The first seeds of SEAC (pronounced ‘seek’) were planted in the fall of 1988 after a group of students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill placed an ad in Greenpeace magazine inviting other students to join them in the fight to save the planet. The enthusiastic response to that ad emboldened the Chapel Hill group, and in early 1989, they set about to organize Threshold (article on 20 year anniversary), SEAC’s first national student environmental conference.
Many people thought we were aiming too high. The critics said we couldn’t possibly do something so big; however, we persevered and worked even harder. We believed there could be nothing more important that we could possibly do. Through untiring commitment, good luck, and the power of an idea whose time had come, we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.
On October 27-29, 1989, more than 1700 students from 43 states and over 225 schools came to Chapel Hill to participate in Threshold. It was an astounding turnout. On the first night, the jam-packed Memorial Hall auditorium buzzed with excitement for SEAC had come to life and with it a new national student environmental movement was born. The conference had given SEAC the launch pad it needed to become a national organization. On that weekend many student environmentalists from around the nation also met each other for the very first time, talked grassroots organizing strategy, and voted for SEAC’s first national campaign: an all out effort to save America’s remaining old-growth forests and to reform the U.S. Forest Service.
Threshold sparked tremendous energy. Just two weeks afterward, students at 50 schools coordinated a nationwide day of action demanding that our universities and schools become models of environmental sustainability. Three months after the conference, students across the country organized marches on their state capitols, calling on our politicians to immediately adopt policies which would conserve, preserve, and restore our national forest heritage. Five months later students from across the nation descended on our nation’s capitol to participate in a SEAC rally calling for strong national clean air laws.
When we came together for Catalyst in Champaign, Illinois (SEAC’s second national environmental conference held just one year after Threshold) more than 7,000 students from all 50 states and eleven countries were there to celebrate and take SEAC into the environmental decade of the 1990s.
Numerous regions began corporate accountability campaigns around issues like British Petroleum’s pollution in Ohio and Coors’ destruction of rivers in Colorado. The momentum of Catalyst also carried into regional and state gatherings around the country. SEAC developed a national magazine, Threshold, which we still produce today. In January of 1991, the U.S. went to war with Iraq, and many SEACers organized against the war, launching the Energy Independence Campaign to coincide with the anti-war effort and its corporate accountability campaign. One hundred people attended the main event, a rally in D.C.
In the summer of 1991, SEAC held its 2nd National Council Meeting. At that meeting, the organization decided to refocus and move away from national campaigns, launching two new projects, the Common Ground conference (2500 attended in Boulder, Colorado), and the Action for Solidarity, Equality, Environment and Development (A SEED), an international effort of several youth organizations to impact the Earth Summit in Rio. SEAC also started a field-organizing program, sending out student organizers to visit schools to spread the SEAC message.
As SEED grew into SEAC’s largest single project. There was a speaker’s tour with educational events at over 120 campuses. Weekend conferences were held in three states, and 23 countries networked by email and fax to discuss the issues. In March 1992, SEAC organized a series of demonstrations at the United Nations in New York. In June, one of the three official observers on the U.S. Delegation to the Rio Earth Summit (and the only student) was a SEACer. In Rio, A SEED organized more actions, and youth on four continents, including SEACers in the U.S., went on a hunger strike. In the end, SEAC became part of a network of student groups in 62 countries struggling at the grassroots for environmental and social justice.
During our peak in 1991, SEAC had 13 people on its full-time staff that consisted of a mix of national coordinators and field organizers. In 1992, SEAC’s budget fell dramatically and the staff was cut to five people. At the National Council meeting in July, the People of Color Caucus (POCC) demanded and received equal representation on the National Council. Throughout the Fall, SEAC continued the new strategy of focusing support on the development of local coalitions. The office was moved to a larger space in Chapel Hill, and the administrative capacity was increased again.
In 1993, indicative of SEAC’s early commitment to the struggle against corporate sponsored globalization, we started to organize against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). SEAC also created a weekend training program in the summer, where we sent teams of trainers to different campuses for a weekend of skill-sharing and issues workshops. That fall SEAC joined the Free Burma movement to promote human rights and environmental justice in Burma. In 1994, SEAC launched its Environmental Justice Initiative (EJI) as part of the commitment to expand the analysis of students and youth beyond traditional environmental issues. The EJI was a project of the POCC and was geared toward educating and empowering youth and high school students. Part of EJI eventually turned into Youth United for Community Action and became its own organization in 1996. The POCC started developing an Environmental Justice Organizing Guide (EJOG) which was completed in 1996.
It hasn’t always been easy – and we’re going to be honest about it. While SEAC initially went through a phase of incredible growth, from early on the organization has had to deal with high turnover and highly fluctuating funding (due to the nature of foundation funding). For the first phase of its history, SEAC was able to maintain a national office with between five and thirteen staff members. Unfortunately, 1996 became a tumultuous year for the organization as a series of conflicts led to the loss of funding, the loss of all staff and a decision to close the National Office. This was a result of conflict between the Coordinating Committee (CC) and the larger National Council (NC), as CC meetings occurred after the January and March National NC meetings were cancelled.
There was a decision made by the CC to cut the Summer Training Program, which caused a backlash from staff who felt the CC had overstepped their authority. With the amount of funding that was tied to the Summer Program, the high levels of conflict within the organization, and overall organizational ineffectiveness – the NC didn’t meet over the summer. Conflict continued into the Fall as relationships with our Fiscal Sponsor at that time became so bad that they forbid SEAC from receiving grants. Nonetheless, through the lack of funding and organizational crises, the National Council came together in October of 1996 and voted to keep the organization alive without staff funding.
The National Council came together again in January of 1997 as an all-volunteer body to continue planning and moving SEAC forward. NC Members began writing grants that spring and secured funding to organize the Summer Training Institute. Through a planning meeting in the Summer, the NC moved the organization forward and decided to re-open the National Office – but this time in Philadelphia where it would stay until 2007. 1997 and 1998 saw the grassroots continue to move forward, aided by the Summer Training Institute, as 15 state-level conferences occurred during these two years. SEAC also took great steps to diversify our funding in the aftermath of the 1996 crash, as the majority of organizational funding came through merchandise sales, donations, and the active Speakers Bureau.
Through the organizational re-building and activity of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, SEAC continued our unique role of uniting struggles together. SEACers were critical in the successful campaign to get Home Depot to stop selling Old Growth Lumber. SEACers recruited for and were very active in the 2000 protest that shut down the World Bank & International Monetary Fund Meeting in Washington, DC.
SEAC launched several campaigns through the early 2000’s that continued to put us at the forefront of uniting movements and making change. Doing work focused on climate began in the late 1990’s and continued through the 2000’s. The name Youth Power Shift gave birth to the term “Power Shift” that united the Youth Climate Movement in the late 2000’s. Organizing around climate and energy issues would continue to expand as a critical area of SEAC’s organizing through the 2000’s, and became our primary focus by the end of the decade.
The Mid-2000’s were a time when SEAC’s various grassroots efforts were linked together on the national level by a shared vision of radical social change. Rather than having a single organization-wide campaign, multiple campaigns emerged that directly represented grassroot efforts. We organized around Appalachian solidarity by challenging Mountaintop Removal; Farmworker solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers; in solidarity with the Onondaga Nation around preventing pollution in Upstate New York; and continued our organizing through the Tampaction Campaign. Our national and regional conferences featured anti-racism trainings, which were often two days and had a great role in building organizational analysis of oppression. We did not have any full-time staff and relied on part-time staff (who often worked full-time for part-time pay) to keep our National Office open and running.
In the spring of 2006, we made a decision to apply for funding from the Energy Action Coalition – a decision that was finalized through an all-night meeting that started at 8 pm and ended at 7 am at our Summer NC Meeting. SEAC was approved for funding for organizing in 2006-7 and has been a funded Coalition Partner of the Energy Action Coalition until the early summer of May 2010. Through this funding, SEAC opened hiring and put staff to work in field organizing and national coordination. SEACers organized primarily around winning campus sustainability measures and to end Mountaintop Removal. SEAC played the leading role in organizing the first 2007 Mountain Justice Spring Break – which has become a yearly event in the Appalachian Coalfields to build solidarity with coalfield environmental justice groups to end mountaintop removal.
Although we were putting staff to work and were growing in our effectiveness – times were still rough. The immediate aftermath of Mountain Justice Spring Break saw staff in our National Office introduce a proposal to the NC that SEAC dissolve and our grassroots get absorbed into another organization. Through long discussions and a number of amended / counter proposals, the National Council voted again, a full decade after the first “organizational life vote” in 1996, that SEAC stay alive and continue our organizing. Through that decision, we also decided to move our office to where our most excited grassroots base was, in Charleston, West Virginia. SEAC also committed to cut down our vision from a huge national rebirth to a more streamlined and localized organization that links together our grassroots struggles.
Through SEAC’s heavy participation during the late 2000’s in the Energy Action Coalition (EAC) and the strong majority of funding that came from the EAC, climate and energy organizing continued to be the predominant area of our work. We made a major shift in the way our National Council makes decisions in the Fall of 2007, where we adopted a model where our NC was an elected body of applicants and dropped our model where the NC was a body of representatives from Chapters. Our base expanded through the late 2000’s deeper into West Virginia and more broadly into Kentucky and Michigan, where SEAC played a major role in starting organizations and state networks. Although SEAC dropped our summer training program in every year except 2009, SEACers came out in droves to statewide and national conferences that we organized in coalition with other EAC organizations. Power Shift’07, Power Shift’09, and the regional Power Shift events in the Fall of 2009 were major events that we helped organize and recruit for through the EAC.
In May 2010, the National Council decided to decline funding from the EAC in an attempt to force the diversification of our funding, as well as to refocus on our own vision rather than that of the EAC. We are once again an all volunteer organization that is restructuring to ensure we stay true to our roots, while adapting to the ever changing youth movement(s). During the past 21 years of organizing, SEAC has helped to network student environmentalists, broaden and radicalize individual perspectives to tackle the root causes of environmental injustice, launch national/regional/state campaigns, and train tens of thousands of life-long activists who have gone on to serve and build movements for justice around the country and world. We’ve experienced our share of organizational turmoil and anticipate more struggles in the future, but we will persevere and continue to be leaders in the youth environmental justice movement.
We are currently working on re-engaging campus chapters and forming a more cohesive SEAC organization. If you are interested in starting a chapter, please email coy at seac dot org.