An arrow is drawn beneath your feet on the walkway beyond the Rachel Carson College academic building. Below it is a provocative inscription: “Beyond the Bullshit Climate Conference.” Passing by open classroom doors, the sounds of students in lively conversation about greenwashing, ecofascism, and radical environmentalism can be heard. 

If you were curious, you could have stopped in the courtyard in front of the Red Room to talk to a professor, a high school student, or a labor organizer about climate action in Santa Cruz. Or you could have taken a moment to enjoy a live dance performance in the grass, beneath a portrait of biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson. 

All this was part of UCSC’s first ever student-run climate conference, “Beyond the Bullshit: Waking Up a Warming World.” The event was hosted on November 19th by the UCSC Climate Coalition, an environmental organizing coalition of students and faculty. It combined musical and dance performances, research presentations, and Q&A panels, all led by undergraduate students. 

“The idea of going beyond [the bullshit] is actually having hard conversations … [especially] about the social justice aspect of climate change,” said Gwen Parden, a member of the coalition’s Steering Committee.

Six days before the conference, Parden and fellow Steering Committee member Maya Caminada were exhausted from a weekend of event planning. Yet, when they began talking about their vision for the conference, their faces lit up. Caminada, Parden, and the rest of the coalition had a clear vision for the event. It would be a lively celebration of intersectional environmental justice, highlighting the voices of students disappointed by campus leadership.

“We’re letting our students lead,” said Caminada, who was the conference’s lead organizer. “That was really important … our students should be the ones that are the makers of knowledge. We need to bring forth their expertise.”

The UCSC Climate Coalition was formed just over a year ago. Its founding members met in an online climate issues class taught by sociology lecturer Les Guliasi. Despite its relative youth, the organization has grown in influence quickly, aided by outreach from faculty, most notably writing professor Derede Arthur. Committee members have also worked tirelessly to build relationships with other Santa Cruz organizations, like the local chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) and Youth for Climate Justice, a climate activism network started by high school students. Photos by Mia Pabros.

The coalition’s focus on student voices shone through during the conference’s research presentations. 

A total of nine undergraduate students, including some first and second-years, took positions at the podiums of lecture halls to share their research with attendees. Students presented a range of topics, from eco-anxiety to indigenous prescribed burn tactics to greenwashing. 

In one panel, recent global environmental justice graduate Alcides Fuentes presented his research about youth climate activism in South America, while fourth-year philosophy major Kylie Ward shared findings about Puerto Rico’s Climate Change Council. Afterwards, students, faculty, and community members in the audience quickly jumped into a dialogue with presenters. While Fuentes shared his family’s experience with activism in El Salvador, students asked Ward about her perspective on Puerto Rican statehood and disaster response. 

The conference also involved two Q&A panels. At the first, attendees talked with three UCSC students and alumni pursuing careers in politics. The other panel, which closed the conference, brought together representatives from several UCSC student organizing groups, including the Student Housing Coalition, GABRIELA, and the Womxn’s Center. These organizations, along with others like Equity Transit, the Student Environmental Center, and Youth for Climate Justice also tabled throughout the event and mingled with attendees in the courtyard.

Panel four, the activist panel, featured Ayo Banjo, Zennon Ulyate-Crow and Lisette Jones. 

No one knew exactly what to expect for UCSC’s first student-run climate conference, but it seemed that organizers and attendees alike were pleased with their experience.

“I think it went really well. I’m glad that there were a lot of people on and off campus who came,” said Becca Mansergh, a second-year astrophysics major and attendee, who presented her short story at the conference. “[But] I think we can get a better turnout next year. I want people at UCSC to care, and I want them to show up to things … I hope that’s going to happen, that every year it gets bigger and better.” 

Edith Saldano, an attendee and UCSC alum, was impressed with the event’s turnout. As a student, Saldano was a chairperson at Anakbayan Santa Cruz, UCSC’s chapter of a national left-wing anti-imperialist movement focused on democracy and liberation in the Philippines. they’re currently a Starbucks United union organizer. 

“A lot of the time, conversations about [the climate] can get very academic, and very [individualized].” Saldano said. 

Saldano was glad to see that student speakers at the conference connected climate change with the oppression of working-class people and BIPOC. They commented on a particular moment in the final panel, where a Student Environmental Center representative connected waste management issues at UCSC with health problems caused by landfills in disadvantaged communities.

“Yeah, we can [work on] small issues, but how do we connect small issues with larger issues? They were able to see [that],” said Saldano.

In fact, the Beyond the Bullshit Conference is just one part of the Climate Coalition’s ongoing coalition-building effort for environmental justice in Santa Cruz. In the week leading up to their first ever conference, Climate Coalition members were busy supporting fellow activists. 

Logan Haug, a steering committee member, tabled at the UAW picket line throughout the first week of the Academic Workers’ strike. 

“Even though on the surface labor action might not seem connected to climate action, if you look a little bit deeper, they’re actually the same fight,” Haug said. “[W]hen workers are empowered, they can democratically run the university, so we can get off of [fossil fuel plants] that supply our campus with energy.”

A few days later, Haug, Parden and Caminada were brainstorming Earth Day 2023 plans with advocates for equitable transportation and ecospiritualist activists at an environmental organizing mixer. 

Organizers from the coalition’s network showed up in abundance, and their presence enriched the attendee experience. Attendees might have learned something new from someone tabling in the courtyard, engaged in a discussion with an alumni, been moved by a student’s musical performance, or simply chatted with someone doing important work in their community.  

Lila Roginski representing the Enviroslug and the Student Environmental Center in front of the Red Room.

At the end of the day, with the sky dimming, the Coalition and their supporters gathered outside. They hugged and congratulated each other, celebrating their success, and looking forward to the work still ahead of them. 

“Climate change is a big issue,” said Mansergh. “But we can do something. [W]e have to make sure that we keep fighting, keep pushing through, and we keep just talking about it.”
The UCSC Climate Coalition meets every other Saturday outside of McHenry. You can find out how to get involved on their website.