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How to Start a Climate Justice Movement on Campus with No Money, No Institutional Support, and No Core Organizing Group (Spoiler Alert: It’s Possible!)

Written by Michelle Angkasa, our Southwestern Ontario Regional Organizer.

· General

In January, I started my last work term as a final year Environment and Business student at the University of Waterloo (UW). I’ve been doing climate justice organising work on the side since 2019 when I started my undergrad. Since then, I’ve worked with a variety of organizations, including youth-led nonprofits, political parties, and governmental and educational institutions. I’ve planned marches, attended protests, and hosted workshops. I’ve also been a Regional Organizer with Climate Reality Canada since Spring 2022. Organizing work has given me energy and a sense of purpose, far removed from the drudgery of school or jobs.

But there I was again, back to an office routine where I clocked in at 9 am and out at 5 pm. I was working at the UW Sustainability Office as their Outreach and Communications Assistant. I worked alongside a fellow Environment student, Celine, who grew up in South Africa and did lots of organising around climate justice and Black liberation. It was a fantastic job, and I had a blast working on their engagement portfolio, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I wasn’t doing enough. I began to feel that old itch to go back out and do work on the ground.


A Lack of Infrastructure for Campus Organizing

It’s customary for Sustainability Office interns to take on a side project throughout their work term. Some other co-op students started podcasts or green teams at their university college. I remember one fateful day in February when Celine and I were brainstorming side projects to take on. We were exploring initiatives related to food insecurity and green careers. We also debated whether to tackle the issue of eco-anxiety on campus. However, all of our discussions led back to the same, central problem: there was such a lack of infrastructure to support activism on campus, and that contributed to a significant vacuum in student advocacy on important issues like the climate crisis. Our student union was notorious for actively quashing activism work and our administration preferred a flowery PR statement to concrete action. In such a hostile environment, in addition to other factors such as high turnover and the pandemic, it was difficult for student movements to build and maintain momentum.

It often feels like student activism is trying to make something out of nothing.

It often feels like student activism is trying to make something out of nothing. No funding, no capacity, and no institutional support are common barriers for student organizers, as they are for most other community-led campaigns. We also face frequent turnover with graduation and students coming in and out of work terms. This leads to a significant loss of knowledge and prevents movements from being able to build off of historic wins and lessons learned.

Celine and I were acutely aware of these challenges. We were both organizers who had been burned out by the system, having spent years working for the student union and UW. We were hopeful that there was still interest in climate justice, and that we just had to build it for people to come. We began that winter term with an environmental scan. We did our research into the few remaining pockets of advocacy on campus as well as the long history of student-led activism at UW. We started reaching out to our contacts - fellow students, staff, and faculty who were allies of the cause. We slowly started to build our base of people interested and able to help us form a coalition.


Building the UW Climate Justice Ecosystem

We called ourselves the UW Climate Justice Ecosystem, or Ecosystem for short. We were a group of students united under the banner of climate justice and saw our role as an ecosystem: an interconnecting, mutualistic, and diverse system. We intentionally cast a wide net, recruiting from the union drive, divestment group, and the student services, among other areas. It was important to us to embed intersectionality into our membership to reflect the imperative of building solidarity across the climate, economic, and social justice movements.

We launched our group with a picnic in June 2023. We invited everyone we could possibly think of, and ended up with a small group of eight core organisers. Immediately the creative juices began flowing. We set a goal of hosting a rally at the end of September on the four year anniversary of the large Fridays for Future climate strike in Kitchener-Waterloo.

After that point, the pieces began falling in place. Our first priority was to establish our mission, vision, values, and core demands. We decided on a list of ten core demands that would orient our group. These included demands to senior leadership around climate, jobs, housing, mental health, Indigenous sovereignty, public transit, food security, and international and out-of-province student tuition. We started to draft an open letter detailing our demands and designing other literature about our Ecosystem.

On June 28, a UW alum entered a gender studies classroom and began to attack the instructor and students with a knife. That hate-motivated attack sent shockwaves throughout campus and sparked calls for better protection for queer students. Celine and I were actually close by the building when we saw a squad of heavily armed police running to the scene. At a community forum, there was tangible fear and anger at senior leaders for not doing enough to protect marginalized students and to call out transphobia and homophobia. As many student leaders pointed out, that attack wasn’t unexpected and didn’t occur in a bubble. It was the violent manifestation of growing hate towards gender and sexual diversity online, and a wake-up call that radicalization and violence could erupt even on our “progressive” Canadian campus.

Posting a call to action to join our coalition in the wake of the attack gave us a big boost in numbers. Many of my friends who were casually interested in advocacy but who had no prior experience were inspired to join. We added a demand about transparent, non-police, community-led safety to our list and deliberately drew links between UW’s negligence on queer issues to their delay on climate action.


Timeline to Action

From July onwards, it was full steam ahead. At this point, our group was 28 strong, a mix of undergrad and grad students from a variety of disciplines and lived experiences. We planned our rally for September 28, almost four years to the exact day of the last large-scale climate mobilisation in the region, and a day before we were to commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Celine and I were kept busy with setting and overseeing deadlines, facilitating meetings, researching and writing the open letter, planning logistics for the rally, and scheduling outreach opportunities. We were lucky enough to receive two large grants, which allowed us to purchase supplies and to offer our student speakers honoraria.

September flew by in a flurry of op-eds, emails, meetings, writing sessions, Instagram posts, class presentations, and event tabling. We hosted an information booth at a few different events (including the annual UW pow wow) and ended up with 200 signatures and six group endorsements on our open letter. We spoke to hundreds of students in (mostly) first year classes. We grew our Instagram following and reached out to community and campus partners for support. We spent a few hours making climate justice themed buttons and leaving chalk messages around campus. Two days before the rally, we hosted an art build, where about 50 people stopped by to make signs out of recycled cardboard. We ended up with 45 beautiful handmade signs with slogans like “All power to the people!” and “Liar, liar, colonizer.” The preparations were well underway.

Thursday, September 28, 2023. I woke up after a restless night to a gloomy grey sky. Someone messaged in the group chat that there was a 50% chance of rain that afternoon. I packed an umbrella just in case. Our core organising group met in the Arts Quad, a large open space in the middle of campus that gets a lot of foot traffic. After setting up our rented speaker and mic and divvying up hi-vis vests to our safety volunteers, we crossed our fingers for a big turnout (and no rain).

Looking back on the past eight months, I’m amazed and grateful for how much we were able to accomplish

We kicked off the rally with a land acknowledgement and context behind the Climate Justice Ecosystem. The crowd began to grow, with students, staff, and faculty members gathering on the steps of the quad, holding their signs aloft. I started off the lineup of student speakers with a speech about climate justice and the importance of grassroots student advocacy. We then had students speak on the union effort and affordability, Indigenous student wellbeing and sovereignty, international student issues, and lack of mental healthcare. Celine rounded off the event with a moving speech on her experience as a Black student organizer and liberation for all.

All in all, we counted 150 people in the audience, including the President of the undergrad student union. It was a larger turnout than we expected and we were thrilled. Best of all, we avoided a downpour. A few days later, we received a response to our open letter from the President’s Office. While it wasn’t the answer we wanted, we were encouraged that they felt enough pressure that they had to respond.


Reflections and Success

Looking back on the past eight months, I’m amazed and grateful for how much we were able to accomplish, starting (basically) from scratch.

CJE in numbers:

  • 3 months of concentrated work (and 8 months in progress…)
  • 6 group endorsements of our open letter
  • 10 core demands
  • 10 core organiser group meetings
  • 11 class presentations
  • 28 active members: undergrad and grad students from variety of disciplines and diverse lived experiences
  • 34 open letter recipients (President, VPs, AVPs, and directors)
  • 45 signs made
  • 50 participants at our art build
  • 52 posters put up around campus
  • 100+ buttons made
  • ~150 attendees at the rally
  • 200 signatures on open letter
  • 252 followers on Instagram
  • Immeasurable amount of help from campus and community allies!

It’s been an exhausting but very rewarding summer. I came into this with very little experience in coalition building, and much of what I learned was by trial and error, as well as the gracious help of allies and peer feedback. I learned several valuable lessons from this experience.


Lessons Learned

1. Build it and they will come.

Craft an irresistible call to action that people can see themselves in. When we were trying to convince people to join us, we made sure to try and relate to them. What were they interested in? What were their strengths? Ensuring that you speak to people in a way they can understand and resonate with is not only crucial for recruitment, but also to build a diverse and representative organising group.

We also found allies in unexpected places by investing time and effort into building solidarity with other activist movements. At the start of every meeting, we would recap events from the week prior (e.g., ACORN tenant union meetings, the Palestinian cultural festival, soup lunches at the Indigenous Student Centre) and encourage our fellow organizers to attend other solidarity events. Through this we were able to get support from so many campus and community partners, such as the Waterloo Climate Institute, GroundUp Waterloo Region, the UW Student Solidarity Network, and the Laurier Students Public Interest Research Group.

2. Remain responsive and accountable to the community.

We spent a lot of time discussing and debating our core list of demands. We knew that they had to really speak to the material concerns of students, while also educating the student body on theories like climate justice and solidarity. We created a glossary of terms to help the average student understand our terminology and made it a focus of our social media presence to promote advocacy education.

As an independent, grassroots student coalition, the freedom to be radical and political was fundamental. That being said, it was our responsibility to ensure that what we were saying was accountable to the student body and the community we claimed to speak for.

We also stress-tested our ideas through event tabling. We would display posters with our demands, and could tell instantly through people’s reactions whether the demands moved them. We would get great critiques from people on the wording and recommendations of our demands, that we then incorporated into the open letter.

3. Think long term, act short term.

Celine and I brought our many years’ combined organising experience into the Ecosystem. One of the main things we discussed at length in the winter was our long term strategy. We knew that climate justice was going to be the cornerstone of our coalition, but we also knew firsthand how hard it would be to sustain an advocacy effort. We spent a lot of time with our core organising group establishing a mission and values that would guide our work, no matter what issues we would centre moving forward. This helped us build a strong team culture and gave us direction on where we were heading.

However, we also learned how important it was to have short term goals to work towards. When we recruited, it was very helpful to be able to tell students that we were hosting a rally, since that was a tangible campaign they could work on. We also would regularly update our group on small wins we achieved, such as receiving grants or gaining a new community ally, to boost morale and keep us motivated.

4. Believe in the inherent value of the work.

It’s easy in organising work to get lost in the drudgery. So much of organising work is not fun and exciting: much of it is answering emails, running errands, and conversations. However, I came to realise how important that “background” stuff was in building a strong internal infrastructure for public-facing work. Without emails, we wouldn’t have gotten support from the community or vital information to our organising group. Without running errands, we wouldn’t have had supplies for our art build or the rally. Without conversations, the open letter and the whole Ecosystem wouldn’t have been possible.

All of the work that we put into our advocacy efforts is inherently valuable, even if it doesn’t result in an immediate victory. It’s important to spend time doing this, because it’s what allows people to thrive and for the movement to move forward, one step at a time.


For now, our group is taking a well-deserved break. There’s no shortage of things to work on moving forward, and I’m excited to see where the UW Climate Justice Ecosystem will go next.

You can find us at @climatejusticeuw on Instagram.


Michelle Angkasa (she/they) is an Environment and Business student at the University of Waterloo and a passionate advocate for youth engagement and climate justice. She is particularly interested in empowering and mobilizing communities to push for environmental, social, and economic justice. Through their work on campus, in non-profit organizations, and various levels of the government, they've advocated to put people and planet ahead of profits. Michelle strongly believes that we must and can come together to build power for a more sustainable and equitable future.