Saxon Stahl: Climate Leader Through Student Governance
Growing up in the conservative wine country of Temecula, California – where cowboy boots abound and the most popular nightclub is a line-dancing studio – Saxon Stahl stood out from what was expected in his hometown. Discovering their Aboriginal heritage at the age of 18 further shook their sense of identity.
“We grew up thinking we were Mexican. So I felt like I grew up with a culture I didn’t belong to and belonged in a culture I didn’t grow up with,” Stahl says. “I was like, ‘Where do I belong?'”
Connecting with nature and learning traditions from native leaders helped validate Stahl’s identity. And since then, they’ve worked to create spaces — and seats at the proverbial table — for others to feel validated and have their own voices heard.
As a master’s candidate in the Climate and Society ProgramStahl founded the Columbia Climate Graduate Council – the official student government of the Columbia Climate School — write a constitution and bylaws that will empower students and promote representation and equity. Stahl’s leadership in this effort was recently recognized by a Campbell Prize.
With graduation fast approaching, Stahl looks forward to the next steps, which include an environmental justice internship at NASA, and working toward a second master’s degree – this time focusing on political analysis at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies. Through this program, Stahl hopes to continue making progress toward his ultimate goal of working within the federal government on policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
In the Q&A below, Stahl discusses why the Climate School needs student government and why governance matters in the broader realm of climate policy.
What brought you to the Climate and Society program?
In undergrad, I double majored in environmental science and political science, and it all sort of converged here at The Climate School. I am interested in influencing climate policy.
Teacher Andrew Kruczkiewicz (from the Climate School International Research Institute for Climate and Society) once said: “We are teaching you to become translators”. I think it helped me understand how important it was to have not only scientists, but also climate policy makers. And so it kind of affirmed my space and why I belonged to the climate school as much as everyone else. My colleagues do a lot of important research, and I want to make sure that the research they do gets into the right hands and translates into policy.
Why create a student government?
I wanted to create a space that would allow Climate School students to strengthen their civic culture, engage in advocacy, and translate climate research into policy. These are important skills for climate leadership.
There are other students who have done an incredible job of bringing us to meetings, uplifting the student community and available resources, and addressing student concerns. I really wanted to centralize all of this effort in one space, because everyone was kind of doing their own thing. We had to come together and have a collective front, because that unity is so important, especially when we know that part of the fight against climate change is to build coalitions. It is therefore important that the climate school is a place that promotes these values, because it is really about applying what we learn in the classroom.
I took the reins of this project because if we were to create a student government, I would not want it to be established by the administration — I would like it to be established by the students. That way it’s a space For students, by students.
How did you do?
Over the past year, I have had the honor of being a member of the Council for Graduate Studies in Arts and Sciences vice president of administration, where I reviewed the bylaws and constitution and also kept a diligent record of student groups for the council. It was easy for me to design this passionate project of creating student government and writing guiding documents, because I realized that I could just look at what other schools are doing and adapt it to the school of the climate.
During the winter break, I started drafting the Climate School student government constitution and bylaws. I was intentional to include positions that had a climate lens – like the vice president of climate and equity – and to emphasize how important it is to keep cultural influence alive and at a level of governance so prestigious.
Then I organized meetings for students to come and give their opinion on how student government should be established. We got a lot of student feedback and a lot has changed from the original project. For example, we have eliminated two positions on the executive council in order to have a more centralized executive council, and we have reduced the number of committees and added a system of checks and balances with our university student senator.
We needed to get at least two-thirds of the cohort to ratify the Columbia Climate Graduate Council, and luckily we were able to get about 80% consent from the cohort.
Although I wrote the bylaws and constitution myself, it literally took an entire village to write them and for the drafts to be finalized and ratified. And so the bottom line is: Community, community, community.
What are the next steps?
Dean Glover and Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri have been so supportive throughout the process, and we are now in the final stages of getting the other Deans to sign the Board. It’s basically approved, and we’re moving forward with the deans in setting up the amount of money that will be allocated to student government to have advocacy networks, events, guest speakers, and do other types of civic activities .
Had you worked in student governance before this?
In undergrad, I was the Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion (DEI) at my university. I have been involved in many coalition-building and policy-making initiatives that have raised different student communities on campus, to support them and advocate on their behalf in administrative spaces where they unfortunately had no seat at the table and I do. It made me understand the process of finding out what the issues or concerns are, going through our resources to understand what can actually be done about it, and making those requests visible.
This position has led to further DEI work. I took a gap year between undergraduate and graduate, and for much of it I worked at the Sundance Institute. I was involved in decision-making processes to promote racial equity in the Institute and to understand how we could improve storytelling for artists from different communities – such as BIPOC artists or artists in the 18 to 25 category years. Additionally, I supported improving the internal work culture within Sundance.
What are your plans for the summer?
I currently have an environmental justice internship at NASA. There, I will work to bring a better understanding of how environmental justice fits into the climate domain lens and how it appears in different federal agencies.
I tend to find myself in areas that are still developing and growing, and that’s because I want to develop and grow with them. For much of my life, I found myself in a room where I somehow broke the glass ceiling, whether it was because of my own background or what I stood for. With each new stage, I like to ask, “How are we going to get through this period?” »
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.