Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in the series of features titled “You Voted, Now What?” highlighting some of our nation’s most inspiring and successful young activists. Through these stories we hope to show a broad range of potential paths for channeling some of the prodigious political energy unleashed during the Obama campaign. All features are produced in partnership with WireTap.
Climate change activist May Boeve started young. When she was 4 years old, she dictated a letter to her mother, addressed to then-President George H.W. Bush, asking that he make cruelty to animals, “even bugs,” illegal.
“It helped get my concerns off my chest,” she explains brightly.
Fast-forward to 2003: during her tenure at Middlebury College, where environmental consciousness permeated campus life, Boeve and five of her closest friends banded together to get some concerns off their chests. She ticks off the formidable tasks they accomplished: making Middlebury’s campus the first of its size to go carbon-neutral, organizing protests against the burning of tires in a nearby paper mill and making wind turbine art sculptures out of waste. In 2006 Boeve nabbed the prestigious Brower Youth Award, which honors prominent young environmental leaders, for her efforts.
The question remains: what specifically drew Boeve to climate change, rather than, for instance, animal (or insect, as it were) rights?
“I felt that it connected so many of the issues I care about: the environment, protecting animals, human rights, political development,” 25-year-old Boeve explains. “Also, I’m drawn to community, and my community was working on climate change, and I wanted to be part of it rather than off doing something else by myself.”
So, just shy of graduation, instead of opting to split up, Boeve and her cohort joined forces with Bill McKibben, author and scholar-in-residence at Middlebury, who is credited with being the first writer to really call out the global warming threat. The Step It Up climate initiative was born with the goal of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. As its first major action, Stepitup2007.org organized the first open-source, web-based day of action dedicated to stopping climate change. Since then, the group has organized about 2,000 demonstrations in all fifty states.
Since she left Middlebury in 2007, Boeve has worked nonstop in the climate change movement, most recently going global in co-founding Step It Up’s sister organization, 350.org, an international grassroots climate change campaign. At 350.org, Boeve oversees partnership programs–that is, she creates and maintains relationships with large Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). She’s also responsible for coordinating activities for the campaign in the United States and Canada, and she helps oversee operations. The group’s next big push is an international day of climate action, on October 24.
If it sounds like Boeve has a lot on her plate–well, she does.
But she still has passion and energy to direct, with laser focus, toward Congress. She says firmly, “I’d like to see the US pass a comprehensive, ambitious and fair piece of climate legislation, in time for the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December. My focus here is really on what the domestic legislation signals to the rest of the world. People all over are holding their breath to see what we come up with–how much money we’re willing to devote to help the rest of the world cope with climate change.”
When asked what she thinks about potential “salves” to the climate crisis currently being batted around in policy circles, such as carbon taxing, cap-and-trade and “clean coal,” Boeve pulls no punches: “Clean coal? Yeah right. Van Jones delivered my favorite clean-coal story in a speech at the Powershift 09 conference: ‘Clean coal? Sure! I’m all for it. While we’re at it, I’d also love to have a unicorn tow my car around.'”
But hope for real progress is not lost in Boeve’s playbook. And for her, it starts with those of us far removed from government–average people who want to make a difference but perhaps don’t know where to begin.
“Many people don’t even try to make a difference, and if you want to, you’re special. It’s that passion that really counts,” says Boeve.
“Have a lemonade stand and donate the money you make to your cause,” she advises, striking down the idea that activism has to involve spending a lot of money and/or time–but bolstering the idea that it can, and should, be fun. “I did this when I was 12, and PETA got $12 out of it. What I got was more valuable: the sense that with a little group of friends, some signs and an afternoon, I could contribute to something.”
She adds, “One week can make a difference! For example: most senators don’t hear from their constituents, but it’s their job to listen to us. For one week, become a presence in your senators’ lives, in their offices, on their message machines and e-mail boxes. Speak with passion and with stories. That’s a week of your whole life, and a week out of theirs, and you gave them reason to listen to you and hear nonstop about an issue that matters.”
According to Boeve, that type of micro-level action goes a long way. But what about the recent Gallup Poll suggesting that for the first time in twenty-five years, a majority of Americans say economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent?
Boeve opines, “We need to tie the two issues, economy and environment. This poll reinforces a false choice between environment and economy. Doesn’t Gallup know that’s so twentieth century?”
Speaking of out with the old and in with the new, Boeve’s unflagging optimism extends to the Obama administration. “I really want to see Obama use this political moment to pursue sweeping change” in order to address the climate crisis, she says. “So much is possible right now. I’m against cynicism, but I also want a pragmatic politics, where people feel like they can achieve victories and not just hope and pray that things will be different someday. I want to be part of a movement that creates political space to really create a paradigm shift.” Boeve adds with a smile, “Hell yes, we can.”