Berenice Tompkins

For this week’s campus celebrity, I had the privilege of interviewing Berenice Tompkins. After her first semester at Grinnell, she took a year off to walk in the Great March for Climate Action. Interested in learning about Berenice and the Great March for Climate Action? Keep reading for the whole interview!

HCG: Can you tell me a little bit about the Great March for Climate Action?

BT: Great March for Climate Change Action was walk from LA to DC from March 1st to November 1st. I joined April 14th in Arizona and participated for about 6.5 months of out the entire journey. It began with 30 people and grew up to 70 people, but people would come in and out throughout the march, and anyone could join. I was one of the youngest people on the march, but there was a high school student who spent their summer with us. There was also a family on the march who had a three, six, and nine year old. They [the family] were trying to send the message that it may be hard to commit to a more serious action on climate change when you have kids, but it is one of the most responsible things you can do for your kids, because you’re protecting their livable future.

HCG: Why were you inspired to go on this march?

BT: I want to be able to have kids and grandkids and feel like the earth will be a place where they can survive and thrive. The way things are looking now, it doesn’t seem like it will happen. Being alive at this time is tremendously exciting because we’re at a fork in the road. I’m grateful to be alive at this time because nothing in human history will be as significant to me that I could direct my time to. We’re all lucky to be alive at this time because there is the potential to enact tremendous change that is needed. We have the power to seize this opportunity to make the world a better place. We need to be braver and open and compassionate and willing to take risks, more willing to take action that has never been taken before, instead of just accepting our fate.  In addition, climate change is the ultimate issue of injustice because people who contribute the most to it are the least impacted, so this for me, was addressing injustice.

HCG: Do you have any advice for Grinnellians who may consider taking a year off from school?

BT: I would highly recommend it; it’s a really important opportunity to reflect on what you’re getting out of your education and why you’re getting an education. It is an opportunity to do tangible work on something that is important to you. It can bring you to new questions, which you can go back to explore academically. These two forms of learning are complementary and it’s important that they happen. You also get to interact with people you would never interact with in an academic context. When you take time off, you encounter all kinds of people and situations and that teaches you in ways that academics cant. 

HCG: What struck you the most on the march/what did you take away from it?

BT: One of the things that struck me the most is that a lot of people think of climate change isn’t really impacting the US yet, and they think of it as something that will impact the future. One of the most significant things was hearing from people all over the US and their experiences of how climate change impacts them. It’s important to give human faces and voices to the climate crisis because it’s easy to think of it as an abstract issue. It’s not easy to connect human experience to climate change, as if you could with war or poverty. I think that hearing the human voices of climate change and sharing our own stories of what made us want to march.  Also, I think it is important to tell the stories about the communities across the country responding to climate change, because we tend to think that only specific people take serious action. So what’s powerful about these stories is that ordinary people from a wide variety of backgrounds came together to take a stand. We wanted people to take away that everyone can do something and everyone in the world can participate in different forms of activism. In addition, I fell in love with the country and the people and I may be upset at all of its [the country’s] institutions, but I have hope of the people. My major take away from the march is that climate change needs to be our priority.

HCG: What are you involved in on campus?

HCG: The main thing I’m involved in is the Grinnell divestment movement, which started this semester. It’s the removal of our institution’s investments from fossil fuels industry. We have a long struggle ahead of us, but we need to show our administration that we can divest without losing our endowment. The movement asserts that profit needs to be accountable to human health and the wellbeing of ecosystems.