Storytelling with a purpose: Students and environmental leaders unite to protect forests, wildlife

Participants tell how environmental issues have affected them in a storytelling event hosted by the Dogwood Alliance and Student Environmental Education Coalition on July 27 at the Motorco Music Hall in Durham. [Dogwood Alliance]

By Shiv Patel / Times-News correspondent

Located in downtown Durham, Motorco Music Hall is usually used for entertainment. But on July 27, students and adults came together there for three hours of live storytelling hosted by two North Carolina environmental organizations: Dogwood Alliance and the Student Environmental Education Coalition.

Attendees listened to personal recounts of experiences due to environmental issues from speakers such as Thomas Easley, director of community diversity for N.C. State’s College of Natural Resources; Jodi Lasseter, founder of N.C. Climate Justice Summit; and Gary Phillips, poet laureate of Carrboro.

Though speakers entertained the audience through their anecdotes, they also hoped to inspire listeners to take action in protecting the environment.

“Each speaker brought a new form of ‘storytelling,’ if it could even be called that,” says Michael Zhang, an attendee at the event. “One woman described how she and several of her peers hung off the side of a ship for hours in protest of an illegal import that was destroying portions of the Amazon rainforest.”

There was a turnout of over 300 people, with quite a few attendees standing to watch in an overflowing audience.

“Phillips was my favorite speaker,” says Vincent Xia, executive director of SEEC. “His blend of personal story and poetry was unique in describing the true wild nature of the environment.”

SEEC played an instrumental role in outreach for the event, garnering interest and support via social media platforms targeted at students and young adults.

“We also participated in a phone banking day with Dogwood Alliance to reach out to local community members in the Triangle,” Xia said. “During the event itself, students led an effort to obtain signatures from attendees for Dogwood’s Enviva wood pellet mill petition.”

The petition asks North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to revoke the air quality permit issued by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to Enviva for a wood pellet plant in Richmond County in the southern part of the state. The permit would allow Enviva to destroy forests in the area for short-term electricity production and to release pollutants into the atmosphere.

“As members of SEEC, it’s our mission to eradicate the menacing threats posed by environmental injustice in local, impoverished communities through our ardent activism and environmental education programs,” said Ashwin Subramaniam, director of educational outreach for SEEC.

Similar issues have become widespread across the U.S., where lower-income communities are often subject to health risks from industrial pollution.

Though the storytelling night was a one-time event, SEEC and Dogwood Alliance plan to host similar events in the future.

“Time is of the essence, but we still have an opportunity to make change,” says Joseph Herbst, intern at Dogwood Alliance. “Joining us for this action, and playing an important role in making it a success, will be SEEC. We look forward to continue to partner with them as we work to protect our forests and communities from destructive, industrial-scale biomass.”

Additionally, SEEC has a number of educational programs planned for the upcoming year.

“We’re planning to start up environmental tutoring at local elementary schools in the Triangle and continue our colloquium series,” Xia said. “We’re ecstatic about reaching out and conducting our own activism events as well.”

According to Xia and the board of directors, SEEC plans to expand to other schools in North Carolina and broaden its overall impact. It is seeking volunteers to contribute to upcoming projects. If you are interested in getting involved, email or visit its website at

Teens & 20s writer Shiv Patel of Elon is a rising senior at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham and a member of the Student Environmental Education Coalition.

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