One University of Massachusetts Amherst student’s work to get her campus to commit to 100% renewable energy

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Kaitlyn Mitchell said no to being an activist before she said yes. In fact, even after she said yes, she quit a couple of times.

But each time she came back.

Why? Perhaps, it was her political and community-minded upbringing. As a kid she would go to speeches made by her union president mom. She was also inspired by her dad, who ran youth sports programs at the YMCA. It might have been self-interest. Asthma attacks, made worse by bad air pollution, had plagued her since she was two years old. In the end, though, it could have been that she realized that if she didn’t push for what she believed in, who would?

Kaitlyn with her twin sister at their family’s home in Springfield, MA which has the dubious distinction of being dubbed the “Asthma Capital of the United States” by the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America.

When Kaitlyn, who grew up in Springfield, Mass., arrived at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she was among the 100-plus students who attended the semester kickoff meeting of the MASSPIRG Student Chapter, a student-advocacy group working to protect the environment, alleviate poverty, and increase participation in democracy. But she didn’t immediately lean in because she felt compelled to figure out her coursework and her major first.

As Kaitlyn grappled with how to impact large societal issues, her premed & biology major made less and less sense to her. At the end of her freshman year, Kaitlyn switched her major to natural resources & conservation. When she found out MASSPIRG was working to transition the campus to 100 percent renewable energy she knew that was the kind of thing she wanted to be part of.

Numerous studies, including ones conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, confirm that we have the technical potential to meet all of Earth’s energy needs many times over with clean renewable energy. So, changing society’s relationship with energy was, in Kaitlyn’s mind, not a question of whether it could be done but, rather, figuring out how to get leaders to imagine repowering operations with renewable energy and committing themselves to that task.

As a grassroots intern at MASSPIRG her sophomore year, Kaitlyn did a lot of advocacy work alongside some good old-fashioned guerilla marketing. Notably, one time, she and a team of volunteers spray painted a graffiti wall at UMass. On one side of the wall they painted a nature scene complete with wildlife and sweeping vistas, and, on the other side, images of a polluted dystopia with the text: “There Is No Planet B.” They then set up a table in front of the mural and challenged passers-by to pick a side. At the end of three hours of work, Kaitlyn and her team collected signatures from 250 people for a petition calling on the university to commit to renewable energy. And, perhaps most importantly, they all had a great time doing it.

A memorable MassPIRG action, where this grafitti mural served as a backdrop to petitioning for 100% renewable energy. Photo credit: Kaitlyn Mitchell

Her approach invoked Emma Goldman: “”If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.”

During her junior year, Kaitlyn joined the UMass chancellor’s carbon mitigation task force — a group responsible for figuring out the university’s plan to reduce carbon emissions. Her first question to the faculty and staff who joined her on the task force was “why don’t we set out to repower the entire campus with 100 percent renewable energy?”

While figuring out how to go about reducing UMass’s carbon emissions, Kaitlyn aimed to make sure student energy and passion infused the process, She thought up creative ways to get her classmates involved in helping select the engineering consulting firm charged with getting UMass to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. Thanks to the strong student support for 100 percent renewable energy, the task force’s conclusions became more than quickly shelved recommendations — they became a mandate.

MASSPIRG students deliver clean energy valentines to school leaders

At the dawn of her senior year, UMass unveiled a new slogan and brand: “Be Revolutionary.” It was a signal to Kaitlyn.

“If that’s going to be our slogan, we need to be revolutionary,” she said. “UMass 100 percent by 2035. We have the greatest minds on this campus. If anyone can figure it out, we can.”

In late November 2020, UMass unveiled its draft Carbon Mitigation Plan, which provides the roadmap for the campus to get off fossil fuels for electricity and heating and cooling by 2035.

In the coming months, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy will review this plan. With his approval UMass Amherst will embark on its journey to move the commonwealth’s flagship campus to 100 percent renewable energy, living up to its charge to “Be Revolutionary.”

Meanwhile, for Kaitlyn this is surely progress, but it’s only the start. She has become an outspoken advocate for 100 percent renewable energy, advocating at state house rallies and even deciding to pursue student organizing professionally.

Kaitlyn Mitchell speaks to reporters about 100 percent renewable energy in front of the Massachusetts State House.

This year she took a job as a campus organizer at Rutgers University, training the next generation of student leaders. Not surprisingly, with Kaitlyn on board, students at Rutgers recently decided to organize their own campaign to get their university to commit to 100 percent renewable energy. They’ll undoubtedly be buoyed by Kaitlyn and her organizing experience at UMass.

Kaitlyn’s on-going work is reflective of a trend we’re seeing across the country. Students in California led the movement to get the University of California System to commit to 100 percent renewable energy last year. Now the University of Massachusetts Amherst is on the cusp of doing the same. It’s clear that student activism is driving a race to the top on clean energy. The campus enthusiasm and drive that Kaitlyn embodies can show the rest of the country what is possible. Here’s hoping that we may all “Be Revolutionary” in 2021.