Communicating Climate: My Journey in the Environmental Movement
By Lenny Zaleski
When I first arrived at the University of Dayton, I was eager to explore and find out more about what I wanted to make out of my career. The incredible number of options to find out about was overwhelming at times. However, I did know one thing. I wanted to make an impact. For me, making a difference with the work I did was a linchpin to feeling fulfilled. That greater good mattered to me in a world that was full of political strife, international tension, and economic uncertainty.
One of the first clubs I joined at my school’s “Up The Orgs,” the big fair featuring all of our student organizations out on the giant front lawn, was our school’s Sustainability Club. The organization had a lot of the seniors who led the organization for 2+ years leave right after I had arrived as a freshman, so there was an open position to apply for. The position was “Community Engagement Chair,” in charge of managing outreach to different partners, planning community-focused events in the wider Dayton community (the city itself) and inviting outside speakers to talk to students about pressing climate issues.
I hadn’t learned much about sustainability and the environment before coming to college. I was interested in the club because of work my grandpa had done to protect the environment in his home in small-town Wisconsin. It would take some work to be on the executive board of an organization so quickly into my college career, but I figured it would be a unique and fun opportunity to get involved and engaged quickly with my community.
Photo of the poster for Sustainability Club that I made with other executive board members
One of the most important things I learned in my position was that communication matters for climate change. It is one of the fundamental tools of human connection and our experiences at large. Sometimes it may feel like words do not matter and no matter what we do people will not act on the alarming issues of climate change, but I think there’s always a way to reach folks. I had to put this into practice to help put on a massive climate strike on campus for Sustainability Club.
One of my primary tasks was to secure sponsorships from over 5 organizations, including a sizable student-run business, political groups, and various campus departments. To achieve this, I had to focus on articulating the mutual benefits of their involvement, emphasizing how the event aligned with their values and offered a unique platform to connect with the university community. Clear and persuasive communication was key in conveying the shared goal of promoting environmental awareness and action. Next, I had to secure local speakers.
This involved reaching out to community leaders and experts, engaging them in conversations that highlighted the significance of their voices in inspiring change. Communicating the broader impact of their participation, not just for the event but for the long-term sustainability efforts on our campus was very important. By fostering open lines of communication, I was able to build bridges between the Sustainability Club and influential speakers, creating a collective narrative that echoed the urgency of addressing climate issues within the University of Dayton community.
Photo of me at the 2022 climate strike on campus
These crucial lessons about communication and climate change stuck with me as I changed my major from international studies to public relations and political science. I had always known the work I did needed to have an impact. I care about community and want to use my work to engage people and bring them together. I realized that I had an amazing opportunity to make an impact on the world with my skills in communications, strategy, and planning, and my passion for the environment and sustainability. I got that opportunity my first summer as a college student.
After a rigorous interview process, I was selected to my school’s Statehouse Civic Scholars program, an elite internship program in Columbus, the capital of Ohio, for the summer. When I heard that my placement would be at the Ohio Environmental Council for the summer as an intern, it felt like the stars had aligned. For the entire summer, I saw the importance of the environment at the state level. I saw policies pass and fail, and the importance of communicating these issues. From social media posts to speaking to candidates and funders directly, or organizing events. All of it was crucial to stopping climate change in some way. The linchpin? Communication.
Communication remained key in my other climate-focused work. I would spend my sophomore year working on housing issues, related to sustainability, at the City of Dayton Human Relations Council, a government agency dedicated to promoting inclusion and harmony amongst all residents of Dayton, Ohio. Dayton has seen the need for more sustainable policies and implemented several of them, and I saw the crucial relation of this to sustainability. My work on the Fair Housing Symposium, a city-wide event intended to bring together experts and community members to learn more about the current state of housing in the city and what can be done going forward, taught me about sustainability and the environment’s relations to several key social justice problems, especially the environment and climate change. Promoting this event meant reaching folks about the issue in ways that mattered to them, from human rights to the environment.
Into summer 2023, I saw the importance of communication in the environmental movement even more. I had the opportunity to be the public relations fellow for The Climate Initiative itself, and communications extended out to nearly every aspect of our work. Whether it was fundraising, working with youth leaders, reaching out to educators, or talking about impact or key issues, we had to communicate these issues clearly in an accessible and concise manner. The rise of the digital world and AI has only continued to make this even more crucial, as so many forms of climate activism have moved to digital spaces, such as social media, virtual communities, and remote workspaces. These lessons I learned from the summer with The Climate Initiative were crucial for my dream job this summer: working at a federal government agency.
Since I was young, I’ve wanted to serve my community and the public, often inspired by my Grandfather and his service to the community. This summer, I get the chance to serve the American people working at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an agency under the Department of Energy that ensures reliable, safe, secure & economically efficient energy for consumers at a reasonable cost. During my interview process, one of the most crucial things I got the chance to talk about was the importance of communicating environmental issues to different audiences and meeting people where they are at. My past experiences, from climate organizing to political work to nonprofit work all prepared me to care about the importance of communicating these issues and inspiring others.
It’s taken me three years in my college career to see the importance of communicating these issues to the public and inspiring people to act. I’ve been incredibly privileged and fortunate to work with amazing organizations all combating climate change and furthering environmental goals for different audiences in different ways. The constant in all my work has remained the necessity of communicating climate issues to people in a way they can understand and relate to, and I am excited to continue my journey in the climate space this summer and into my professional career. Together, we can affect positive change with climate hope.