On Friday, Apr. 8, Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) PO ’94 visited Pomona College’s campus to share life advice and his insights on combatting climate change with students, faculty, and other community members.
Senator Schatz’s day at Pomona included a master class and luncheon with students, a visit to the Draper Center for Community Engagement, and a tour of Pomona’s LEED certified buildings and organic farm. In the afternoon, Schatz gave a public talk in Millikan Laboratory’s Argue auditorium, where he spoke about his path from Pomona to the Senate and his thoughts on climate change, the central focus of his career. He also fielded questions from audience members on topics including divestment, specific climate pricing policies, his endorsement of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and Democratic party priorities.
During his talk, Sen. Schatz described addressing climate change as his driving purpose for entering politics. He also emphasized that young people will be the ones who ultimately push politicians to take action on climate change.
In an interview with TSL, the senator emphasized the importance of fighting climate change.
“This is the challenge of our generation,” he said. “The previous generation has failed to take action, but remember that every time a great challenge faces America, it’s the young people that lead in terms of the solution, whether it’s the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights movement, the antiwar movement.”
Tom Erb PO ’18, who will intern for Sen. Schatz in Washington, D.C., this summer, gave an introduction to Schatz’s Apr. 8 talk and helped plan his campus visit. The visit has been in the works since the fall, according to Pomona Vice President of Communications Marylou Ferry.
“I know after, [Schatz] was pleased with the day and he was glad he took the time, which is always important,” Erb said.
Erb, who is involved in on-campus climate activism, said that he “is in the same boat” with Schatz in terms of how to address climate change on an institutional level.
Sen. Schatz “understands the technical difficulty and degree of expertise you need in order to actually make changes like the clean power plan and the international agreement,” Erb said, “so I think he’s someone that’s very positioned to be kind of the climate guy in the Senate for a very long time, which is exciting because there’s not a lot of them.”
Many of the students who interacted with Schatz during the master class and luncheon said that they appreciated Schatz’s down-to-earth, humble demeanor and his advice on achieving personal and professional goals.
“A few people had questions on how to balance and navigate their specific interests, and Schatz’s general advice was, as I heard it, to resist the urge to take the well-trodden paths and to try to find or forge a path that appeals to us on a more personal level,” Ben Higgs PO ‘18 wrote in an email to TSL.
Similarly, Reese Gaines PO ’16 said that he was inspired by Schatz’s emphasis on the importance of family and his reference to the Nelson Mandela quote, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
“As someone who wants to go into public service and hold a Congressional office, I think he inspired me to look within myself and not necessarily pursue going into public service just for getting recognition but actually…doing what I’m passionate about and letting that be my driving factor of why I want to give back to people,” Gaines said.
David Menefee-Libey, a professor of politics at Pomona, agreed that it was valuable for students to hear about the life trajectories of alumni like Schatz.
“When alums come back, one of the things I like to hear them talk about is how they got from here to there, because one of the biggest challenges students have is in imagining their own futures,” Menefee-Libey said.
Both Menefee-Libey and Erb said that they were impressed by Sen. Schatz’s ability to respond to questions eloquently and think on his feet.
“One of the things I really liked watching was the students who really pushed him hard and got in his face a little bit,” Menefee-Libey said. “He seemed to enjoy that, and he showed how comfortable he was with that kind of give and take with someone who really disagreed with him, and that’s the lesson I thought was really important for students to see: how a person in a position like that handles encounters with people who disagree with him very strongly.”
After his talk, one audience member criticized the senator for his endorsement of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, given that large numbers of young people support Bernie Sanders.
In response, Sen. Schatz said that he believes Clinton is more capable of continuing “the progress that President Obama has made in the climate space,” which will require “a complete understanding of the law, of policy, of how politics work, of how international relations work.”
“It is absolutely your right to be salty with me about that, but I want you to know that I came by my decision because I think this is a consequential choice and because the planet is at stake,” Schatz added. “That’s why I did it.”
Menefee-Libey spoke to how productive disagreement can be difficult to achieve at Pomona.
“I think we have a hard time with disagreement at Pomona because it’s a small community, so it’s difficult to have somebody that you’re in such close quarters with disagree with you,” he said. “So we’re not very practiced at disagreeing seriously about things that really matter to us, and some of what Schatz was showing the community how to disagree with people.”
In an interview with TSL, the senator also responded to a question about his thoughts on college divestment campaigns:
“I think that every institution has to take a hard look at all of their practices–it includes how they operate their physical plant, where they generate their electrons—and try to walk the talk. Part of that includes how you deal with your endowment, but whatever they do has to work. Because you also don’t want it to be an unfortunate example of something moving too quickly, and therefore not replicable.”
Savanah Bird PO ’18, who asked a question about divestment at Schatz’s talk, wrote in an email to TSL that while she appreciated Schatz’s response, she thinks that “it’s important to look at the copious amount of institutions that HAVE been able to successfully divest to this date, without taking hits to their endowment.”
Paige Pepitone contributed reporting.