It is no secret around Concordia’s campus that junior Erik George is an involved student. Behind his shy smile is the modesty to prove he does not want undue attention.
With him, George carries a royal blue, stainless steel water bottle and “The Star Tribune” folded under his arm. This college student does what he can to be aware.
George, the president of Concordia’s Student Environmental Alliance, has a passion for his work. Because he believes a healthy environment is dependent on the public and individuals, George spends a lot of time talking with peers on Concordia’s campus. He talks with them about avoiding practices that would harm the environment.
George is committed to protecting the environment. Now, with help from the environmental organization Repower North Dakota, George and others with similar interests are able to visibly and verbally express their love for the earth.
SEA has partnered with the local division of the environmental organization Repower America, Repower North Dakota, to create video petitions. A change from the traditional scribbled names on paper petitions, the video petitions are short, scripted pleas addressed to lawmakers. They allow a person to express a love for the earth in a way traditional ink and paper petitions cannot.
Repower America was formed in 2008 as a part of the Alliance for Climate Protection, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization started by Al Gore.
According to a document by the Alliance for Climate Protection, Repower America’s goal is to attain “clean, renewable and diversified energy sources; a unified national smart energy grid that connects these renewable energy sources to every part of the country; and clean car technology.” They want to attain legislation for a healthy environment.
After George saw Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth,” he planned a road trip for the summer before his senior year of high school, the summer of 2006. The film had sparked an awareness of the environment in George, and inspired him and a classmate to road trip to Glacier National Park.
This early foray into environmental exploration is what started it all. George took an interest in the environment, in protecting it.
As a result of his trip to Glacier, George felt a strong connection between himself and the earth that, he said, not everyone appreciates. George places responsibility for the cleanliness of the earth on the actions of the people who live on it.
“If you want to pollute the earth, pollute the ground,” George said. “That’s how we’re going to be polluted.”
In the Atrium, Concordia’s student commons, campus organizations can reserve tables that line the bright, open hall to advertise and attract busy students on their walk through the building. Handmade signs made of colorful butcher paper hang over the tables, with bold lettering to name the organizations.
The students representing their groups want attention. They want to talk about their organization, a cause they believe in.
SEA has had a table in the Atrium many times, and as a student worker there, George has felt the loneliness that can accompany being an activist. While some people are eager to hear about SEA’s projects, others ignore the booth, avoid eye contact, and walk by without a word.
George said a factor in whether or not people will stop to chat is the demeanor of the representative at the table. Students who make themselves heard above the student chatter, calling out to students walking by, are paid more attention, George said.
Confidence, volume, and having no concept of rejection make for a good activist. At the same time, there is a line. Respecting peoples’ views and comfort zones is important, George said.
“You don’t want to push people away,” he said, “by any means.”
Not everyone welcomes George’s message. It is difficult for him to talk with the people who can justify littering, he said. Conversations with people who disagree with his cause do not last very long, he said.
“I get so frustrated sometimes,” George said. “To blatantly disrespect the earth, where you come from, is kind of criminal.”
An activist becomes attached to their cause. Think of all the time they spend trying to educate and convince people to agree with them on an issue they care about. With so much emotion going into their cause, a face-to-face appeal to lawmakers was only a matter of time.
Eric Mitchell, director for Repower North Dakota, said the video petitions are Repower America’s response to the Internet medium, and they are using their resources.
“It takes it one step further than a paper petition,” Mitchell said.
Video petitions are more personal. They show the faces of voters, no hiding behind white paper and ink. According to Mitchell, finding people to do the videos is especially difficult in the upper Midwest.
It’s when the team at Repower North Dakota is standing on a street corner in Fargo that they inherit difficulties. Attribute it to the niceness of the upper Midwestern people. Signing a name to a petition is less personal than committing your smile, your eyes. On video, every blink is captured for the world to see, to critique.
A college community is more open to the production video petitions, Mitchell said.
For the video petitions made at Concordia, George looks for people who are in a good mood, and not distracted by homework or conversations. He asks them if they have a few minutes to help the environment. George then tells them there is little pressure when making a video – any mistakes can be re-shot.
“It’s so simple,” George said. “It’s so easy to do, and it can make a huge difference.”
All participants have the option of using a script for their video. Matching Repower America’s nonpartisan approach, the video petition script is not designed to advocate for specific legislation. It is designed to ask senators to focus some attention on the environment.
The script addresses a senator by name, allows the participant to say what they are doing to support a healthy environment, and that they will be watching to see what the senator does to help the environment in the upcoming year.
The petitions made by SEA and Repower North Dakota are directed towards Sen. Byron Dorgan and Sen. Kent Conrad, both of North Dakota. Other branches of Repower America direct their video petitions at the lawmakers for their state.
The video recorders are digital. Once a video is recorded, representatives from Repower North Dakota can upload the clip onto the Repower North Dakota Web site in moments, ready for the world to see.
In the spring of 2009, Repower North Dakota began working with SEA to tap into the Concordia student body, working together to raise awareness and gather signatures for petitions.
While Repower North Dakota and SEA began working together, Repower America was forming the initial plan for video petitioning. This idea was further developed in late summer 2009.
On its inaugural introduction to the Web site in late fall 2009, Repower America unveiled thousands of videos, Mitchell said. The videos are posted on The Wall, a specific page on Repower America’s Web site. The Wall acts like a blog. On it, activists with Repower America throughout the United States collect and post the faces and voices of people who want lawmaker’s attention on clean air legislation.
Videos of Stephen Hawking, Bill Nye (the Science Guy), Ted Turner, Evander Holyfield, and Sheryl Crow join thousands of videos of concerned citizens on The Wall. Every video has a screen shot. The viewer can navigate their way around the videos and choose whose video petition they want to see and hear.
According to Mitchell, Repower America is the first to be doing video petitions in a national campaign.
While both Dorgan and Conrad’s Fargo offices were familiar with Repower America/North Dakota as of early February, their press staffs could not comment specifically on the viewing of video petitions.
Conrad’s press staff in Washington, D.C., said there were over 100,000 pieces of correspondence sent to the senator in 2009, each of which were reviewed and responded to, the press staff said.
There was a time, Mitchell said, when you could call lawmakers at home and they would sit down and talk with you. Now, with so many citizens for a lawmaker to represent, there is less one-on-one contact, he said.
When the lawmakers see the faces of the people they represent saying they support clean energy legislation, Repower North Dakota and SEA are hoping the result will be more effective than what a pen-and-paper petition can render. Yes, they get a name, but they also get a face.
“It’s all there,” said Mitchell. “It’s genuine. It becomes more personal. The senators, or their staff, do take notice.”
The Wall’s video petitions are a new tool being used by Repower America.
Whether they will truly make a difference is up to the time availability of the lawmakers and the vocal abilities of the activists. Activists like George, who will keep working to let people hear his message about caring for the environment.
Julie Guggemos is a senior at Concordia studying English Writing. In addition to her position as PULSE Editor at the Concordian, she is also an intern at the High Plains Reader, a publication out of Fargo, ND, and a tutor at Concordia’s Writing Center. After graduation Julie plans to attend a publishing program and look for work in the publishing industry.