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Environmental Student Groups Get Creative with Virtual Engagement

“I fell in love with campus by being here in that physical built environment, so I’m hoping to share that as much as possible.””

Lauren Simitz
Associated Student Government Sustainability Committee chair

As the pandemic forced Northwestern to transition to virtual instruction, student leaders of nearly 20 environmental student organizations had to figure out how to continue their activities remotely. Without in-person events to bring students together, organizations had to find new ways to foster a sense of community and engagement. 

sofiaschillace.jpgThis was especially challenging for the NU Outdoors Club, considering their events typically consist of loading students into a van and taking weekend day trips to various state parks in the area. In lieu of a group outing, NU Outdoors Club offered a subsidy program for members who wanted to go on trips individually. This was complemented by a How to Plan a Trip workshop series, which included tips on planning a menu, packing a bag, and creating an itinerary. Getting outdoors during the pandemic has been comforting for the club members. “You might just have to take a few more precautions but it's nice to find some normalcy there and just sort of escape from the daily four walls of my apartment,” said McCormick junior and president of the NU Outdoors Club Sofia Schillace, pictured to the left at Huron-Manistee National Forest in Michigan at the beginning of fall quarter.

The Associated Student Government Sustainability Committee’s (ASG SusCom) work on campus usually involves the built environment, Northwestern’s buildings and green spaces. Although a few in-person activities continue, like overseeing plastic bag recycling in Norris, the majority of events and meetings are currently online. To remedy the physical disconnect students feel from campus, committee chair and McCormick and Weinberg senior Lauren Simitz brought the built environment with her during meetings. At one project scoping meeting, Simitz walked around the Lakefill with her phone camera, exploring the area with committee members, some of whom have never set foot on campus. “I think that fosters an eager desire to protect this place. I fell in love with campus by being here in that physical built environment, so I’m hoping to share that as much as possible,” Simitz said. The opportunities of working with the built environment are limited in a virtual format, so the committee has also turned to environmental education and funding. Education efforts include sustainability training for clubs, compost education for students living off-campus, and a 50 Ways to Be Sustainable at Home video. 


ASG SusCom also provides a sustainability fund of $1000 per quarter, which has helped groups like In Our Nature transition to a virtual publication platform and NUsolar build a solar-powered car.

Like ASG SusCom, many sustainability-related student groups have taken advantage of the virtual environment to focus on educating their members on sustainability practices. In a typical quarter, residents of GREEN (Group Residence for Environmental Engagement at Northwestern) House, a residential community for students who are interested in environmental sustainability, gather for weekly environmentally-themed discussions, dubbed Green Teas. Without a common physical space to gather and practice sustainability together, the virtual Green Teas have emphasized what personal sustainability looks like wherever the residents may be. 

For Bienen and Communication sophomore Lucy London, president of the GREEN House, personal sustainability has a lot to do with community building and appreciating nature, but also being mindful of the way we consume. “Not just sustainable consumption because green capitalism is a thing. But just like reducing consumption, what you actually need versus what you want to buy,” London said. Activism as a personal sustainability practice has also been brought up in various discussions. Disorientation Night - a presentation for incoming freshmen encouraging participation in campus activism - and phone banking sessions were among the most popular events of the quarter.

While environmental activism on campus and elsewhere is an important part of individual action when it comes to sustainability, activist groups on campus are aware of the emotional toll of partaking in activist work during the pandemic. “I think something that is really important just for all student groups is figuring out, in this digital landscape, honoring the sense of time sensitivity and urgency of what we're fighting for and have been fighting for so, in our instance, climate justice, but also honoring the things students are going through and the emotional labor it takes to be a part of this work,” said Weinberg junior Keala Uchoa, member of Fossil Free Northwestern, a student activist group on campus that advocates for environmental justice and the divestment of fossil fuels.

Some of the most important work Fossil Free is doing virtually has to do with building relationships. Since their online transition, Fossil Free has organized three mutual aid fundraisers, raising over $12,000 for a number of activist groups both on campus and nationwide. They also collaborated with other student organizations to host "A People’s History of Northwestern", a march dedicated to the history of organizing efforts, especially those by Black, brown, and Indigenous students, at Northwestern. In addition, Fossil Free members have continued to meet with administrators to establish mutually beneficial relationships while ensuring that student concerns are addressed.

While environmental student organizations are anticipating the return of students to campus, most events will remain online and despite the virtual hurdles, they continue to foster community and work towards a more sustainable campus. NU Outdoors Club is considering some in-person events, like snowball fights and winter trips, with safety precautions. ASG SusComm is currently working with the facilities department to install LED lights in Fisk and Locy and the athletics department to certify Ryan Stadium as zero-waste. GREEN House is continuing their work with education and community building, and Fossil Free is planning a teach-in, much like the one they hosted last year.