Earlier this year, in February, I sat in office hours skeptically listening to my environmental history professor predict campus shut-downs and widespread event cancellations due to COVID-19. COVID’s landfall in the United States had just been announced, though it was still isolated on the west coast. To me, a senior in my final semester at university with my eye fixed firmly upon graduation and beyond, my professor’s foresight seemed unrealistic and extreme. Of course, time has proven him correct. My fellow students and I did not return to campus after spring break. After
having the final part of our college experience forcibly derailed, myself and other grads were given a lackluster online commencement and sent a box full of cheap school memorabilia. Needless to say, it was a let-down, but a disappointing send-off has become the least of our worries. Between a crashing economy and the uncertainty of school resuming in autumn, now is not an easy time for those entering the workforce or hoping to continue their education. Now is not an easy time for anyone, really.
I have been lucky enough to return from school to a loving family (complete with an adorable dog), financial stability, and a comparatively secure future. Many are not so lucky. COVID-19 has brought the many systematic, financial, and social inequities existing in America today into sharp relief, and mismanagement of the crisis by the government has created a dark scenario with no clear end in sight. As a student of environmental studies, I cannot help likening the pandemic to another looming crisis: global climate change. They have many similarities: both impact vulnerable and marginalized communities most severely; both could have been prevented (or at least largely avoided) with proper foresight and mitigation; and both will kill a staggering number of people unless things change quickly.
It is my belief that things can change quickly. I have spent the last several years of my life studying the environmental problems of the world and intend to spend the rest of my life doing the same. I have had wonderful teachers, recognized experts in their fields, people with lifetimes of experience fighting for a better world. If there is one single thing I have learned from these people, it is that despair will not save us, but action will.
But what does taking action look like in today’s troubled world? How can we find ways to fight injustice and better our communities while simultaneously practicing social distancing? I am not going to pretend to have universal answers to these questions, but I have been finding the types of action that work for me. Being back with GOMI, for example, has let me be productive and positive without sacrificing safety, as we are now operating online. I have also been gardening a bit, which is a total first for me. At school, I was taking classes about developing urban green spaces, and writing a thesis about community-based environmental activism. It was not until recently that I started integrating these things into my lived experience.
Every person can only act as much as their own capacity allows. I am lucky that I have the capacity and resources to be engaged in my community and to pursue hobbies that make a positive impact. I cannot single-handedly change the somber reality of the virus, of climate change, of all the world’s problems. But thankfully, I do not have to single-handedly change anything. There is incredible power in community, and enough small actions can make a big difference. There is truth in these clichéd words. Positivity can, much like negativity, actualize a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It was another beautiful, drowsy day sometime last week, the pollen and late afternoon sunshine painting the world golden. I lounged around on the grass with my dog, Nellie, enjoying the warmth. We had been tending to our seedlings earlier, and dirt was still caked beneath my nails. I sat in the sunshine, reading a book related to several on-going GOMI projects, about converting lawns (flat, boring, and wasteful) into productive ecological spaces. In the quiet sunshine, the clamor and anxiety from the outside world diminished for a moment, and I felt more peaceful than I had in weeks. In these moments, I am filled with wonder at the world and gratitude for my place in it. I am also reminded of how much we must do to save this precious planet. These moments are hopeful. They push me to keep working and engaging with these critical topics because they remind me of what we can save and build when we put our hearts into it.
Rachel Ameen is a native of Newburyport and is an avid nature lover and dog enthusiast. She just graduated from Syracuse University with dual degrees in Political Science and Environment, Sustainability & and Policy. She began working with GOMI as an intern in 2019, and now serves as both Program Coordinator and as a member of the Board of Directors. Rachel will pursue a master’s degree in Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle, this fall, and is excited to expand her environmental work to a new coast.