Fun fact: I’m partially the reason you have to pay for plastic bags. Back in college, I was a part of CALPIRG (California Public Interest Research Group) — non-profit organizations that employ grassroots organizing and direct advocacy with the goal of effecting liberal political change. Most students call them the annoying people with the clipboards around The Arbor pestering you to fill out a petition, but there’s more to it than that. My time there was spent going around asking for petitions to lower the student debt, make events to showcase the use of solar power, and also talk to representatives at the state capitol to have them vote for legislation we support. As busy as I was my junior year at UCSB, after hearing one speech from the campus chapter leader, I was hooked. I had to join.
I have the fondest memories from everyone I met in CALPIRG. It was amazing to be surrounded by a large group of people who all seemingly had the same interests as you and was out to try to make a difference. One of the first challenges we tackled was banning the use of plastic bags in Santa Barbara County. My duties involved going around town to collect as many signatures as possible and some small office duties such as scheduling. Much to our surprise, what we thought would be a law local to SB was passed as legislation for all of California. Even though it wasn’t a total ban on single use plastic bags, you as a consumer would be charged five cents a bag. It was a step in the right direction nonetheless. If this change annoys you, feel free to blame me and everyone in UCSB’s CALPIRG during that year. We fucking did it.
My love for the environment and nature stems solely from my hippy 4th grade teacher Mr. Wright who sang John Lennon and Beatles songs. He was cool as fuck. He never shaved — he didn’t believe in it. He didn’t have a TV and most unusual, he drove a Suzuki. He always had his guitar with him and would play a tune towards the end of the day and we’d sing along. My favorite to this day will always be Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. I was always a science nerd as a kid, but learning about the environment and the level of destruction humans have done really opened up my eyes to the world and the importance of nature.
One event I helped out with involved collecting donations for the homeless, not so much cash donations, but toiletries. We setup outside the Albertsons a few miles by campus, which thinking back was not totally legal, but we didn’t care. Everyone who walked by, we’d kindly ask if they could donate something to help the homeless. Surprisingly, a large number of the strangers did come back out with something for us. Whether it was tissue paper, toothbrushes, or bars of soap, every little thing we got handed, we were immensely thankful for.
Another event I played a part in was a demonstration on the use of solar power as a natural renewable resource. We hauled these large solar panels and hooked it up to a blender of all things and made free smoothies for any students who wanted one. It was fun, like really fucking fun. It was amazing to see people’s reactions to seeing a working blender being powered by sunlight. We checked the weekly forecast everyday leading up to the event making sure it was bright and sunny. I helped a bit to answer student’s questions and hand out any fliers. It was hot, I was sweaty, but I found it quite fun and rewarding.
We also got to drive up together as group to go to the state capitol and pester actual congressmen and the snobby political elite. I met people who worked for Leland Yee before he was arrested a year later for racketeering charges, money laundering, public corruption and bribery. Pretty fucking wild to think about. We got to meet all the other UC CALPIRG chapters as part of PIRG day and spent a few days discussing future collective efforts and what to go after next. I was in awe at this point. There was people all around me who were just as passionate and shared a deep rooted desire to enact change. It’s still one of the best memories I have about my time in UCSB that didn’t involve the usual partying or nights to the club.
We didn’t get paid a cent to do any of this and volunteered all our free time in the hopes someone high up would hear us out and agree. It was altruism at its finest with the end goal something favorable for the good of the people. Some of my friends from CALPIRG went on to work for public policy and as social workers. I’m jealous and couldn’t be more happy they got their start here. If I could revisit any time from college, this is one is high up there on my list and my god I miss it and everyone I met.