To see photos and hear interview from the sustainability conference, click here.

A feeling of empowerment seemed to be the overriding sentiment of students at the UC/CSU/CCC Sustainability Conference on campus last weekend. The event, which had never been hosted at a CSU, drew 1,100 students and faculty from the state’s colleges and universities.

“The biggest difference from prior years is just the overall sense that the speakers gave the feeling,” said student Christie Pomplun from Cal State Long Beach. “It was about encouragement. It was just really impressive and it made me want to get out there.”

Among notable guests were leading environmentalist Jerome Ringo and California’s Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who recently announced he would make a bid for governor in 2010.

Both speakers addressed the crowd at the opening ceremony, along with Cal Poly officials and students representing the University of California, the California State University and the California Community College.

Ringo, president of Apollo Alliance, one of the largest coalitions of green energy in the country, noted similarities between the green movement and the civil rights movement.

“As was done in the civil rights movement, people have to put their differences aside and come to the table with one common goal and that is justice,” he said at the opening plenary.

Just as Martin Luther King, Jr. united people of different classes and races to win a battle, Ringo hopes to do the same thing through his coalition for the environmental movement.

“We have an opportunity to bring the world together around this issue of resolving global warming and sustainability,” he said. “It’s not a color or economic issue, it is a people issue.”

Ringo said that although his generation and generations before him cannot fix the environment they’ve broken, together, everyone can “plant a seed” and pass an energy bill that would level the playing field with respect to energy.

“Poor people cannot afford a Prius,” he said. “Poor people cannot afford alternative energy. They can’t afford energy as it is.”

Garamendi also encouraged students to push innovative ideas to school and state officials.

“You’re going to change America,” Garamendi said. “You are currently at the greatest intellectual system in the entire world: the California university and community college system.”

Garamendi said national security is no longer an issue of the “war on terror,” but about changing the nature of the nation’s economy from being petroleum-based to renewable-based.

“We can do that,” he said. “We don’t have any choice but to do it.”

And students were on a mission to do just that. Throughout the weekend, they attended various workshops to share ideas and learn about how to take sustainability home- from energy efficiency to green buildings to transportation to social equity.

It was Matthew McGeever’s first time attending the conference. He works at Sonoma State’s rec center, which he said was one of the few sustainable facilities on his campus.

“There’s actually a lot of work to do, is what I’m coming to realize,” McGeever said.

One workshop he found especially helpful was geared toward a shared democratic process as opposed to top-down decision-making for green issues. The workshop has inspired him to start a student activist group at Sonoma when he returns from the conference, he said.

“I definitely want to get a campus-wide group involved with issues of sustainability,” he added. “We can do our part at the Sonoma Statet Rec Center and through the cafes on our campus. but there isn’t a campus-wide, collective committee.”

Simcha Udwin, an education outreach coordinator at UCSB, was a speaker at the conference who advocated for the reuse project she started at her university.

Instead of simply recycling old books, Udwin’s group redistributes them to jails and prisons across the state.

“It’s an educational and environmental thing because we’re educating people by giving them access to education, and at the same time for every pound of book that’s reused, rather than recycled, you save 10 pounds of carbon dioxide,” Udwin said.

Her presentation was part of a new theme at the conference – social equity and green economy – which Udwin said is the important next step to environmentalism.

“Sustainability has been a lot about just having carbon emissions,” she said. “We have to look at our ecology. There is no defining line between humans and our environment.”

Bryan Ting, a student from San Francisco State and a member of his school’s chapter of the Eco Students, said he, too, left the conference with a feeling of empowerment.

“When I talk to these people, I realize this is really possible, this is a really amazing thing and we can do this together,” Ting said.

While he appreciated the opportunity to talk to other students between workshops, he said one thing he’d like to see at future conferences is organized time for students to meet and brainstorm.

“If you went to a seminar and saw some people there, you could go talk to them,” Ting said. “But there wasn’t anything specifically about the networking.”

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