Being earth conscious certainly feels like the cause du jour, but a recent study found that only nine percent of millennials say they've made an effort to help the environment. Could it be that green causes need better branding?
Quentin James, the National Director for the Sierra Club's Sierra Student Coalition declares, "Being environmentally conscious is sexy right now, but we should be expanding our base and recruiting more [young] people into our ranks."
At 24, James has his finger on the pulse of youth sentiment toward the green movement and is creating a new profile of what an environmental activist looks like. At the Sierra Club, the Howard alum trains youth to run impactful grassroots campaigns and develops the movement's future leaders.
James' first taste of organizing occurred when he was just 15 years old. He stumbled upon an infuriating quote from a tobacco exec: "We don't smoke ... we just sell it. We reserve that right for the young, the poor, the black and the stupid." James joined a local group of teens to create Rage Against the Haze, an anti-cigarette campaign that decreased statewide teen smoking rates by 17% in two years.
While that experience put green activism on his radar, the real tipping point was an internship focused on researching Detroit's history as a fresh food desert. Through this project he was introduced to environmental justice and non-profits like the Sierra Club and Green For All which work to solve complex issues in urban areas.
President Obama's decision to delay the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline last year is a memory James beams about. The Sierra Student Coalition played a significant role in organizing the grassroots effort that pressured the Obama administration to conduct a thorough assessment of the pipeline that would have stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
"People of color have had to bear the brunt of the impact from extracting and transporting oil; from struggling with asthma due to oil refineries being built close to their homes to the devastating BP oil disaster, so seeing the President stand up to the oil industry as a result of our work was amazing."
This small victory reminded James of an important lesson he learned from an old mentor. "The difference between politics and civil rights is politics is about winning fights and civil rights is about doing what's right," he recalls.
ON THE HORIZON
For the short term, James' focus is to push universities to shift their endowment dollars from the coal industry into renewable energy companies. The South Carolina native lives by the mantra "to whom much is given, much is required" and for the longer term, he'll be making sure his generation reciprocates the gift in a major way.