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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC students share what drives their activism

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In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, The Daily Tar Heel interviewed student activists at UNC. 

Senior Sarah Wright is a co-director of Nourish UNC, a campus organization that seeks to address social and economic justice through social entrepreneurship, ventures and community partnerships. 

For five weeks, Nourish UNC provided low-cost lunch options for those participating in the Boycott UNC movement. Later, Nourish switched to a pay-what-you-can model, which allowed financially disadvantaged students to enjoy a free lunch while allowing the donations of others to be contributed to the Center for Civil Rights. 

While Nourish UNC’s participation of the Boycott UNC movement supported an issue close to the hearts of some members of the UNC community, the organization’s impact has historically stretched even farther. Wright became involved with Nourish UNC after the organization sponsored an internship for her to go abroad in Rwanda, a service regularly provided by the organization at the time. 

This year, however, Nourish UNC will not initiate any international projects due to the challenges and ethical questions surrounding international service. 

“We are spending this time being very mindful of what matters to us as people and as an organization and trying to figure out how to act in alignment with that,” Wright said. “I think that fits with a lot of what MLK exemplifies.” 

In fact, Wright owes much of her momentum as an activist to the UNC community. 

“Many of the classes I’ve supported me to think deeply about the world I live in and my place in it,” she said. “That has allowed me to understand that I come from a place of great privilege, and activism, in my world at least, should be an expected part of life.”

Based on her research in climate change, Ph.D. candidate Mejs Hasan was asked to serve as one of UNC’s delegates attending the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23) in Bonn, Germany. 

Hasan initiated a series of blog posts written by the attending students to be published in The Daily Tar Heel. Each day of the conference, students published blogs and other multimedia components documenting their experience at this international organization of climate activists. 

But this was not the only way Hasan married scientific issues with the power of storytelling for advocacy. In a previous job, her company’s services included rehabilitating and identifying dying sea animals. After finding a turtle’s stomach full of plastic, a belt buckle piece, and even a comb, Hasan was struck by the environmental gravity of this situation. She wished there was a way to connect with kids about these issues. 

“If the kids get really riled up about a turtle dying because there’s too much plastic trash, they’ll be telling their parents,” Hasan said. 

Using her animation skills, Hasan began working with young students to illustrate and animate stories involving environmental justice. After writing the story herself, students at the school each take a page and draw an illustration. Then, Hasan records their narration of the page and animates the page with each student, eventually compiling a book made by the whole class. 

Hasan hopes that these activities will influence the students’ choices in the future. She also includes students who come from a variety of social, racial and economic backgrounds, so the cooperative skills they learn in the animation process can be applied to working together in the future. 

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Carter Smith also attended the COP23 talks as an observer to see how her research in marine science fit into the broader climate change discussion on a global scale. She is a PhD candidate in the marine sciences and lives in Morehead City, North Carolina at UNC’s satellite Institute of Marine Sciences facility. 

“A lot of people come into science because they want to know how something works or they want to understand on a basic level why some process is happening,” Smith said. “The reason why I came into science was to hopefully be a participant in helping to solve some of these major problems that are facing this country and planet.”

As she seeks to tackle these issues, Smith’s overarching goal is to convince consumers that making sustainable decisions can be a win-win scenario. To relay this information to the public, Smith works extensively translating science to policy and advocating for the inclusion of science into the political process. 

Smith has worked towards acquiring a regional permit for nature-based shorelines and has also presented a congressional briefing for about 100 congressional representatives in North Carolina. 

“We need to stop seeing climate change as this huge cost, and instead we need to look at it like an opportunity and an investment in our future,” Smith said. 

Senior Mitch Xia has been highly active in many of UNC’s social justice activism, serving as a proponent in anti-racist organizing and being involved in The Real Silent Sam Coalition, the UNControllables and anti-House Bill 2 initiatives. 

The subjects of this activism, Xia said, often follows the news cycles, especially the election of President Donald Trump and the nationwide attention given to Silent Sam over the past semester.

“The specific issues that are at the forefront are constantly changing,” Xia said. “I do what I do because I feel like someone has to. If we don’t keep putting pressure on this university to do better, then it’s not going to do better.”

Shared grievances about the University have been particular formative to their personal political development over the past few years, Xia said. In the future, they to work in an industry that aligns with their values, such as education and socioeconomic equity. 

“I don’t plan on ever not being an activist," Xia said. "Political activism is always going to happen in colleges, and it’s actually a good thing that it doesn’t have an end point. I don’t conceive of an endpoint for student organizing."