Washington’s climate warriors: Q&A with Fraser Moore and Elio Van Gorden

Zac Bentz and Abby Malzewski

Washington Governor Jay Inslee visited Whitman College campus on March 14. Select Whitman students got the opportunity to interview the governor live on campus radio station KWCW. Interim ASWC President Fraser Moore and Leader of the Campus Climate Coalition (CCC) Elio Van Gorden were two of the student interviewers. The Wire had the opportunity to sit down with Moore and Van Gorden following the interview to discuss their thoughts on Governor Inslee’s campus visit.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Wire: You were part of the student panel that interviewed Governor Jay Inslee on KWCW during his visit on March 14. How do you feel the interview went?

Moore: I thought Governor Inslee spoke with a lot of confidence, poise and precision. He really listened to us, but he was also very diplomatic. Some answers he didn’t give specifically at all, particularly my carbon tax question. He sort of skirted around and said, “I don’t want to get involved in Whitman politics.” [He] brought in cap and trade, which is probably the next best alternative to a carbon tax. 

Van Gorden: I feel like my imposter syndrome is battled and shoved today because I actually felt like this is actually huge, and having him here means a lot and it’s very timely. I do believe in the synchronicity of events right now. We’re on our way out, but things are just getting started. This is a huge moment for climate stuff. 

Moore: I agree. So many people have been working so hard for climate action at Whitman. I don’t think we’ve succeeded much. When I say that we divested from fossil fuels, that was a huge success, but divestment’s only divestment. You’re not actually changing the way the school operates. You’re just shifting where the investments are focused, which is a huge success because you don’t perpetuate the harms by investing money in an area; the school itself is not changing the way it consumes. I’m seeing now this big shift with climate action [as] a priority. With Governor Inslee coming, with us being able to ask him hard questions, it feels like this is a real time of change; that’s exciting. I feel honored to be in this position because it’s been 14 years of people really pushing, and we are just at the tip of the wave somehow. 

Van Gorden: Tip of a wave, and there’s just new waves forming all around us. [Moore] just announced the Climate Corps that’s happening; that’s huge. That’s more opportunities for people to get involved, especially in the community. That’s what we’re pushing for in terms of making climate action a strategic priority because the whole shift of the college right now is celebrating this place. Well, what does it mean to be in this place? It means to care for it. What does that look like? It means actually holding yourself accountable. We’re not actually doing any of the work to change if we just keep writing down things that we value. You have to put it into action. 

Moore: I think what really struck me is when Governor Inslee said, “The best way to combat despair is action.” That’s really gonna stick with me because I’ve felt the momentum that we’ve gained this last year has been immensely energizing. My academics have taken a hit because I literally haven’t been able to work on school as much as I’d like to, which is not great because we’re primarily here as students. I’ve been so energized by the victories we’ve had. I mean, again, just focusing on the generations of Whitman students, the work and the labor they’ve put in to make this happen.

Wire: What impact do you hope Inslee’s words have on the Whitman community and beyond?

Moore: There is a trend for Whitman to claim the success of their students as their own. Whitman does that a lot, and I think it’s really irresponsible. It would be irresponsible of students to do a similar thing because that is appropriation, even if it’s in a different form. It really is the institution’s responsibility to act on it, to build it into formal documents and to be visionary, which I don’t think we are at Whitman very much. That’s why I think community is so important because that is where students should be focusing. I think that to me a major learning [area] has been just realizing the importance of community, and realizing that that’s where I think organic, broad-scale and powerful change comes from. It’s the energy in trying to push Whitman to do the things they should already be doing. That’s infringing on community building because then there’s just less energy to actually focus on people, and it’s deliberate. It’s a deliberate tactic that’s used everywhere. It’s dangerous because then you forget how important it is to make community. Without community, we can’t do this work because everyone just gets burnt out and then everything collapses. 

Van Gorden: What we have at the end of the day is each other, right? The reality is that we need each other. We need to invest in each other and learn from each other and our neighbors. What it means to me to be a student here is to deeply care about the place that I’m living in. I deeply care about Walla Walla, the friendships I’ve made here and the mentorships I’ve had here; I am sad to go. I think this is an exceptional place, and Whitman deserves to act like it. If you look at who we are most like in terms of institutions, we’re just not cutting it. We’re last out of ten of our peer institutions, and that’s sad. Yet, we have an ever-growing community of people who are graduating in the environmental studies program. That doesn’t make sense. I have a lot of hope, and I also have a lot of fear. At the end of the day, knowing that everyone belongs in this community that is working to protect community and ecosystems, that is what gets me through. I’m systemically angry. Basically, I’m really upset about the contracts that we have with big companies like Coca-Cola, and that’s like a direct, actionable, “Let’s not do that.” Or the artificial turf fields. Choosing plastic. We are choosing plastic; we continue to choose plastic. I think this is an insecurity of mine, of like, “what can Whitman actually do?”

Moore: You can choose to do the right thing. 

Van Gorden: Yeah. We can stop choosing plastic. We can make decisions that make sense.

Moore: Beyond, like, a financial goal. 

Van Gorden: Because we owe it to an increasingly diverse student body and an exponentially threatened group of tribal people that are in our area to make the right decision. We are continuing to prove that we are inconsistent in doing that, and it’s just not an option anymore in my mind. It’s so reckless; we can’t afford to be reckless. I want this momentum to keep going long after us because this place is important to all of us. By making reckless decisions, we are threatening much more than ourselves, and that’s unacceptable.