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Everyone Has a Story

Crystal Durham

At age 17, Crystal Durham exhibited the growing pains typical of so many teenagers. Eager to get away from her parents’ home in northern California and find her own way in the world, she headed south to study at UCLA – away from home, but not too far away. Which academic direction to take wasn’t immediately obvious: politics, business, or medicine? Indecision is of little concern when you’re young, ambitious, and intelligent. As the first semester progressed, the notion of becoming Dr. Durham was quickly dismissed after a chemistry class proved to be of little interest. But as so often happens, life presented ideas and opportunities she had never known existed, and soon Crystal was clear on her path.

The “Aha!” moment came during a summer trip to Catalina Island. Durham had picked up a book called It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and I Could Use a Drink, a thoughtful and humorous work about the urgent state of environmental affairs written by UCLA faculty member Scott Sherman. She drank in Sherman’s words and began what she terms “an incredible transformation” – from someone quite unaware of environmental issues to a staunch advocate for Mother Earth.

What completed Durham’s metamorphosis was a class called “The Geography of the World Economy,” which opened her eyes to the connection between the Western economic system and the global environment.

“I began to see the connections between the things we do in our daily lives and the impact it has on the world around us. Once (the connection) is seen, it can never be unseen,” says Durham.

After a six-month internship with the Center for American Politics and Public Policy (CAPPP) in 2003, Durham returned to California an experienced activist, ready to get to work. She joined the California Student Sustainability Coalition (CSSC), a student-run organization founded by a group of students who had worked on a successful Greenpeace-organized campaign, “UC Go Solar.” Now 25, Durham is the executive director of CSSC, which recently signed on as one of Earth Island Institute’s newest projects. (See page 18.)

As the executive director, Durham oversees CSSC’s push for institutional policy change on such campus sustainability issues as purchasing, transportation, and food. The group’s agenda promotes broad change, but it’s not a radical movement by rebellious students. The rational options that CSSC presents to university administrators rarely meet with hesitation before their adoption. “We don’t run into a lot of opposition,” says Durham. “If the approach is right, you can’t really argue against sustainability.”

The group’s growing success within the UC system has met with increasing acceptance of its vision by other institutions. CSSC has recently added a chapter at San Jose State University and is hoping to add Sonoma State, Chico State, Santa Barbara City College, and De Anza College to its ranks before the end of the year. “We build community,” says Durham. “We show students that it’s good to care about people and to care about the environment. And they know they’re not alone in their beliefs. Students across the state and across the country are all working toward the same goals.”

This expansion has been spawned by the organization’s consolidation of its goals and aspirations into a written charter, which details CSSC’s ambition to “remain a living and learning organization created by and composed of dynamic, empowered, self-aware, conscious, and compassionate human beings.” Durham explains that CSSC outgrew its original structure; this led the participants to re-envision CSSC’s potential and put it in writing, making it easier to share the information with others. With this new, mature approach, CSSC came to Earth Island for further growth potential. Not ready to become its own 501(c)(3), CSSC has joined Earth Island for the fiscal benefit of gaining nonprofit status and for the ensuing opportunity to increase its membership and strength. With Durham at the helm, CSSC is looking forward to stretching beyond its current boundaries.

Growing up, so it seems, isn’t so painful after all.


courtesy of Crystal Durham


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