Changing the Climate: The Hopes of Those Unseen and Unheard on Campus

It’s crazy to think that a year ago, I decided to embark on an experimental journey to see ways to transform my school to become a beacon of campus sustainability. As the newly elected Speaker Pro Tempore (SPT) of the Undergraduate Senate at American University, I’m standing at a crossroads of opportunity and responsibility. It’s not just a title; it’s a chance to make a real difference. I’m an openly gay, disabled, and low-income student at AU holding this position, and I carry with me not only hope for a better campus but also the hopes of those who’ve felt unheard and unseen.

I want to quickly talk about the role and how it changed for the first time this year. The SPT is the highest ranked official elected by the Undergraduate Senate, it assigns senators to committees, waives senate absences, does reporting requirements for Student Government officers, represents the student body on various committees the SPT is selected for, and also has the power to launch and dissolve commissions and ad-hoc committees. Ultimately the SPT decides the legislative and advocacy direction for the Senate. The presiding officer of the senate goes to the Student Body Vice President whom I serve dually with to ensure the Senate runs smoothly and efficiently. In the case of their absence, I preside during the session.

My journey here wasn’t easy. Growing up, I faced challenges that many couldn’t even imagine. But these experiences didn’t weaken me; they fueled my passion for sustainability and ecological justice. I’ve always believed that being at the margins gives you a unique perspective, a different way of seeing the world. It’s from this vantage point that I launched my campaign, driven by a vision for a greener, more sustainable future for our university.

I didn’t do this alone. I was lucky to find a group of like-minded individuals, passionate about the Green New Deal for AU (GND4AU). We worked tirelessly, recruiting a slate of candidates for the UG Senate who shared our vision, culminating in endorsements from Sunrise AU which launched the GND4AU platform. The hard work paid off – we won 21 out of 30 seats, a supermajority! This wasn’t just a victory for us; it was a triumph for every student who dreams of a more sustainable campus.

Now, as Speaker Pro Tempore, my first of many orders of business is to launch a commission to outline student recommendations for carbon offsets and a new sustainability timeline for our school. This isn’t just about reducing carbon footprints; it’s about reimagining our relationship with our planet. We need to create a sustainable future that respects and nurtures the environment while also being inclusive and accessible to all students, regardless of their background.

This role has given me a platform to champion the causes my campus cares deeply about. I’m determined to use this opportunity to drive real change, to make our campus a beacon of sustainability and ecological justice. We’re not just planning for the next few years; we’re laying the groundwork for the future generations of American University students.

My story is a testament to what can be achieved when we refuse to be defined by the barriers in front of us. It’s about turning challenges into catalysts for change. As I embark on this journey, I hope to inspire others to believe in the power of their voice and the strength of their convictions. We can create a sustainable, just, and inclusive future. It’s not just a dream; it’s a plan, and it starts now.

Salvatore Cottone – RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – American University

RCC Fellow Salvatore Cottone is a junior at American University (AU) pursuing a major in Political Science and a double minor in Environmental Policy and Italian Regional Studies. After graduation, he plans to work in climate policy in Washington, DC and help elect climate champions to federal and state office across the United States. He currently serves as a Senator for the Campus At-Large in American University’s student government and serves in the AU Faculty Senate for the Committee on Undergraduate Curriculum. Cottone helped get a campus-wide referendum for a Green New Deal on the ballot. It passed by 83%.