Written by Miles Goodrich, Greenpeace Semester Summer 2012
Because students proved a critical force in sustaining the social movements of the last century, Greenpeace has developed its own semester long program – the Greenpeace Semester – to train young adults in mobilizing for the environment. Each semester, students go on a trip to work on a critical environmental issue with Greenpeace.
This session, our class went to Cincinnati to protest Duke Energy’s rate hikes, which the company proposed soon after the city switched to renewable energy credits after a successful grassroots organizing campaign to stop buying power from Duke – a move which cost that company close to 100 million dollars. Despite being dropped in Cincinnati, Duke still owns that cities grid and is working to charge residents more to use it in and attempt to make up for that lost revenue.
On the drive out there, we stopped outside the dilapidated town of Cheshire, Ohio to speak with local anti-fracking and coal activist Elisa Young. At first glance, Elisa’s warm smile suggests she’s a kindly neighborhood everywoman. And indeed she acts with the sweet disposition of a grandmother—offering the fifteen students of the semester both homemade salsa to eat and homemade rocking chairs to relax in—but her warmth only extends so far. To local fracking companies, Elisa is the worst kind of neighbor: a nosy citizen meddling in corporate affairs by demanding transparency regarding the supposedly public exploits of businesses. “When they’re essentially writing the laws,” said Elisa of the energy companies with enormous influence over local governments, “you have to do your best to keep them honest.”
Despite her dedication to taking on a powerful industry, Elisa is a reluctant activist. She survived the same cancer that claimed the lives of many of her friends and family—innocent casualties of the poisonous coal plants that have desecrated her ancestral home. Elisa has experienced firsthand the damage the fossil fuel industry wreaks. She knows what she is up against, but that does not stop her from doing her best to protect her homeland.
Elisa’s best work consists of trawling through hundreds of pages of obscure legal language and navigating her way around corporate bureaucracy—all in the name of staying an informed citizen. “She was so inspiring as a grassroots organizer,” student Mackenzie Greisser said of Elisa, “fighting such a difficult fight for so long, but with success.”
Rather than chaining herself to every fracking well in Ohio (“I would do it if I thought it was how we’d win”), Elisa prefers to take on the industry by forcing them to abide by the law: registering the correct permits, filling out the proper paperwork. Through this citizen-empowerment activism, Elisa has made a name for herself as the persistent, annoying gadfly, always double-checking the reports that energy companies file. She understands the importance of participating in democracy beyond voting every four years.
Though Elisa stayed behind in Cheshire as we moved on to Cincinnati, we all took a bit of her and her citizen-hero mentality with us to the city council on Tuesday during a public hearing on the issue of allowing fracking waste to be stored within the city limits. We witnessed plenty of Elisa-like gumption and conviction among the nearly twenty citizens who all called upon the council to ban injection wells—sites where fracking waste is forced into the earth. Echoing Elisa’s story, Mackenzie described how her family’s susceptibility to cancer makes the toxic byproducts of fracking a disturbing means of energy acquisition. “Elisa fighting for her hometown inspired me to fight for mine by standing up against fracking,” Mackenzie said, “and the council thanked me for being an active student.”
So as much as anything, the Greenpeace Semester’s trip to Cincinnati to mobilize support against Duke Energy’s rate hikes is an experiment in democracy: government by the people. And not corporate people, but living, breathing people who fight for their right to live on stable earth and breathe clean air. People with the tenacity of Elisa Young and the drive of Mackenzie Greisser. People who still believe in democracy.
Facebook: Greenpeace Student Network