Ever wonder what York students are doing to get involved and make our campus more sustainable? Check out this interview with Michelle Uy, an exceptional undergraduate student at York. We first met Michelle when she enrolled York’s Model United Nations group as a Green Club. Since then, she has showed an interest in learning more about sustainability issues on campus and finding out different ways her club could help. Her story is quite inspiring and a definite read for those interested in taking action!
1) Tell me a bit about yourself (what you are studying, and why you chose your program).
I major in Political Science and Minor in Environmental Studies. I chose these programs because I have always been fascinated, confused yet intrigued by our current environmental issues. I could not help but notice the huge role governments play when it comes to environmental injustices and therefore thought it would be beneficial to better understand how our government works.
2) What does sustainability mean to you?
Sustainability, to me, means respect. I first was taught that it meant living within your means and living so that there is enough for generations to come, but isn’t that what respect is? Instead of consuming and wasting with no regard for other people’s quality of life, why not respect all life (human or otherwise) and live in a way that does not compromise the quality of their life as well.
3) What triggered your interests in sustainability and the environment?
Prior to coming here to York I attended George Brown and was taking Fashion Business. In my textiles class a discussion arose about the textile industry. I learned about free trade agreements, the poor living and work conditions of those who work in sweatshops, and the very weak (or sometimes non-existent) environmental laws in these countries. I asked my teacher how could we support an industry whose very foundation is destroying entire ecosystems and hurting other people? She said to me that her business was fashion and textiles, if I care so much about where my clothes come from and the state of the environment of these places I should study something else. I then did a general arts and science diploma then transferred here.
4) What sustainability initiatives are you most interested in and would like more people to know about?
We need it to live, obviously. But it doesn’t make sense that my apples are sprayed with wax and pesticides that can mess up my hormones, it doesn’t make sense we force cattle to eat corn when they are supposed to eat grass (which makes them sick btw, and in turn forces them to get antibiotics, which we eat), it doesn’t make sense that the majority of my food is made in another country and we need to take oil from the ground which uses up fresh water from the great lakes and destroy our land to transport said food to the supermarket. I love food, I love going out to eat, but I wish I knew if my food was genetically modified, or made by migrant workers, or travelled 3,000 KM to get here. Food politics is the most interesting to me, I would like to see some serious policy changes that meet the demands of the people who want access to clean, nutritious and sustainable food.
5) Can you tell me, on an individual level, different ways you have been engaged in promoting sustainability and helping the environment through school, work, volunteering or your personal life?
If anyone sees me on campus they would think I am a bag lady. I always have my school bag, gym bag and lunch bag. I almost always pack a lunch and bring my own reusable coffee mug, water bottle and utensils. We have made the shift at home to always buying strictly organic produce, and try to eliminate as much disposable packaging as possible by re-using plastics containers and bringing our own bags to shop. In terms of clothing, I try to buy as much second hand as possible. I try my best to waste as little as possible and to be conscious of where my cosmetics are from and how they are produced.
6) Tell me a bit about the Model UN organization you are in. What position do you hold there?
Model United Nations (MUN for short) club is a club almost every University has. You simulate the United Nations, travel to other Universities and meet new people! Some conferences York has attended in the past are ones at Harvard, McGill, Queens and Princeton. As a delegation you represent York University of course but when debating you are whatever country has been assigned to you. You debate on various topics; depending on what committee you are in. When debating you prepare short speeches based on your research. Topics range from environmental protection, water scarcity, energy crisis, nuclear disarmament, cyber terrorism, or international security. The point is to create resolutions to the “topics” or “problems”. As a club we meet every week to practice debating and those who wish to do so, travel to these external conferences. My position is VP-Internal so I lead the weekly meetings. It requires a bit of extra research on top of your schoolwork but it is a lot of fun!
7) What made you interested in enrolling Model UN to become a Green Club?
We didn’t want to be a club that just talked about change; we actually wanted to do our best to be a part of that change. We can debate about environmental problems all day but it means nothing when you do not do anything about it. We wanted to take our pledges, and make our promises and do what we can as a club to align our values with the values of the Green Clubs.
8) Earlier this year you hosted a Clothing Drive to send clothes to the Philippines. Tell me about your experiences with this initiative.
Sure, so as you may have heard super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines. There are over six thousand dead with upwards of fourteen million displaced. There are people who have nothing. There homes are under water and all their belongings washed away. We decided to work with MSF (Medicines sans frontiers) at York, UNICEF at York and RefugeAid to collect clothing donations to send over to those families. Our experience with this initiative is nothing but positive, people’s generosity in times like these is truly humbling and heart warming.
9) Since becoming a Green Club member, has it helped you in promoting your club and has it taught you about different York initiatives and what you can do to reduce your ecological footprint?
Yes. We have been able to network with other clubs, and the upcoming sustainability fair is definitely going to help us promote our club further. The pledges and green clubs meeting gave us a lot of information that we didn’t know before on how to reduce our ecological footprint. Especially the section that discussed how to have a sustainable office.
10) How would you encourage others to get involved and take action about sustainability issues?
I would say talk about it. I am not the Prime Minister and cannot change all the laws I deem unsustainable. As much as I want to, the truth is I am just a poor student, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make sustainable choices! Get the issues out there by talking about it and “being about it”. Make decisions and “vote with your dollars”. I don’t like telling other people how they should live their life, but I do enjoy sharing information. I’m not going to lecture you in the middle of Loblaws about GMOs, but I am going to let you know that maybe you should check out a few documentaries so you know what they do to those tomatoes. What I mean is, we should try to share as much information as possible. I would encourage others to become aware and ask questions. Always ask questions. After you ask, you look for the answer. Put the information out there for people to discern for themselves how they want to “take action”. Personally I would rather make personal decisions and choices that are sustainable, boycott unsustainable products and raise awareness via information sharing. You can say what you want about social media, but I think it is a great way to share information and raise awareness. “Liking” certain pages and even posting links to YouTube videos and documentaries is a great way to get a message out there. Not everyone is in environmental studies and knows the truth about the Tar Sands or the effects of pollution on our ecosystems. But maybe they will when you post about it!
11) Is there anything else you would like to add or let people know?
Yes. It is a story called the “starfish story”. Basically this kid notices a bunch of starfish getting washed onto a beach and drying up and dying. So he walks down the beach, tossing starfish back into the water. A stranger approaches the kid and says, “this beach is five miles long and there are starfish all along the beach. You cannot possibly save them all, why not just go home”. The kid picks up another starfish tossing it back into the ocean. He turns to the stranger and says, “Well, I saved that one”. In the battle to do good, social justice movements and environmental justice movements someone will tell you the problem is too big for you and the world is too massive to save. Don’t let their negativity affect you because however small an impact you may have on this world, you might as well make a positive one.
So for those skeptics who do not think individual change can make a difference; remember this amazing York student who has done an incredible job helping out.