“Collective support and solidarity”: Student Systems Conference unites midwestern universities for climate action

Last year, Natalie Tinsen represented UW–Madison at the Midwest Climate Summit, a collaboration amongst “higher education, non-profit, corporate, and government leaders” to find ways to hasten climate action in the region. At the virtual event, Tinsen, who was then the Sustainability Chair for Associated Students of Madison, met Maddie Miller, who held the same position on the student government board at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Register for the Student Systems Conference 

“We met almost weekly together, sharing our experiences and perspectives on sustainability at different universities,” Tinsen said.  “We really bonded over the same barriers we face in terms of climate action, [and] we got to talking about how there should be a specific student systems conference as a part of the Midwest Climate Collaborative.”

Natalie Tinsen, junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (left) and Madeline Miller, junior at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (right)
UW–Madison student Natalie Tinsen (left) and University of Minnesota-Twin Cities student Madeline Miller (right).

A student-oriented conference, they thought, would be especially beneficial because students working in sustainability grapple with unique challenges, like turnover to graduation, a lack of funding, and a difficulty in accessing—and being taken seriously by—administrators. In November 2020, Tinsen and Miller organized the first Student Systems Conference to “facilitate relationship building across campuses,” according to the website, “but also to collaboratively work on action items that demonstrate collective support and solidarity for different policies, initiatives, or movements students are working on.” 

More than 300 students from several Midwestern universities registered, and 70 attended the conference, which featured breakout groups about waste management, energy usage, environmental justice,  and student advocacy.

“It was really just a space for students to come share their experiences,” said Tinsen. “What’s working for them, what have they achieved, what are they struggling with, and how can you achieve those goals with that topic.”

The second installment of the Student Systems Conference will take place on March 4 from 12 to 3 p.m. CST (registration is still open). Students have already registered from each of the Big 10 schools, as well as coastal universities, like UC-Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, and Cornell. This time, student groups from UW–Madison and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities will speak about how they work to advance climate action; afterward, the groups will lead breakout sessions about agriculture, divestment, and social sustainability.

“The biggest change that we’re making this year is that each breakout group will have to bring back one action item that they’re each going to have to bring to the university,” Tinsen said. “Even though we’re at different universities, we can still work together to achieve the same goals.”

Three groups from UW–Madison will present at the conference: F.H. King, Re-wear It, and the Wisconsin Student Climate Action Coalition (WSCAC). They will speak and lead breakout sessions about agriculture, sustainable fashion, and divestment and climate action, respectively. 

Sophia Webber, the Education Director for F.H. King, said she is eager to share her experiences with other universities. F.H. King, which is funded by segregated fees and pays its members, grew more than 5,000 pounds of vegetables last season at its half-acre garden plot in Eagle Heights. It distributed all of that food to students and community members — for free.

“I think that F.H. King has a really unique position in that we actually have land that we’re farming on, and we’re producing produce that we’re able to give out for free, and we’re funded,” Webber said. “A lot of these organizations are doing really amazing work and students are putting in a ton of hours and it’s completely unpaid. I would love to be a resource for people interested in how that structure works and how they can be compensated for their work in a similar capacity … and also what it looks like to actually grow food at your campus.”

Volunteers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture harvest green beans and weed their 30,000-square-foot garden plot, UW-Madison's first community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, near Picnic Point in Madison. Photo by: Jeff Miller.
Volunteers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture harvest green beans and weed their 30,000-square-foot garden plot, UW-Madison’s first community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, near Picnic Point in Madison. Photo by: Jeff Miller.

Webber also looks forward to thinking through how agricultural organizations at other universities address food insecurity and survey students about access to food. She hopes to bring some of these ideas back to UW and to get to know how farming works on other campuses.

“We are grouped into this idea of the Midwest, so we’re all supposed to be connected under this idea of agriculture,” Webber said. “But I’ve never met or worked with anyone at a different student farm from another university. And farming is something that requires mutual aid, so this type of collaboration across universities is an extension of that mutual aid.”

Tinsen spoke similarly about the conference’s promise of bringing students together. At last year’s conference, she met someone from New Mexico who “was going through the same exact problem that I was facing.” This made her realize that students across many universities share common struggles toward climate action.

“It makes you feel like you’re not alone in this, and it really does give you that relationship and connection to work together,” she said. “That’s something I’ll always take with me for years after the conference. Sometimes working with climate action and sustainability you kind of feel alone because you get shut down a lot, so when you’re constantly getting shut down, it’s nice to feel that you’re not alone and that you have that support group.”

Tinsen is an intern for the Office of Sustainability, and her interactions with students at the OS and at other universities have inspired her to “cultivate sustainable change” at UW–Madison. Now—along with Miller and Webber—she is in her final semester before graduating, and she hopes the upcoming conference can inspire similar action and solidarity.

“I don’t expect to create some sort of worldwide change, like we’re going to be the reason that every school in the country divests or goes 100% renewable energy. I don’t have those expectations,” Tinsen said. “What I want from this conference—and why Maddie and I started it, and the whole purpose of it—is just to let students know that they’re not alone, and that they have resources available to them that aren’t just their university. There are people out there, students across the nation, working toward the same exact goals as you are. And you can rely on them, you can connect them, and they’re here for you.”

By: Marek Makowski