Project Overview

During the 2020-21 academic year, Sustainability Officers from across the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system, the largest public university system in the U.S., joined forces to coordinate a series of educational and empowering events focused on the themes of climate justice, environmental racism, and intersectional sustainability. Because the pandemic forced all programming and educational events to be conducted virtually, the CSU Sustainability Officers decided to turn this challenge into an opportunity to pool their resources and collective energy to organize larger, more impactful event than they would be able to pull off alone. The result of this collaboration was a series of virtual programs spread across two semesters that engaged thousands of students, faculty, staff and community members across California (and beyond) in important conversations about the need to create a more inclusive, representative, and justice-focused sustainability movement.

The fall semester program took place during October Sustainability Month. The two-event series was called Climate Justice = Social Justice: Conversations Exploring the Intersections of People, Planet & Power. The first event in the series was a keynote address and Q & A with internationally renowned thought-leader, strategist, policy maker and activist Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali. The second event was a panel discussion and Q & A with intersectional environmental activist, Leah Thomas (a.k.a. @greengirlleah), and indigenous climate activist and hip-hop artist, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. Both young leaders of color, the conversation with these speakers was moderated by CSU student and Chico State ASI President, Bre Holbert. The spring semester event took place on in April and was CSU’s headline Earth Day event. Titled Taking Action for People and the Planet, the event featured four young climate justice activists, environmental educators, and eco-communicators. These speakers were:

• Kevin J. Patel, Executive Director and Founder of OneUpAction • Sage Lenier, Educator, Zero Waste USA • Kristy Drutman (a.k.a. @browngirlgreen), Activist and environmental media host • Myra Fisun, Sunrise Movement Bay Area Hub Coordinator (and high school student!)

The first 60 minutes of the 90 minute event consisted of a panel discussion with these young leaders, which was moderated by Armando Sepulveda II, a CSU student and the Sustainability Officer for the California State Student Association (CSSA). During the last 30 minutes of the event, participants were invited to join one of the speakers or another CSU sustainability leader in one of 8 “Action Breakout” sessions, each of which was focused on a different topic. These interactive discussions were meant to allow participants to engage for directly with the speakers and learn specific strategies for taking action to advance climate justice or sustainability advocacy. The Action Breakout sessions were:

  1. Intersectional Environmentalist with an Emphasis on Environmental Racism - Facilitated by Kevin Patel
  2. Environmental Storytelling: Creative Brainstorming Session - Facilitated by Kristy Drutman
  3. Solutions-Focused Community Work for a Sustainable Future - Facilitated by Sage Lenier
  4. The Role of Youth in the Climate Movement: Why and How Every Young Person Should Engage in the Fight for Climate Justice - Facilitated by Myra Fisun
  5. Pushing Sustainability through University Policy and Student Government - Facilitated by Armando Sepulveda II
  6. CSU Divestment 101 - Facilitated by Lisa Swartz, Cal Poly SLO student leader of the Divest the CSU organization
  7. People Power: Changing What's Possible for Climate Policy in California - Facilitated by Melissa Romero, CSULB alum and Legislative Affairs Manager at CA League of Conservation Voters
  8. Using Art to Avoid Burnout as a Climate Justice Activist - Facilitated by Katie Koscielak, Sustainability Officer at Humboldt State

The impetus for incorporating the Action Breakout sessions into the spring event was based largely on the impression we got from participants in the fall events that they were hungry for more specific guidance on how to turn the awareness and inspiration they gained from hearing from our speakers into meaningful action.

A land acknowledgement was also offered at the start of all events. These were given by a Tribal Elder and a CSU student who is a proud member of her local tribe.


This collaboration was inspired by two main factors. The first was the ongoing conversations among Sustainability Officers across the CSU about the need to better integrate themes of equity, diversity, and justice into our educational offerings and sustainability programs. Certain campuses within the system have made more significant steps towards this goal than others but there is strong interest from all CSU Sustainability Offices in helping to facilitate this cultural shift.
The second factor was the pandemic. When all campuses were forced to transition to telecommuting for employees and remote learning for students, all in-person events and programming had to be cancelled as well. Additionally, the economic impacts of the pandemic led to budget cuts for many sustainability offices, which made it difficult or impossible for them to afford to hire high profile speakers for their own virtual campus sustainability events. These factors created the conditions for a collaboration that CSU Sustainability Officers had never attempted before: a series of events that would be open to the more than 400,000 students from across our 23 campuses.


The goals of this project were as follows:

  • Invite known leaders of the environmental justice, climate action, and intersectional sustainability movement to headline a series of virtual speaker events and Q & A sessions

  • Prioritize recruitment of BIPOC leaders and youth leaders of the movement as keynote speakers and panelists

  • Engaging a large number of students from across our entire 23 campus CSU system in these events

  • Leverage the events as learning and academic integration opportunities by engaging faculty as key partners

  • Collectively raise enough funds to cover all speaker Honoria and other event fees

  • Elevating conversations about climate, social, racial and environmental justice

  • Coordinating and executing high quality programs that impacted our students and community members in a positive way

  • Support participants in turning their inspiration into meaningful action

  • Foster collaboration and synergy across CSU sustainability efforts


This project was implemented by a committee of Sustainability Officers representing 13 of the 23 CSU campuses in partnership with the CSU Office of the Chancellor and the Cal State Student Association. This committee met nearly bi-weekly throughout the 2020-21 academic year to plan the events. The committee worked collaboratively to accomplish the following project tasks:

  • Strategizing fund raising opportunities including identifying potential campus and organization partners

  • Recruiting guest speakers

  • Coordinating rehearsals and logistics with speakers and presenters

  • Executing speaker contracts and payment

  • Developing outreach and marketing materials

  • Coordinating outreach and marketing across the CSU system

  • Coordinating with faculty on ways that they could integrate the events into their courses

  • Planning and troubleshooting all event logistics

  • Developing a post event survey tool to measure the impact of the events


Planning for the fall event series started in the summer of 2020, when it became clear that the fall semester was going to be entirely remote instruction and there would be no opportunities for in-person engagement events. The committee met bi-weekly from June through October to plan and execute the Climate Justice = Social Justice event series.

Planning for the Taking Action for People and the Planet event because in December and continued through April 2021. In May 2021, the committee chair presented to the CSU Chancellor’s Office and Sustainability Officers’ Affinity Group about the overall impact of the event and lessons learned.


There were really only two costs associated with execution of this project: speaker honoraria and live captioning services. Those expenses broke down as follows:

  • Climate Justice = Social Justice event combined speaker fees: $11,000

  • Live captioning service: $300

  • Taking Action event combined speaker fees: $3200

  • Live captioning service: $300

  • Total: $14,800

These funds were generated through the pooling of resources from 12 different partners including CSU offices of sustainability program funds, Chancellor’s Office, institutes and centers at several campuses, as well as funds from offices of several CSU Presidents.

This budget obviously does not account for all of the in kind staff and intern work hours involved in planning and executing these events.


We were thrilled to see that our virtual programs focused on climate justice, social justice, and intersectional sustainability featuring movement leaders of color generated strong interest across the CSU system! Participation numbers for the Climate Justice = Social Justice 2-event series:

  • 1703 Registrations

  • 1042 Attendees

It is important to note that all who registered to attend the event received an email with a link to the recordings of the event. Views of the event recordings totaled 1147 (as of 5/21/21), indicating that some of the original registrants who were not able to login on the day of the event viewed it asynchronously. The number of views also indicates that there were others who had not registered prior who benefited from the recorded events as well. Participation in the Taking Action for People and the Planet event: • 468 Registrations • 332 Attendees (panel) • 121 Participants (Action Breakout sessions) • 72 views of the recording (as of 5/21/21) These participation numbers represent students, staff, and faculty from all 23 of our CSU campuses located all across California. What’s more, registration demographic data also revealed that more than 250 registrants were actually members of other universities outside of the CSU system, including some outside of California, or community members with no campus affiliation whatsoever. This was a heartening revelation because, while we were primarily focused on the goal of providing high quality programming and educational content for our CSU community, the events had wider appeal for those outside our system as well.

Another positive outcome was the feedback we received in our post-event surveys about the impact the events had on them. Seventy-one percent (71%) of survey respondents (n=242) indicated that they were “very likely” to share the information they learned during the Climate Justice = Social Justice events or take action in some way. Responses to the open ended survey question “What was your main takeaway?” were also encouraging and included:

“There is hope, together, with representation of those directly impacted, people power, and love. Thank you so much Dr. Ali!” - Mechanical Engineering Student, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

“I have power, I have knowledge and I am going to do something with my power to help make change!” – Central American Studies major, CSU Northridge

“Dr. Ali said ‘if you can’t find someone who represents you then YOU have to be that person and I really, really liked that.” - Health Science major, CSU Long Beach

“People are stronger together and we can do what needs to be done for an ethical and just world. We are the future” – Environmental Science major, Humboldt State “The concept of Back joy as a rebellion against white supremacy and racism” – Art Education major, Chico State “Being an activist can manifest in a variety of medium (e.g. art, music, graphic design, teaching, etc.” – Education major, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Another marker of success of the events was the number of faculty who leveraged the programs as a teaching tool that supported their students’ learning outcomes. More than 40 faculty from across numerous campuses either integrated the live event or recordings into their virtual courses or encouraged their students to participate voluntarily by offering them extra credit. To support this effort, the committee created and distributed a document with discussion questions and topics related to the events to help take the burden off of faculty who wished to incorporate the events into their teaching.

Lessons Learned

Coordinating three large events across two semesters was challenging but rewarding and we learned many lessons along the way that could help other university systems or collectives to successfully replicate such a program:

  • Choose a topic that is timely, so that it resonates with your target audience, students. The Social Justice = Climate Justice and Taking Action events were held during the global pandemic, 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and the 2021 launch of the Biden administration as it pivoted the U.S. back into a leadership around climate action and environmental justice. What’s more, since the majority of students across the CSU are people of color and many of our campuses are designated as minority serving institutions, we knew that featuring leaders of color, particularly young leaders, would appeal to our target audience since they would be more relatable to them.

  • To ensure maximum participation high-cost events with multiple collaborators, it is important to choose a date that does not conflict with national and global sustainability-related celebrations or other campus-specific events. Survey your collaborators early for any conflicts, selected a date early and well in advance, and then send out a Save the Date, even if you do not yet have all of the details about speakers or other event logistics nailed down.

  • You can’t start planning too early! Even though these virtual events did not come with the usual tasks of reserving a physical venue or dealing with catering, there were still a surprising number of logistics to attend too. Furthermore, in demand speakers who will be a big draw for your audience get booked up fast so the earlier you can reach out to them the better. Depending on your available resources, you may also benefit from addition time to raise the funds needed to pull of your events.

  • Meet often, assign a committee chair, take good notes, and use a shared platform such as Google Docs to support collaboration. Delegation of tasks is critical and when there are collaborators working together across different campuses, it can sometimes make this a challenge since there is not a clear hierarchy of roles. Selecting a chair and co-chair early on can help facilitate delegation of responsibilities and communication.

  • Faculty are key partners! Our data indicates that “class or professor announcements” was the number one way that students who attended learned about our events. These announcements were the greatest driver of participation as faculty champions who incorporated the event into their curriculum or offered extra credit helped to generate the most attendees. Since faculty plan activities and class schedules well ahead of the beginning of the semester, planning early and providing them with as much information as possible during the prior semester is critical.

  • Consider the size of each collaborating school in terms of their ability to engage attendees, contribute financially, and advertise/market the event.

  • Create generic marketing materials that can be easily customized by all participating institutions. Leverage the strengths of each collaborator in terms of financial contributions, marketing, writing, organization, technology/zoom, and data collection.

  • Take advantage of the virtual forum to expand your audience beyond your system or state and send your event details to multiple state and national organizations for additional marketing.

  • Provide attendees with a discussion forum following the main event, such as breakout rooms, so that they can share their personal stories, make connections, and learn about related actions that make the event meaningful, productive, and impactful.

  • For panel discussions, include panelists that have diverse, competing, or even opposing, views and goals to provide attendees with a 360-degree view of the issues.

  • Provide opportunities for students to take leadership roles in the events, by serving as MCs, moderators, or by inviting them to give a land acknowledgment. Be prepared to provide them with support such as coaching on how to be a successful moderator, a script for the event, or other resources to help them feel comfortable.