Seven college students and recent graduates from around the country are taking a two-month trek from New Orleans to Houston to work with environmental justice communities and raise awareness about the need to transition from oil and gas to alternative energy sources.
And they’re doing it all by bicycle.
The riders are part of the “Ride for the Future” program of the Better Future Project, a nonprofit organization with a mission of addressing climate change and moving away from fossil fuels through grassroots organizing.
The group arrived in Baton Rouge on June 7 and will meet with different organizations and perform community work before heading west again Friday.
The riders began with a two-week training program May 20 in New Orleans and expect to complete the ride by July 30. The riders set out on their trip in early June and say they’ve been eating very well despite the $6 a day food stipend they receive.
“For me, it’s the opportunity to understand the industry down here,” said Kaela Bamberger, 21, from upstate New York, about why she decided to take on the two-month trip. “At home, we’re removed from where we’re getting our energy.”
For others, the trip is a continuation of their personal and scholastic interests in environmental issues and environmental justice.
“I grew up in Beijing, and in Beijing the pollution is very bad,” said Daphne Chang, 18, who is attending college in Massachusetts. She said although she saw the pollution, she didn’t know what could be done about it. She said she saw the “Ride for the Future” trip as a way to challenge herself physically through the bike riding and mentally by visiting a different area of the country.
“I really wanted to understand the complexity of the oil and gas industry,” Chang said.
Part of their trip involves working with and talking to residents from communities that surround the industrial areas of Louisiana and Texas.
In Baton Rouge, they spent time working with community gardens, meeting local environmental groups and helped canvass neighborhoods with a petition on behalf of the Louisiana Democracy Project’s Pray for Our Air program.
“They’re so wonderful to take their summers to come out and sweat,” Stephanie Anthony, director of Louisiana Democracy Project, said as she handed out petitions to each rider.
For other riders, the motivation in joining the trip was to not only raise environmental awareness, but to get a chance to travel the South.
“I’m really into cycling. It was my first chance to do a major tour and I’ve never been to the South before,” said Ernesto Botello, 22, from San Diego, Calif., and a graduate of Boston University where he studied health science and public health. “This is exposure to first hand experience from communities that are affected (by oil and gas industry).”
Dena Yanowski, 22, of Houston, graduated with an education degree and said she wanted to take off a year to travel and this was the beginning of that journey.
“My dad works for the oil and gas industry,” she said. “I was interested more on the traveling, but I’m learning about both sides (of the oil and gas industry).”
Hannah Mott, 18, of Suches, Ga., going to school in Massachusetts, said the town where she grew up is very small and it wasn’t until going to college that she took a class on environmental justice.
“It made me realize a lot of what I had growing up, clean air and clean water, I really took for granted,” Mott said.
She said so far on the trip she’s realized that hearing about people’s stories in class and talking to people who live in industrial communities are two very different things.
Erik Rundquist, 23, of Massachusetts, is studying geography, but he started learning more about climate change as well.
“And realized we’re not going anywhere in that,” he said.
This was a chance to get involved in doing something, he said.
Omar Navarro, 23, of Houston, graduated with a degree in international business last year and has been working to get more experience with nongovernmental agencies and nonprofits.
The trip was a chance to learn more about the oil and gas industry, how lobbying money from that industry, and environmental groups, influences legislation as well as how improved city planning could help transition to less fuel consumption.
Whatever their reason for starting on the trip, the seven participants are sharing the same journey, sleeping in churches along the way and dealing with the trials of riding everywhere on bicycles. Flat tires, loose equipment and drivers came up first when they were asked about any problems.
“We’ve been called a few names when there’s no bike lane,” Navarro said.
More about their journey is available at http://rideforthefuture.org/