Illustration of hand holding a blank sign, surrounded by plants

Solving Wicked Thorny Problems

The lasting impact of a student-powered environmental advocacy group
Rachel Fritts ’14

There was something special about Free the Planet (FTP), an environmental advocacy-focused student group active in the ’90s and early 2000s.

Its unorthodox leadership model, commitment to networking and training with professionals, and purpose-driven student community gave the group a powerful ability to get things done.

FTP’s influence stretched well beyond campus. Its leaders built up a statewide student activist network called Iowa Students Towards Environmental Protection (STEP) that brought together campus activists from colleges and universities across Iowa. They organized professional training conferences every year and partnered with environmental nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to lead grassroots efforts that drew media attention to environmental causes and yielded results at the local, state, and even national level.

While FTP is no longer active on campus, its legacy lives on in its alumni. Many of its members have taken the skills, experience, and knowledge they gained in the group and applied them to careers in environmental advocacy and law. They have also carried with them lifelong friendships and a powerful network of peers with a common purpose. We caught up with four of the group’s original members to ask them about the impact that FTP has had on their lives and careers.

From FTP founder to climate policy advocate

When Bill Holland ’00 arrived at Grinnell, he felt passionately that big companies were polluting the environment and that building grassroots power was the best way to stop them. He wanted to join a student group focused on environmental lobbying and advocacy, but no such group existed. So, he partnered with his friend David Newville ’99 and founded his own.

Grinnell’s ethos of self-governance gave FTP “the freedom and flexibility to lead efforts on our own as students,” says Holland. He learned how to run a meeting, write press releases, recruit activists, and run a successful campaign.

Holland intentionally distributed leadership responsibilities across FTP to ensure that all of its members would develop those same career-building skills. While upperclassmen typically led student groups, “one of the things that we really focused on was putting sophomores in charge,” says Holland.

How to help save the planet

Want to help the environment but don’t know where to begin? Free the Planet alumni offer ways to make a difference:

  • Vote for candidates who prioritize the environment and convince others to do the same, suggests Sarah Kogel-Smucker ’01.
  • Once candidates are in office, hold them accountable, says Bill Holland ’00. Ensure that your elected officials recognize “how urgent and important protecting our climate and our planet is.”
  • “Show up to community meetings, have conversations, get involved,” encourages Shannon Anderson ’01. Whether you’re sending a letter to an elected official, participating in a rally, donating money, or giving your time to a local environmental group, “there’s a role for everybody in this movement,” she says.
  • To make your daily routine a bit more green, Vanessa Pierce ’02 recommends converting your old gas-burning stove to electric. As the U.S. electric sector moves increasingly towards renewables, “the future is going to be electrifying our buildings,” she says.

Second-years led the group, and third-year students and seniors were put in charge of subgroups and campaign teams focused on specific issues. Students who inherited leadership from Holland took that philosophy to heart and carried it on.

Holland also got the group involved in national campaigns and invited professionals from environmental NGOs like the Rainforest Action Network to provide training workshops on campus. Here, FTP’s Iowa location worked to its benefit.

National environmental campaigns were eager to include “committed students in a state where a lot of groups didn’t have activists,” Holland says. As a result, FTP had the chance to lead statewide environmental efforts that effected real change. They protested the destruction of rainforests and old-growth forests, campaigned for clean water protections in Iowa, and fought for more sustainability on campus. The wind turbine at the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA) is thanks, in part, to FTP’s tireless efforts.

Holland still feels deeply connected to the group to this day. After graduation, several members of FTP were accepted to Green Corps, a national environmental activism training fellowship that accepts just a handful of recent graduates each year. Participating in Green Corps and organizing conferences back on campus after graduation “kept the FTP community going.”

Being part of an enduring FTP community “has been incredibly helpful to keep me connected to and inspired by the work that I do,” says Holland. “Some of my closest friends are now colleagues — it’s super cool when you see someone you organized with when you were 20 at a conference.”

Now, Holland is putting his political science major and time with FTP to good use as an environmental advocacy leader in Washington, D.C. As the senior director of state policy for the League of Conservation Voters, he works on state-level climate and clean energy work. “It’s basically working with state-based organizations on campaigning, lobbying, and advocacy,” he says. “It feels closely related to work that I did back at Grinnell.”

Illustration of trees

Igniting a passion for the environment

Having grown up in the urban setting of New York City, “environmental issues weren’t particularly on my radar” before coming to Grinnell, says Sarah Kogel-Smucker ’01. Then, the summer after her first year, she took a job canvassing for an environmental NGO. When Kogel-Smucker arrived back on campus newly curious about environmental causes, she joined FTP.

To date, her entire career has focused on environmental advocacy and public interest work. “I was a philosophy major, so that really came from my activism with Free the Planet and wanting to continue that,” she says. “I’m very grateful Free the Planet was part of my experience at Grinnell.”

Beginning her third year, Kogel-Smucker helped to lead FTP’s forest protection subgroup. The subgroup successfully campaigned against the purchasing practices of large companies like Home Depot, getting them to stop sourcing old-growth wood from endangered forests.

Kogel-Smucker fondly remembers long hours spent in the Forum — then a major hub of student activity — preparing for a meeting or planning the subgroup’s next campaign move with fellow FTP members. “It felt exciting and effective to be working locally as part of a national network on an international issue,” she says. “It was very motivating when Home Depot agreed to change their purchasing practices, because we were doing something where we were seeing real results and forests were potentially going to be saved because of it.”

She credits the College with giving FTP the funds and freedom it needed to be effective, and speaks highly of Iowa as a place to explore advocacy work. “We did public protests and actions, and overall the people we encountered were surprisingly supportive of that and liked that young people were caring about something. It was a very supportive environment before entering a more contentious world.”

After graduating, Kogel-Smucker took the advocacy skills she had gained with FTP and went back to New York. She spent some time lobbying for the Sierra Club and working other advocacy jobs. Then, during a stint working in Albany advocating for state environmental issues, Kogel-Smucker realized how big a role lawyers play in shaping environmental law. The experience inspired her to go back to school to study law.

Kogel-Smucker has now been practicing law for more than a decade. For much of that time, she worked in public interest environmental law in New York. Now, she works on climate litigation for the Washington, D.C., attorney general and calls climate change an “existential issue.”

“A lot of what I’m doing right now is working on multistate responses to proposed Trump administration rollbacks to environmental laws. It’s heartening to fight it, but frustrating that in a moment where we need transformational change, we’ve had to defend basic protections.”

While Kogel-Smucker hasn’t worked directly with other FTP alumni since graduating, she maintains a personal connection to the group to this day. In 2012, she married Bill Holland.

Learning to advocate locally

Shannon Anderson ’01 has always felt connected to the earth. A childhood spent exploring the mountainous public lands of Wyoming piqued her interest in conservation and sustainability from an early age, and she arrived at Grinnell eager to engage in environmental advocacy work.

While Anderson explored her interests in the classroom via a political science major and environmental studies concentration, FTP was her environmental community on campus. Anderson felt an instant sense of belonging at her first FTP meeting. “All of a sudden there was this group of people who spoke my language and cared about the same things I did,” she says. “It was an exciting group of people that had a lot of skills and passion and connections to the broader environmental movement.”

She became heavily involved in the group, leading several subgroups and campaigns — including a memorable protest where FTP students dressed up as Disney characters to raise awareness about harmful chemicals in children’s toys.

Illustration of people in meetingShe also worked with the Iowa Sierra Club to raise concerns about a proposed highway bypass that would bisect the fragile habitat of the Eddyville Sand Dunes Prairie. This experience would prove formative for her career. When Anderson and other FTP students showed up at a public hearing in Eddyville about the highway’s environmental impact assessment, they learned that the community support for the project was fueled by concern for children’s safety — the highway was dangerously close to a school. In the end, a mutually agreeable compromise was achieved.

“Showing up for the public hearing taught me a lot about community organizing and the need to be cognizant of people’s interests and needs,” Anderson says. “There was a need for the highway project and a need to protect the habitat. It was a good lesson on the need to listen, respect, and work together — even if you are coming from a different perspective.”

After spending a year in Namibia with Grinnell Corps, Anderson attended law school at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She worked on community economic development and affordable housing advocacy in California for several years before moving back to Wyoming to work full-time in environmental advocacy. Today, Anderson works as a staff attorney and community organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, addressing the impacts of coal mining on Wyoming’s communities and wild places.

Anderson’s current role is heavy on litigation and advocacy work, but she still finds time to do a lot of campaigning. “I go back to those campaigning skills from my Free the Planet time — goals, strategies, tactics — I think about that stuff every single day,” she says. “Many people don’t learn those skills until much later, but I had the privilege of learning that all in college.”

Anderson has bumped into fellow FTP alumni from time to time over the course of her career, and recently reconnected with some of them at her 15-year reunion. “I was so glad I went,” she says.

“Grinnell is just an amazing college with fabulous alumni who really care about our future and our world. I had that before going into college, but the student body and the faculty really helped me develop that passion and carry it with me.”

Building an enduring community

“As a kid I cared about protecting the environment, but I didn’t understand how advocacy worked,” says native Coloradan Vanessa Pierce ’02, an independent major in international relations. By her second year at Grinnell, she was a leader of FTP.

Her first year, she got involved with the green voting subgroup, dedicated to raising awareness about environmental issues for the upcoming Iowa gubernatorial election. She recalls helping to organize a statewide rally in front of the Des Moines capitol building to pressure then-Democratic candidate Tom Vilsack to stand up for clean water in Iowa. “We wanted to drive the point home that we care about clean air and clean water, and the impacts of the agricultural industry, so we rented a huge U-Haul truck to send the message that if the state government didn’t get serious about clean water, we were going to pack up and leave,” she says.

Another campaign that generated attention was the forest protection subgroup led by Kogel-Smucker. Students who went to Menards and Home Depot risked arrest, “and in fact, some of them did get arrested,” says Pierce. “That was kind of wild. [Our] police liaison and media liaison both ended up getting arrested, so I had to jump in and help.”

Generating media attention for environmental causes was one of the group’s major tactical strengths. Sometimes, FTP campaigns were even higher profile than the national and state NGOs they worked with. One year, Pierce says, FTP generated more media coverage as a campus student group than the Iowa Sierra Club itself.

For the original members of FTP, the group’s strong bond and emphasis on community building and professional training extended beyond graduation. Greg Schrieber ’02, an FTP leader and close friend of Holland and Pierce, died tragically during the spring break of his senior year. To honor his memory and the community he believed in, they organized an annual training conference on campus for five years after they graduated. The conference, called “Hoedown in the Heartland,” offered training for the new generation of student environmental activists across Iowa and commemorated “the productive mischief we had made in the spirit of saving the planet.”

Today, Pierce is a freelance consultant and talent scout working primarily for the Climate Breakthrough Project, which invests in high risk/high reward strategies to address climate change. They look for “brilliant strategists with bold ideas” who could use monetary support and training. Pierce is particularly interested in bringing more diversity into the environmental field by helping connect creative thinkers from less well-represented groups with the resources they need.

Grinnell students still engaged

Although Free the Planet is no longer active on campus, several other student organizations are concerned with many of the same issues that fired up students years ago. Grinnell’s list of student organizations is ever-growing, and many of them focus on issues of sustainability and environmental advocacy.

  • The Student Environmental Committee works to increase awareness and promote positive behavioral change to address systemic issues of sustainability, especially on campus. Past projects have focused on increasing waste disposal literacy among students.
  • The Grinnell College Garden provides students with the opportunity to learn about small-scale farming and the value of local food systems.
  • The Student Government Association Green Fund directs money to student projects focused on sustainability on campus. It recently implemented a pilot industrial composting system in coordination with the College’s sustainability committee.
  • The Farm House is a student project house with a small garden.
  • The Grinnell Sunrise Movement is the local branch of the national youth-based movement advocating for the Green New Deal.
  • The Food Recovery Network collects perishable food from the College dining hall that would otherwise go unused and donates it to community partners for people in need of a free meal.
  • Iowater provides citizen-gathered data on water quality in Iowa. The Grinnell branch coordinates these efforts in the local watershed and increases awareness on campus of Iowa water quality issues.


Share / Discuss