop dirty energy and transition their universities to 100% clean energy. In fact, just two weeks ago our culminating event garnered national press attention as we met with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Jon Carson and Ronnie Cho from the White House Office of Public Engagement about the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as other environmental issues. And just last week, we saw over 12,000 people gather to encircle the White House and show the President we are here ready to support his decision to stop the pipeline.
I mention all of the efforts because yesterday the environmental movement witnessed and realized grassroots organizing works. Our young people saw democracy work for the 99%. I regained my confidence in President Obama. These are not just dismissible observations, but for me, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” in a long time.
Quentin James is the National Director of the Sierra Student Coalition and National Board Member for the NAACP, where he is the Vice Chair of the National Climate & Environmental Justice Committee. Quentin also served as the Deputy Youth Vote Director for Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign in Ohio.