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From textbook prices to clean energy, MASSPIRG fights for many issues

Caroline O’Connor/Collegian

When it comes to student activism, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, or MASSPIRG, has many accomplishments. From getting fast food chains to pledge to halt serving antibiotic-raised meat and campaigning for increasing youth voter registration, MASSPIRG has played an active role in making change on campus and in the Commonwealth.

Here’s transcription of an interview with the chair of the University of Massachusetts MASSPIRG chapter Julia Serembra and state board chair Julia McLaughlin.

Danny Cordova: Tell me some basic information about MASSPIRG.

Julia Seremba: MASSPIRG is a statewide, student-funded and student-directed nonprofit organization and we work on public interest issues, such as protecting the environment, protecting consumers as well as public health. We train student activists to be active on campus and in their communities, and to make change on issues that they care about and that we’re affected by.

Julia McLaughlin: We’re nonpartisan and typically our campaigns are centered around going after special interests on behalf of the public interest. And since 1972, we’ve been here on campus at UMass Amherst. We’re actually the longest consecutively funded chapter for PIRG in the country. We have other PIRGs in other states as well.

DC: Could you tell me your roles in the organization?

JS: I’m currently the chapter chair of UMass Amherst. I help to train our top leaders and the organization to take on goals and leadership positions, both within their campaigns and at the statewide level. I work closely with our full-time staff member, which is our campus organizer, to help facilitate meetings and discussions with our volunteers and interns and serve as a resource on campus for people that are interested in getting involved or want to learn more about how they can tackle issues that they care about.

JM: As the statewide board chair, I serve as the “main point” person when it comes to statewide affairs. We have 13 chapters in Massachusetts which means we have 13 campuses in the state that have a MASSPIRG chapter. We do regional conferences like student retreats, summits and things like that where we organize trainings and skill sessions. We have speakers come in and talk about organizing and mostly it’s just time for us to hang out and get to know each other. Being on the statewide board, we make statewide decisions with our money, the money we collect from the student fees. We decide what our statewide campaign is going to be. And we’re also trying to build communication and facilitate better relationships amongst the chapters and the state to be effective statewide.

DC: Tell me the history of MASSPIRG in UMass and the recent successes.

JS: We’ve been here on campus since 1972 and we have run various campaigns. More in the past, years ago, was the bottle bill. We helped to initiate the original bottle bill, which put five cent deposits on single-use beverages in the 80s to increase recycling in the state of Massachusetts.

JM: A lot of our victories are statewide. A recent success, in my opinion, is that we brought early voting to campus in the last election cycle with SGA. But statewide, we did everything from getting expiration dates on dairy products back in the 80s, to getting recycling bins put in the subway stops in Boston. We worked to get fast-food chain restaurants to stop selling meat raised under routine antibiotics. That’s more national stuff, but we have been a part of that.

JS: And then something specific here to UMass would be to help establish the pilot program in the library for the open education resources to make textbooks more affordable for students here on campus by incenting professors to switch on to creating their own textbooks or using resources already available online, which would be at no cost to students. That’s something we’re working on currently.

JM: We’re also the oldest and largest nonpartisan youth voter mobilization drive. On every election cycle, we register thousands of students to vote on different campuses. It’s a national campaign. Since the 80s, we’ve helped register over two million people to vote nationally.

DC: Any challenges during campaigns?

JS: We obviously have a bunch of challenges throughout campaigns and of course we don’t always achieve the goals we set in the beginning, so it’s definitely a working process and a lot of the campaigns are way more than one semester or one year. Our current statewide lead campaign is 100 percent clean energy in the state, as well as on our campuses where we have chapters so there’s of course challenges with that. The overarching goal is to have a statewide bill passed for the entire state of Massachusetts. Of course, there’s challenges and barriers and special interests as well. That’s something we really want to continue to push on.

DC: How many people are actively involved in UMass MASSPIRG?

JS: Each semester we have about 40 to 50 members and volunteers that come in and out throughout the semester. The way we typically operate is a set of tiers. We have a chapter chair, vice chair, treasurer and secretary. Within that, we have our top volunteers or people that or most interested in working on a specific issue to take the role of a campaign coordinator and then within the campaigns, we have people take on tactical coordinator roles. There’s also general volunteers who are super helpful and crucial to the organization as well.

DC: What are MASSPIRG’s current goals?

JS: The overarching goal of the organization is to train students to be civically engaged and be active members of their community, both on and off campus. Our mission is to fight on behalf of the public interest. What we really focus on and what we really believe is people power.

JM: Right now, we’re running four different campaigns. Our statewide lead campaign is 100 percent renewable energy so we want Massachusetts to pass a bill to make a commitment toward 100 percent clean energy. But in order to do that, we’re targeting universities first, so we want UMass to make that commitment. For now, we’re been collecting petitions and getting faculty to endorse our campaign.

JS: And we are having a Lobby Day for the 100 percent clean energy campaign at the Boston Statehouse to talk to legislators and built support across the state on April 6.

Danny Cordova can be reached dcordova@umass.edu.

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