Earth Law Clubs at American Universities: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

University of Michigan:  Teach-In + 50

University of Michigan:  Teach-In + 50

By Melannie Levine

How do you start a movement?

According to entrepreneur Derek Sivers, a movement requires the power of two people. One person dancing is a “lone nut” but with two there is a leader and a follower. When a third person joins in on the growing action, the dancing becomes a crowd. As Sivers says, “a crowd is news.”

If the second person never rises to the occasion, then that lone nut does not become a leader starting a movement [1].

Students and faculty in the 1960s and 1970s across the United States rose to protest numerous lack of rights. Activists campaigned for civil rights, free speech and the rights of women, gay people and African Americans. Student activism also critiqued the United States’ involvement in South African apartheid and the Vietnam War. These movements captured media attention, prompting the public to respond to the causes to which they related.

More recently student activists have been campaigning on issues such as student debt, climate change, gender and racial equality, and sitting political leaders.

Below are a few examples of successful and influential student-led movements in the United States over the last several decades. By thinking about what made these movements successful, we can develop ideas for building the Earth Law movement on campuses across America.

“Question Authority!”

At San Francisco State University (SFSU) students realized that their actions could influence political decisions in the university and the city. However, it was in 1963 that SFSU students could speak openly about current politics on American university campuses - a first for the country.

This advancement in freedom of speech on campus created a place to react to the issues of the following years. Topics enabled for student-led groups, including the Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front, to come together for a common cause. The pinnacle of the groups’ collaboration occurred with the suspension of George Murray, a Black Students Union member and Black Panther. Student concern about racial bias and exclusion boiled over with SFSU’s decision, experiencing it as a truly racist action representative of the times [2].

On November 6, 1968, a five-month strike began on the SFSU campus. Seeing that the classroom did not reflect the current political situation, students demanded a change in the curriculum and an increase in the student diversity. Black students didn’t learn about their history or current struggles. Other students did not see their education encompass their own individual ethnicities. Some of the faculty joined the strike as they believed that the concerns raised by the students were valid. They also added their own issues such as renegotiating labor requirements and increasing wages [3].

Both the Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front submitted lists of demands to the school’s administration. The students asked the school to pay full-time wages to all full-time professors regardless of skin color; to institute a Bachelor’s Degree in Black Studies; to create a School of Ethnic Studies degree; and to expand the number of non-white students attending the university to full capacity.

On March 20, 1969, the student-led groups and college administration reached an agreement. Not all of the demands were met, but the strikers were appeased by the schools’ proposed resolutions and ceased their protest [2].

This strike set in motion protests both on many other college campuses (University of California Berkeley, for example) and in public spaces. Campaigners highlighted the mistreatment of African Americans and minorities, the country’s actions in the Vietnam War, and other related issues of institutionalized racism.

An Educational Protest

On March 24, 1965 the first “teach-in” took place at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbour Campus – marking the “first large-scale student movement” in the US. The teach-in, coordinated by the student-led group called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), protested against the Vietnam War. Formed just five years earlier, SDS enjoyed high name, mission and manifesto recognition within two years of its establishment. The group valued “participatory democracy as a political process that would realize civil rights and egalitarianism” [4].

Organized as an all-night affair so as to not disturb the school day, the protesters taught “injustice in political policy” instead of a traditional protest, which might have led to the firing of the involved faculty. This positive protest actually received the university’s approval. Three thousand people attended the “lectures, debates, film viewings, musical performances and workshops, with a large rally to finish off the event the following morning” [4].

Had this teach-in occurred only at the University of Michigan, the coordinators and participants would have been the lone nuts or outliers. Instead, they became leaders that started a movement. On the following day, Columbia University held a similar event. Within a week, 35 schools followed suit, growing to 120 American colleges hosting equivalent teach-ins by the end of the school year, becoming a nationwide phenomenon.

The Power of Cutting Ties

In the late 1990s the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) started to actively encourage college students to intern with them. The Union aimed to garner the enthusiasm, energy, and power of university students, as seen in previous decades, and apply it to improving conditions in the sweatshops that made their schools’ clothing. They figured that if students fought the sweatshop conditions, change would happen faster on both campuses and among the general public [5].

Tico Almedia, the first student to start campaigning against sweatshops, studied at Duke University had been one of UNITE’s summer interns in 1997. Almeida returned to school in the fall to form the student group called Students Against Sweatshops (SAS). SAS asked the university to require companies making school clothing or products to follow a newly created set of standards which created safer and better paid working conditions for sweatshop workers.

With an intensive email campaign and sit-in at the president’s office, SAS members established the forum for a code of conduct to be written and followed by the school’s administration. The new policy included improved wages, benefits, and work-environment conditions, the ability to form a union without repercussion, and the university having the right to check company compliance. Any company found to be violating these terms would have their contract with the school cancelled if they did not comply immediately [6].

Within a year of implementing this code of conduct at Duke University and then Georgetown University, SAS grew so much that it had representatives on over 300 campuses and parent organization, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), established [7].

Students employed various tactics including marches, petitions, showcasing exhibits, teach-ins, sit-ins, speeches, rallies, debates, and onslaughts of email and paper communication to the students, faculty, and administration [5]. The general public also started discussions about sweatshops, which added to the momentum of the cause [8].

Years later, the power of these codes of conducts continued when companies such as Nike and Russell violated the policies, jeopardizing their relationship with the universities [9, 10]. By having the policies in place students have ensured that their schools follow through with the agreement. Students have protested and gone on strike if need be to maintain the morals that they want on their school campuses.

Going Forward: Earth Law Clubs

Students today seem to realize more deeply the critical juncture faced by humanity as the climate continues to warm, species disappear and oceans fill with plastic. The time is ripe for another student-led movement; this time, though, focused on climate change and advocating for the environment’s rights.

The lessons of previous student movements give us the opportunity to build Earth Law activism on a tried and true working system. When we establish Earth Law Clubs on school campuses across the United States, we will be joining a healthy tradition of American student activism.

The lessons of previous student movements:

Lesson #1: Student-led movements work.

Lesson #2: Positive forms of protest (teach-ins, mass communication, exhibits, and so on) gain university’s administration and general public support more effectively than violent demonstrations.

Lesson #3: Student-led movements do not need to originate from students or college campuses but can exponentially expand once students take up the cause.

Lesson #4: Student-led movements take months, if not years, to achieve their desired goals.

Lesson #5: Powerful movements involve many schools, corralling the collective interest and pressure of thousands of students.

Earth Law Club intends to help create a platform where environmental justice and Rights of Nature discussions can occur. We want to include student voices to shift the paradigm of environmental protection from one where humans see nature as a resource to one in which humans see nature as equal partners.

Alicia Follord and Melissa Zajicek recently formed Vermont Law School’s first Earth Law Club. Outreach continues to indigenous groups, law schools, universities, colleagues and local nonprofit organizations to connect student groups already focused on the environment or start their own Earth Law Club.

Working together with other similarly-focused groups, as the Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front did at SFSU, will create the momentum to turn individual group aims into a collective movement.

Earth Law Center invites students to intern over the summer and get involved with specific legal initiatives aimed at creating new laws recognizing the Rights of Nature. Earth Law Clubs provide the opportunity for student-led action and participation, whether starting up a new legal initiative or petitioning local governing bodies to incorporate Earth Law for protection of nature.

Interested in volunteering? Email Melannie Levine at Otherwise, find more information on Earth Law Center’s website.


Join the movement for Earth Law and give Mother Nature a voice!