Student group takes Earth-friendly actions

When David “Matt” Fitzgerald set foot on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus in August 2002, he arrived with a mission: He planned to initiate a campaign to encourage students to vote for environmentally conscious representatives. Furthermore, he wanted to enlist the help of an environmental student organization.

One problem: No active environmental organization existed on campus.

Solution: Citizen Action.

“(VCU is) an urban campus right in the middle of a city that has a lot of problems-huge problems,” Fitzgerald said, explaining why VCU needed a group to address environmental issues and why he encourages students to join him and others in celebrating Earth Day activities beginning in April.

Events scheduled:

* April 3 – a panel of environmental speakers in the University Student Commons;

* April 12-13 -distribution of Earth Day information in the Richmond area in conjunction with the Sierra Club;

* April 14-18 – an Earth Day awareness campaign, via informational tables on campus; and

* April 22 – a trip to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s public hearing on the permit for the King William Reservoir water-intake structure on the Mattaponi River.

Fitzgerald last fall introduced himself to Mark Wood, a religious studies professor who required his global ethics and world’s religions students to participate in a service project while enrolled in his class.

Wood listed an ecojustice project as one of about a dozen project options and designated Fitzgerald as its coordinator.

“They end up getting credit, actually, for being able to more fully develop their interest through action,” Wood said. “My hope is…that students, one, just become more aware of what’s happening (in the world), and two, are given a lot of avenues for becoming involved in shaping our relationships with each other and with the earth in ways that are healthier.

“I’m trying to develop a democratic citizenry. I’m trying to get students to assume responsibility for the world in which they live-the world that they will pass on to their children.”

After officially registering VCU Student Citizen Action as a VCU student organization office Fitzgerald and its key members planned Earth Day and other events during their weekly meetings.

“I need to have more input (from other people) and stop talking so much. I don’t want to be the focus of every issue that we pick,” said Fitzgerald, who serves as the organization’s president.

Fitzgerald and Jacob Pulliam lead the political activism group, which examines environmental issues and participates in associated political campaigns.

“Last semester we had a lot of success with the vote-environment campaign,” Fitzgerald said.

In preparation for Election Day 2002, about 12 Citizen Action members set up tables two to three times weekly to educate pedestrians about local and national environmental issues. They encouraged students to vote for the parks and natural areas bond referendum Virginians approved on Election Day.

The group helped people register to vote and placed signs supporting the bond referendum at each of Richmond’s election precincts, while they campaigned in front of the precincts.

“We were trying to get the students to participate more in their education as well as informing people on environmental issues,” said Kaitlin Bowles, a freshman who had served as the president of a community service organization at Lakeland High School in Suffolk. “I’ve become more informed on a lot of environmental issues I never even knew existed.”

The political activists sent petitions signed by more than 400 students and others to Gov. Mark Warner to express opposition to the construction of the King William Reservoir in King William County. Fitzgerald said he disapproves of the project because of the ecological impacts and injustices to the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indian Tribes.

A second group, fronted by two of Wood’s former students, Jessica Friedhoff and Robert “Bobby” Flood Jr., organizes environmental community-outreach projects.

“I’m an avid recycler,” Friedhoff said, explaining why her main focus is establishing an off-campus recycling dropoff location. “I don’t think there is a lot of awareness around the VCU campus about recycling. Also, if you live in an apartment in the city of Richmond, (the city) won’t pick up your recycling.”

Citizen Action works with Steve Heinitz, recycling and reuse coordinator for VCU’s Department of Environmental Conservation, attempting to find a site for the large recycling containers. Heinitz helps the group negotiate with the city and the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority that would manage an off-campus facility in Richmond.

“Any type of additional recycling containers convenient for VCU students is a welcomed addition (to our operations),” Heinitz said. “To find a place (on campus) for a large recycling dropoff is difficult.”

Friedhoff said Citizen Action wants a site near student apartments. For instance, a dropoff in Monroe Park also would serve the surrounding community, while Citizen Action and the conservation department help with maintenance.

“A lot of people care about the environment, but they hate politics,” Fitzgerald said. “They think ‘I can’t do anything about politics, but I can go out and do something about cleaning up (the environment),’ which is understandable, undoubtedly.”

Fitzgerald said he looks forward to crossover between the two groups, because Citizen Action works to help people understand the importance of the political process in protecting the environment.

Friedhoff expressed the same sentiment.

“When you think about the environment, you think about recycling and water quality,” she said, “but there are a lot of other environmental issues involving political aspects.”

Nonetheless, Wood said most important is the fact that Citizen Action encourages students to get involved.

“It’s sort of like the thing when you wake up in the middle of the night and you start worrying about your problems,” Wood said. “I think some of the reason why they appear to be so impossible is almost literally because you’re lying down. You’re not doing anything.”

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