For the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, five Oberlin students hosted a vibrant, 10-day digital symposium with panel discussions on climate change and a keynote speech by environmental scholar Carolyn Finney about race and the environment.
Planning for the Earth Day 50 celebration began in the fall, but when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the campus to move to remote learning, organizers decided it was important to proceed with the scheduled programming by shifting events to Zoom.
Fourth-years Madeleine Gefke, Olivia Vasquez, and Ora Hammel, along with third-year Wenling Li and second-year Phoebe von Conta planned and organized the commemoration. They received input from John Petersen, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology, who connected them with John Elder ’53, a Kendal at Oberlin resident and cochair of the residents’ environmental concerns committee.
From December to March, the students attended green group monthly potlucks facilitated by Elder in the basement of Peace Community Church, where they planned the symposium, built connections with green group representatives, and collaborated with various academic departments, offices, and student groups, EnviroAlums, and the Office of the President. Elder, in particular, was instrumental in leading meetings, connecting the students to others, and bringing people together.
In March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Oberlin to suspend in-person classes, and it became uncertain if the symposium could still happen. However, with input from Petersen and with the community’s encouragement, the student committee shifted the majority of the panels, keynote speeches, and events to Zoom. Pandemic or not, climate change was still a pertinent issue that had to be addressed.
“This was a lightbulb moment which ultimately dictated the purpose, planning, and outcome of the event,” Vasquez says. “From then on, it was established that if we were going to go full-steam and pursue this, it was going to be a collaborative college and city effort.”
Of course, moving an entire symposium online was not without challenges. Gefke and others spent hours testing Zoom links and settings.
“After the abrupt ending of life on campus, I felt a deep hole from the lack of community, of motivation, of something to look forward to,” Gefke says. “[However], I felt that Earth Day 50 was even more imperative now. This event series was a goal we could still work toward, a celebration we could still look forward to, and a way to bring the Oberlin community and college together again, all of which I desperately wanted and needed in this separation.”
The 10-day celebration included the Oberlin Virtual Sustainability Fair with presentations from local organizations and student groups about sustainability initiatives, multiple panels led by writer Mary Anaïse Heglar ’06, a Professor Panel on Climate Change from a variety of departments, and a keynote speech by Finney about race and the environment.
The organizers credit the collective effort, passion, and commitment to the cause, from participants’ willingness to adjust their panels and speeches to Zoom to the attendees’ continued interest in the symposium during a pandemic.
“It goes without saying that Mary Anaïse Heglar made our Earth Day series what it was,” von Conta said. “Not only did she agree to hold four separate discussions, but she invited her friends and colleagues along too, expanding the network.”
Li says the success of Earth Day 50 is a testament to the Oberlin community’s “resilience and persistent commitment to the sustainability of Oberlin as a college and as a community.”
“[The] Earth Day 50 events really highlighted how climate change is not just relevant to environmental studies majors,” Li says. “Rather, it is also a moral, economic, social, cultural issue at this time.”
The current pandemic brings a myriad of stresses, and the students are grateful that climate change was not being ignored.
“While a pandemic and climate change are different, there is a lot of social injustice and policy response parallels, further demonstrating the need to begin listening to the scientific experts and creating better policy,” Hammel said.
“There's a lot on the mind for everyone right now,” von Conta added. “The events would be nothing without the engagement and attendance of students and community members, and faculty and friends, who showed up, and gave themselves to the effort.”
Gefke sees Earth Day 50 as a culmination of her experiences at Oberlin.
“I was so incredibly impressed with the commitment of everyone involved in finding ways to connect and support each other even from afar,” Gefke added. “The relationships and collaborations I have had at Oberlin have been the most meaningful part of my Oberlin experience, and this Earth Day experience has only emphasized the fact that these relationships and collaborations will continue despite time and space differences.”
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