KALAMAZOO, Mich.—From drinking water and air quality to renewable energy, environmental policy decisions impact every facet of our lives. Instead of just learning about the impacts, a group of Western Michigan University students got the opportunity to urge lawmakers to take action.
"It was an experience I've never had before," says Mitchell Denolf, a senior from Grand Rapids, Michigan, studying integrated supply management. "I've been to some town council meetings when I was younger but never had the opportunity to actually have that back-and-forth discussion with a representative myself."
Dr. Denise Keele organized a virtual town hall meeting for students in her environmental policy and politics course—an exercise in effective civic engagement. She challenged students to identify their elected officials, research environmental issues with potential bi-partisan support, write policy proposals and then invite their state representatives and senators to discuss legislative priorities.
"The town hall gives students the opportunity to see they have the power to move small initiatives forward," says Keele, associate professor of political science as well as environment and sustainability. "By the end of the semester, students can effectively research and communicate their priorities to elected officials, which is a major objective of the class and of higher education in general—to educate citizens to be civic actors."
Students divided into groups focused on four policy proposals:
Lake St. Clair Water Quality: Students advocated for tracking and reducing nonpoint-source pollution in Oakland and Macomb counties as well as creating a runoff system to keep sewage out of Lake St. Clair.
Lead Certificate for Rental Properties: Students lobbied for stronger legislation to rehabilitate rental housing to rid homes of unsafe lead paint and lead pipes, requiring lead testing and risk-assessments to ensure safe housing for tenants.
Universal Lead Testing: Students urged lawmakers to launch a statewide effort to promote universal lead testing in toddlers across Michigan.
Raising the Solar Cap: Students pushed for the elimination of the current 1% cap on solar energy companies in favor of capping the amount of energy customers can consume during a period of time limits, promoting renewable energy.
Fourteen legislators from across Michigan attended the event, meeting in small breakout groups where their student constituents explained their policy proposals. Those legislators included State Senators Tom Barrett (R-24th District), John Bizon (R-19th District), Winnie Brinks (D-29th District), Jeff Irwin (D-18th District), Dan Lauwers (R-25th District), Sean McCann (D-20th District) and Roger Victory (R-20th District), and State Representatives Kelly Breen (D-38th District), Jim Haadsma (D-62nd District), Matt Koleszar (D-20th District), Christine Morse (D-61st District), Julie Rogers (D-60th District), Bradley Slagh (R-90th District) and Mary Whiteford (R-80th District).
Ryan Hagel, a senior studying history, was part of the group that presented a universal lead testing policy. He spoke to Bizon, who represents his hometown of Bronson, Michigan, as well as an aide from Barrett's office. He admits it was a bit intimidating at first.
"I think a lot of people were nervous, but (the elected officials) wanted to know what we cared about. They wanted to know why we were saying the things we were saying and the information we found," he says. "They seemed pretty receptive to our proposal. They enjoyed hearing from people our age that had interest in a policy issue. Overall, it was a really good experience. Moving forward, I'm a lot more willing to reach out and do this for other issues that I see."
"This class has really brought to light a lot of the local issues that I really care about, like preserving our Great Lakes and making sure that people in Michigan have clean water to drink and safe apartments and homes to sleep in at night," adds Annika Paldan, a senior from Kalamazoo studying political science and global and international studies. "It's really sparked a passion in me."
The opportunity to engage with elected officials is something Kris Powell, a senior studying behavioral sciences, never thought possible.
"Coming from such a small town and being a first-generation college student, I have gotten to see so many systemic barriers that always felt insurmountable," says Powell, who grew up in Bloomingdale, Michigan. "The chance to finally have a discussion with politicians that may ultimately create a positive impact for Michigan felt unreal."
She describes the experience as a "full circle" moment, connecting her passion about environmental policy on a number of levels. Her hometown—a rural village in Van Buren County—was built on the promise of a booming oil industry in the 1930s.
"Unfortunately, the oil dried up faster than expected and our village remains very poor, with the majority of its citizens living below the poverty line," she says. "It felt almost like someone wrote a script for my life where I would finally be able to advocate for further use of renewable energy, and I could finally feel like I did something right for my hometown."
The health and well-being of her own family and others living in rural communities is also top of mind for Powell. Growing up on a small blueberry farm, she learned firsthand the dangers of chemical treatments on crops.
"We always were using insecticides and pesticides and never really thought anything of it. One year, my sister and I became really sick, and I spent about a month going in and out of the hospital for blood tests. The doctors were unsure exactly what happened, but they believed our exposure to so many chemicals may have caused our immune systems to attack themselves," she says. The revelation fueled an interest in research and inspired her career goals.
"My plan is to conduct research into neurotoxicology and help explore the effects of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides on behaviors and the human brain so that we may further regulate them."
As scientists around the globe increase the urgency to address climate change, students see the role they can play in affecting change.
"This experience has made me want to become involved in local/regional politics in my future and fight for the issues I cherish," says Cameron Church, a senior from South Lyon, Michigan, studying industrial and entrepreneurial engineering. "I am an outdoorsman, conservationist and humanitarian. I see the importance of protecting our environment for current generations."
Students hope the discussions and proposals they shared with legislators will lead to larger discussions at the state level. They're also eager to share the experience with their peers as an example of the power they hold as citizens.
"College students don't always realize how much say we can have in the policies around us, but I think that is really changing. I think we're seeing a huge wave of people really working on their political engagement and calling on lawmakers to be accountable to citizens, so it was really cool to actually get the opportunity to do that," adds Paldan. "By putting us in this situation, Dr. Keele has guided us through the process and given us the tools to now do it on our own going forward."
Denolf, an Eagle Scout, says he's always had a passion for the environment. Now he feels more equipped to make an impact.
"This experience was unique and powerful," he says. "I will remember it for the rest of my life."
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