Art as climate activism

A new USC pilot program funds 12 students to create projects centered around issues of sustainability.

USC students looking to use art as a way to combat climate change and push for sustainability have a new way of doing so through the university’s Arts and Climate Collective.

Through the pilot program, USC undergraduate and graduate students apply to fund projects connecting arts, culture, and storytelling with sustainability and environmental justice issues.

Twelve students were selected on April 22 to win awards of up to $1,000 for their arts and media projects. Some of the topics ranged from animated films about rising sea levels, spoken word poetry on sustainability and a podcast about the relationship between climate change, air pollution and homelessness to name a few.

The idea for the ACC grew out of the USC Presidential Sustainability Working Group — a committee of faculty, staff and students who work on recommendations and changes to lessen the university’s environmental impact — and conversations with the USC community about the impact of art and culture work combined with research and action around sustainability. The new program was funded by the USC Office of Sustainability and Arts in Action, through the USC Office of the Provost.

“All of these students are using the power of the arts to open hearts and minds and to help more people understand and feel the complex challenges that we’re all facing,” USC Presisdent Folt said of the collective during the USC Voices of Sustainability event on April 23.

To celebrate Earth Day on April 22, the university held a number of events, conferences, lectures and workshops displaying their sustainability progress and future plans. On Friday, April 23, two of the ACC recipients — Irene Franco Rubio and Cameron Audras — showcased introductions of their projects at the Voices of Sustainability event.

“Now, perhaps more than any other time in history, we need creative action to take a lead in our efforts to address the enormous and inequitable risks posed by climate change,”

said Audras, a viola performance and environmental studies double major and Arts and Climate collective participant, during the event. A clip from his project premiered at the event.

“For a long while I felt that I was not qualified enough to speak on these issues as an activist, or that I was too young to have valuable contribution, but I realized that my lived experience was my expertise, and that I could contribute right away,” Rubio said. She is a sociology student at USC as well as a writer, activist and organizer.

As a member of the ACC, she is creating a “podcast and digital movement that uplifts bipoc young people’s voices to give space for critical conversations on social, racial [and] environmental justice.”

Sustainability is a key issue for the university under President Folt. In January 2020, the university unveiled plans for a sustainabilty plan for the university through 2028 to succeed the 2020 Sustainability Plan. This plan included zero-waste initiatives on campus, better wastewater facilities and management and the installation of solar panels ontop of the Galen Center in April 2020, which is one of the largest solar projects on campus to date. The full report on the implementation of the 2020 plan will be released around the end of April, according to Associate Director of the Office of Sustainability Ellen Dukes.

Many of these efforts stemmed from student action, which Folt mentioned in the Voices of Sustainability. She applauded students for movements like Divest SC, which successfully urged the administration to sell and redistribute the administration’s investments in fossil fuels in February. Folt herself even attended a student-led climate protest in 2019 on the University Park Campus.

More recently, Folt joined Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to discuss the role of educational institutions in the city’s sustainability efforts. Mayor Garcetti also unveiled a Green New Deal for Los Angeles in 2019, with plans for the city to recycle all wastewater by 2035, use only renewable energy by 2045 and make all buildings emissions-free by 2050.

“From the beginning of time, the arts have been a powerful tool in communicating, narrating and empowering, new visions to enlighten humanity,” Audras said before presenting his work.

Students in the ACC will support each other and have the option to connect with faculty experts for guidance on their projects throughout the summer.

“This is to save our planet is for everyone because preserving and making our future sustainable is going to require support from all of us,” Rubio said. “Most importantly, for youth of color, it is especially critical that we join forces to continue the work of our ancestors and preserve Mother Earth, as we are all inhabitants on the sacred land.”