Illinois Wesleyan students make their voices heard in Springfield

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Ellen Cornelius

Last Thursday, nine students accompanied by Environmental Studies program coordinator Professor Laurine Brown ventured to Springfield to lobby Illinois state legislators for environmental protection. Lobby Day was hosted by the Illinois Environmental Council (IEC), an advocacy group that represents a slew of Illinois environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy. During IEC’s lobby day, the IWU students attending discovered the exciting, yet often underrated realm of Illinois politics.

The belief of “mundane” state government was shattered for those students who found themselves in the thick of green activism while forging connections with key players in the environmental arena.

“Lobbying is an adrenaline rush. When the opportunity to speak to an elected official arises, you do whatever you can to make your voice heard,” said sophomore Kahri Jung. “In my case it was climbing several flights of stairs to chase after Senator Koehler, a huge supporter of environmental bills.”

Lobby Day was a whirlwind of emotions. At times students were thrilled to speak directly to elected officials who supported their bills, at others they were disappointed when their bill did not pass. One such bill would have removed outdated coal education required in many Illinois schools. Students watched in disappointment as this bill died in the House because several representatives became incensed with what they called the bill’s “attack on the coal industry.”

Mack Rifkin, a senior English and Environmental Studies double major, reflected, “It became apparent how complex lawmaking can be. Many politicians unraveled each issue presented and gave strong arguments against the environmental bills. I learned that in politics, nothing is as straightforward as it seems!”

Students had the opportunity to meet with Bloomington’s own Senator Brady, an IWU alumnus. All nine students piled into the Senator’s office to lobby for two bills that would regulate fracking and improve Illinois’ clean energy standards. Senator Brady posed tough arguments against these bills by citing increased costs and job loss. From the viewpoint of many of the students, these costs were minimal against the health and environmental costs from unclean energy sources.

“At one point, my passions got in the way of staying calm and I even raised my voice at the Senator,” sophomore Nicki Chleblek said. “I became more aware of the importance of saving money and jobs that make it hard for a lot of environmental bills to get passed. We need to work to find a middle ground for both spectrums,”

Students also had the chance to observe the House of Representatives in session, and were stunned by the debate process. “We all expected it to be very calm and professional, and instead it was chaotic and disorganized,” said Dana Rotz, a senior with a concentration in International Sustainability.

“While certain Representatives were presenting their bills, other Representatives were talking amongst themselves, shouting across the floor, surfing the web, or playing games on their phones.” Chlebek said. “I realized that many of these people had already made up their minds about a bill before they stepped into the room. This is why lobbying is so important— to talk to our representatives and senators before they go into those meetings.”

While the end of lobby day brought sore feet from chasing legislators around the capitol of Illinois for six hours, it also gave students new inspiration and future direction. Hannah Scatterday, a first-year music and international studies double major, commented, “Lobbying in Springfield gave me the rare opportunity to see what my future might look like.”

“By participating in lobby day, I realized how important it was to correspond directly with elected officials about meaningful issues,” said Rivkin. “[I] would love to continue lobbying for environmental issues, either as a hired lobbyist or a volunteer with an organization like the IEC.”

Along with IWU students, almost 200 constituents represented IEC by lobbying for environmental bills. Five of these bills are still being debated in Springfield, including one that would protect bobcats and cougars. Junior Amanda King called lobby day “an incredible experience,” and hoped that next year “there will be even more Illinois Wesleyan students attending in a broader of range majors.”

Dana summed up the day by saying, “I think each person who came to lobby for the IEC got a good sense of how Illinois government works, and realized that if we want to make changes, regardless of the bill and what it promotes, this is the process that we have to work with.”