The Climate Action Dinner Series, which is a part of Brandeis’  Year of Climate Action and is organized in collaboration with the Samuels Center for Community Partnerships and Civic Transformation, is a series of four dinners that aim to teach students how to advocate for effective climate policy. The first dinner was held on Oct. 13, with the second and most recent dinner taking place on Nov. 1, and two more to follow on Nov. 15 and Nov. 30. 

Climate Organizer-in-Residence Eben Bein, who leads the dinners, is the field and education manager for the Massachusetts’ branch of Our Climate, a national organization that “empowers young people to advocate for the science-based, equitable, and intersectional climate justice policies that build a thriving world.” Bein also serves as an administrator for the Massachusetts Youth Climate Coalition, which is a collection of 30 youth-run organizations across Massachusetts advocating for climate justice. Lana Taffel ’25, a Massachusetts fellow for Our Climate, also facilitated the dinner.

The focus of this dinner was Massachusetts-specific environmental justice challenges and intersectionalities. Bein opened the discussion with an examination of a graphic titled the “Wheel of Power/Privilege.” This activity aimed to help attendees reflect upon their own identities and the various privileges — or lack thereof — they hold and to consider how these components relate to their experiences of the climate crisis. Created by Canadian educator and artist Sylvia Duckworth, the wheel depicts various identities people hold and the degree of privilege it grants them. The closer a “category” to the center of the wheel, the more power someone holds; those on the outskirts of the wheel are considered marginalized. 

The bulk of the rest of the dinner focused on specific environmental justice initiatives in Massachusetts. Bein reflected upon the role of Bill S.9, “An Act Creating a Next-Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy,” which was signed Mar. 26, 2021, in catalyzing many of these efforts. The bill defines what an “environmental justice” community is, which Bein considers highly important in identifying the communities most vulnerable to and overburdened by the effects of climate change.

According to the official website for the Commonwealth, EJ communities must fulfill one or more of the following criteria regarding socioeconomic status, language isolation, and demographic makeup:

  1. The annual median household income is 65% or less of the statewide annual median household income; minorities make up 40% or more of the population.
  2. 25% or more of households identify as speaking English less than "very well.”
  3. Minorities make up 25% or more of the population, and the annual median household income of the municipality in which the neighborhood is located does not exceed 150% of the statewide annual median household income.

The website also features various interactive maps highlighting the location and spread of EJ communities throughout Massachusetts. Most EJ communities are concentrated in eastern Massachusetts, in the greater Boston area. 

In particular, Bein discussed the EJ community of Chelsea, where for decades, community members have advocated for environmental justice and a higher quality of life through community groups like Chelsea GreenRoots. According to an article by WBUR, most communities in Chelsea are situated among environmental hazards like trash incinerators and fuel storage tanks. Chelsea is also home to the New England Produce Center, which sees high levels of trucks passing through on a daily basis that emit a variety of pollutants. Geography also further complicates the situation, as Chelsea’s location along the coast makes it susceptible to sea level rise that may damage these industrial facilities. 

Earlier this semester, on Sept. 28, Associate Executive Director of GreenRoots Maria Belen Powers, who oversees GreenRoots’ environmental and climate justice campaigns, joined the Heller School for a presentation and panel discussion about environmental and climate justice. 

A common theme Bein stressed throughout the dinner was the importance of leveraging the experiences and privileges Brandeis students hold to make a difference. They specifically cited the importance of developing liaisons with community groups like GreenRoots to ensure that students advocate for policies that actually help these communities. Maintaining these community links also decentralizes the movement and taps into the idea of group power. Bein compared this idea to the fact that murmurations, or large flocks of starlings, only pay attention to the seven birds closest to them, but by doing so, they are able to create immense rippling patterns and synchronicity that nonetheless have a significant impact.

Bein also touched briefly on other actionable items, such as Our Climate’s Lobby Days, as situations in which students can leverage their educational privilege to make a difference. Lobby Days, as Bein describes, are days in which students attend the beginning of legislative sessions and advocate for certain policies to “make the point that young people are here and care about an issue.” According to Bein, students’ educational backgrounds allow them to analyze arguments and talk a “kind of lingo that not everyone is able to talk.” 

Although higher education provides individuals with the skills and abilities to advocate for policy change, Bein also expressed his desire to see an expansion of civic education in schools. “What if every young person had the time, resources, and professional support to engage in this work that is so meaningful to their future?” they asked. “[Current] curricula are designed specifically to parse student power from the political machine … the resulting curriculum is playing into fossil fuels companies' agendas. Institutions are too scared, and we sit in that inertia.”

The dinner concluded with attendees breaking out into smaller groups to network and discuss potential future actionable items. The themes of the final two dinners include how educational institutions need to change to be part of the solution, as well as how Brandeis holds its legislators accountable. For those interested in advocating for climate justice and policy, these dinners provide a casual and uplifting environment to get started.