In today’s world, social activism and conservation efforts are extremely important. Many college students have taken action to contribute to the fight for our planet, including Ria Coen Gilbert, a senior at the University of California, San Diego. Here’s my conversation with Ria, chair of the UCSD chapter and statewide chair of the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG).
Start off by telling me your name, year, major, and hometown!
My name is Ria Coen Gilbert, I am a fourth year here at UCSD (this is my last quarter, so wild!). I’m a sociology major, concentrating in law and society, and a political science minor. I’m actually from the East Coast, more specifically Pennsylvania.
What led you to join CALPIRG?
I actually joined CALPIRG as a remote intern in the summer of 2020, when I was home during COVID. I joined because that summer was packed with social injustice and it was the height of the pandemic before vaccinations started. I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed and disconnected from campus life and was wanting a way to connect with the UCSD community in order to make a bigger impact in the world before the 2020 election. I joined the new voters project to help register California college students to vote. We ended up registering 10,000 students across the state of California, and we were able to speak to 80,000 people across the state about voter activism and voters rights. It was a huge campaign to bring power to student voices in a nonpartisan way.
After the election, I became the lead coordinator for the 100% clean energy campaign, for which our goal is to get the entirety of California to shift to completely clean energy by 2030. Prior to this campaign, CALPIRG was able to get California to commit to a 2045 clean energy commitment. But unfortunately, science has informed us that 2045 is too late for global warming effects, so now we are shifting towards 2030 as our goal! We were able to get the UC system to commit to 100% clean energy by 2025, which is a huge accomplishment.
Currently, we shifted focus to the beyond plastics campaign while still maintaining efforts in clean energy. Our goal is to get the state of california to ban all single-use plastics. We’ve already gotten the UCs to commit to banning the use of single plastics, and there was recently a bill passed to ban the use of single-use plastics in E-commerce (Amazon, SHEIN, etc). Recently, we’ve been focusing on garnering support from students to convince legislators that this is what the younger generations want!
What are you, individually, trying to achieve within your position?
I am both the chair of CALPIRG UCSD and elected as the chair of the statewide executive board. I’m basically the head of the whole non-profit organization, which is crazy to say as a college student [laughing]. I have different goals for each position I hold: at UCSD, I want to see more people engaged on campus and help people gain knowledge about organizing activist projects. I think a lot of people get bogged down by climate change, thinking that no individual actions can help, but I think if there is better education on running campaigns that result in actual action, it won’t seem as scary. I want to empower students to use their voices using strategies that will help them be heard.
As statewide chair, I want to create cohesive efforts across all of the UCs to help realize our goals of a clean, green future while incorporating as many voices as we can along the way. For our lead campaigns, it’s really important that we actually see a win and continue our momentum for making change.
What motivated you to advance and grow within your organization?
When I joined, I really had no idea what was in store for me. I thought it was just going to be a cool internship, but once I joined, I realized that CALPIRG really levels up students in leadership and allows us to take ownership of our efforts. I’m someone who always says yes to new opportunities, so it was almost simple to show up, put in effort, and put in the work with a smile on my face. All I can say really is, I said yes! [laughing]
We are an activist training organization first and foremost; our main goal is to train students to be activists. It’s been unlike any internship I’ve ever had, and the amount of training I’ve had has prepared me better than any other experience has.
What has been your favorite memory with your involvement?
There are so many, I don’t know what to choose! [laughing] I was leading a youth climate action event that took place on Earth Day last year. It was a remote Zoom event, but we got tons of amazing speakers to come to the event, such as Sonia Aggerwall of the Biden Administration. I think one of the coolest parts of this event was that we got a video from the rapper Lil Dicky talking about CALPIRG and about how cool our efforts were and how we’re saving the planet. I got to introduce him to hundreds of people on the Zoom call, and it was really cool to see that there’s influential figures like policymakers and celebrities who want to come to our events.
What are some actions for students to take who are wanting to contribute to conservation efforts?
I think that there are a bunch of small actions that you can take in your own lifestyle, like starting a compost bin or repurposing certain materials, but most people are aware of those things. While individual action is amazing, it’s collective action that really makes the difference. If you are able to take some political action, that tends to have an even greater impact than anything else. Don’t be afraid to send emails to elective officials with your concerns or take greater political action. Nothing is out of your reach!