Action Heroes

Student environmentalists are giving new meaning to "active enrollment."

Two weeks before the big event, Erick Boustead still needs to bring in $40,000. Boustead, 23, is the sustainability coordinator for Substance, the University of Minnesota student group and nonprofit booking company he co-founded last year. Ripple Effect is the event in question.

For months now, Boustead and his Substance cohorts have been pitching the green, zero-waste festival as a contender for front-page news. If all goes well on Sept. 2, thousands of Gen Y-ers will gather on the Minnesota State Capitol lawn in the name of environmental and social justice. But to pull it off as planned, Boustead is banking on some generous, last-minute donations.

More money or not, he’ll find a way to make it work. The budding eco-entrepreneur, who graduated this year from the Carlson School of Management, has a proven track record of adapting to sudden change.

Back in May, just a couple days prior to their Justice Jam festival, the Substance group was forced to move from the central location they’d been advertising all semester to a nondescript parking lot several blocks away. In the thick of spring finals, Boustead and company met with U of M administrators, contacted all the vendors and devised a new promotional plan.

“Our biggest concern was continuing to provide a way for people to get involved,” says Boustead, “but overall we were happy with the turnout,” which topped 500 by the time local hip-hop artists Heiruspecs took the stage.

Boustead represents a league of extraordinary students who—in addition to their heavy course loads, research projects, scholarship commitments, internships and jobs—are volunteering for a level of responsibility that many professionals twice their age would sooner avoid.

The U of M is currently home to more than 20 environment-focused student organizations, with motivated Millennials at the helm of most of them. Through an equal dose of successes and setbacks, the students are learning what it takes to be a leader long before they enter the workplace.

Student groups organized the Justice Jam Festival in May“The nice thing about student groups is that it’s a chance to try and to fail sometimes, but without losing your job,” says Holly Lahd, president of EcoWatch, a student organization that’s been committed to “expanding the environmental dialogue” across campus for six years and running.

EcoWatch brings together experts from academia, government, business and industry to discuss biofuels, carbon sequestration and other complex issues in a way that’s accessible to everyone; not just seasoned “ecowatchers” like Lahd, who’s now in her final year as a double-major in applied economics and environmental sciences, policy and management.

As a summer intern in the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program, Lahd used the management and planning skills she’s honed through EcoWatch to lead a waste-reduction project at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth. This fall, she returns to the busy life of a 20-year-old student, research assistant and all-around action heroine.

Fortunately, she’s also sharpened her skills as a team player. “EcoWatch has taught me how to build leadership in other people, because with 18 credits and working part-time, I can’t do this alone.”

While student-led activism is nothing new, it has come a long way in the past five decades. For starters, today’s young activists are speaking a more refined language than that of their parents or grandparents.

“A student in the ’60s would yell at the university president and call him a fascist,” says Planet U author Michael M’Gonigle, a co-founder of Greenpeace International and the eco-research chair in environmental law and policy at the University of Victoria.

“A student of this generation would look at a university professor and quietly say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re just behind the innovation curve.’”

If you’re wondering what counts as innovative, you may want to follow the lead of the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, a waste-to-energy facility located near the new Twins ballpark. In February, HERC sought advice from Greenlight, a student group in the College of Design, during an intensive, two-day workshop.

“They came to us and said, ‘We know our building doesn’t look great. People will think it’s smelly and there’s a lot of truck traffic. What can we do to make it more sustainable?’” explains Greenlight officer Sarah Wolbert, 30, a grad student in the College of Design.

The students came up with more than a few cool ideas for HERC, including a green roof, “living walls” and a natural ventilation system. To build awareness at the ballpark, the students also proposed a “sustainability scoreboard” that compares environmental statistics between Twins Territory and the visiting teams’ hometowns. The Hennepin County officials loved the ideas, so much that they created four summer jobs for the students.

It seems protesting is out and problem-solving is in. Shaped by the solution-driven culture of the 21st century, students aren’t asking “why?” so much as “how?”

“The reality of change today is unique in that a lot of students see very clearly that time is not on our side,” says M’Gonigle. “We don’t have the luxury of arguing anymore. We need to act.”

Photo: Jeffrey A. Johnson

IonE and U

In March 2008, the Institute on the Environment awarded more than $20,000 in grants to student organizations across the University of Minnesota.

The grants supported projects or activities during the spring semester that promoted sustainability and the environment.

The IonE is now looking at ways the program might grow to support future research projects, travel grants and other campus sustainability initiatives.