What I’ve Learned

This moment last year, Olin Climate Justice was little more than an idea in the back of my mind. I’ve spent this past year pouring my life and soul into building OCJ.

I understand our group means many things to many people. To me, it represents thousands of hours of work and love and care and courage and determination and resilience and guts and kindness and heart. This may not be your view; that is okay.

OCJ has responded to the claims made by March’s anonymously published article. In this moment, however, that response is immaterial. Instead, in an act of vulnerability, I will tell you that article landed with deep hurt, frustration, and sadness. I recognize this was not the author’s intent, and yet both things can be true. And so I extend an invitation to you. 

I hope to use this space to reflect on one rollercoaster of a year, and I invite you to journey with me. These learnings are borne of experience; you may find them vague and unsubstantiated. That is okay too. I invite you to see them as an open question, an opportunity to wonder why I might have learned this.

Above all, I invite you to wonder what Olin could be. And I hope that wonder inspires you enough to act, as it did for me.

  • I’ve learned that the same anti-democratic structures in this college that center whiteness and maleness and wealth are the same structures that got us into the climate crisis in the first place.
  • I’ve learned that “collaboration” is wielded by those in power to obscure power differentials, and that when we say “collaboration” we really mean perfunctory student participation.
  • I’ve learned that “community” is similarly wielded by those with whom I am not in community as a means to suppress dissent.
  • I’ve learned that we can repeat the words collaboration and community over and over until we drop dead, and yet nothing will substitute for democratic processes that hold people in power accountable.
  • I’ve learned that student decision making power in this college is predicated on whether people in power feel like listening, and so students are expected to accommodate the whims of unelected white men.
  • I’ve learned that those in power are seen as collaborative because they maintain a range of things they are willing to do and take student input on, and outside of that range they are steadfast in their opposition.
  • I’ve learned that the lack of formal decision-making structures at this college prioritizes the “old boy’s club” that has existed from the start, empowers well-liked white men to attain outsized control over every decision, and prevents accountability and real democracy by obscuring power.
  • I’ve learned that better does not equal good, whether that is relative to other institutions or the Olin of the past, and those in power wield narratives of “change is slow” and “acknowledge small progress” to justify inaction.
  • I’ve learned that “common ground” and “shared values” are all too often employed when they do not exist, as reasons to ignore the substance of one’s argument.
  • I’ve learned that “impact” is meaningless when divorced from who we are impacting, what impact we hope to achieve, and why. And that meaninglessness is precisely why those in power love the term. (The same applies for “changemaking” and “do something”, always a low bar).
  • I’ve learned we’ve set the bar for “caring about sustainability” so low that not denying the existence of the climate crisis is considered enough.
  • I’ve learned that “sustainability” can mean anything, and so often is used to reinforce business-as-usual operations.
  • I’ve learned that some are so invested in avoiding discomfort, are so unsettled by efforts to pull back the Olin veil, that they would tear down their fellow students to uphold the systems of oppression that built this college.
  • I’ve learned that you can spend long nights poring over solar panel proposals and early mornings cleaning out overflowing compost bins, and those in power will turn around and claim credit for that work.
  • I’ve learned that no matter how hard you work, the credit will go to the cis men around you, while other men will always be happy to offer their unsolicited opinions.
  • I’ve learned that those in power will co-opt your work until you are no longer palatable to them.
  • I’ve learned that the only way that white men take me seriously is if I contort into someone calm, collected, and quiet, who never pushes for more.
  • I’ve learned that it’s one thing to care about sustainability and real environmental impact, which everyone does, and another thing to care enough to prioritize it above CompArch and PIE and Formula. It’s one thing to say you care and another thing to stare wide-eyed in terror at the ticking clock that is 1.5C and look around and think, what the hell are we all doing, acting as if everything can be normal and the same? That we can just keep going like this?
  • I’ve learned that we’re made too busy to care. For this college and for each other.

A Reflection on Motivation with the ARCs

As we’re approaching the end of the semester, you may be experiencing shifts in your motivation towards your academic work. These shifts may affect how you view your academic, social, or personal lives. During the lead up to finals season, we the ARCS (the Academic Resource Co-creators) want to encourage you to take some time to reflect on different sources of motivation, how these sources may present themselves, and how they affect your classwork and teaming. Motivation can come from many sources–intrinsic, extrinsic, or anywhere in-between. You could be motivated to do something because it’s interesting, or you could be motivated because it brings you joy, you may feel like you are expected to, you think it’ll be helpful for the future, you want good grades, it makes you feel good or healthy, you want to learn something, and so on. We want to highlight that there are no right or wrong motivations, but it can be helpful to reflect honestly on what they are or aren’t in different areas of your life. It can guide your actions and approaches, and if you find you don’t like your current motivations, you can identify and try to shift them. It’s also important to remember, especially when working with others, that different people have different motivations at different levels surrounding different things, and they are all equally valid and fluid. Sometimes, differences in people’s motivations can affect teaming situations at Olin, and awareness of one’s internal drivers can be helpful to resolving those conflicts.

We’ve included some reflection questions, and we invite you to ponder and/or discuss those which feel meaningful to you:

What motivates you to achieve your goals? What do you want to achieve?

How are you best motivated? What do you want to be motivated by?

How do your motivations vary in different parts of your life (e.g. academic things, but also taking care of your mental and physical health, getting out of bed in the mornings, doing social things)? What are you most/least motivated to do? 

Do your actions reflect your motivations in various parts of your life? Why or why not?

Do you have to be motivated? Or does it just make it easier if you are?

How do external factors (that you might not have control over, e.g. weather, people around you, etc) affect your motivation?

What do you do when faced with big challenges?

What situations may cause you to lose motivation?

Do you ever feel like you have no motivation? When? What causes that?

How do you recognize teaming conflicts that stem from differences in motivation, and how do you address them?

Can you think of someone that you consider to be highly motivated? What defines that? What do they do? What are their values?

Why Don’t We Talk About Faith?

For my entire life leading up to college, I had been extremely active in the Episcopal Church and outward about my Christian identity. My faith had wavered as I questioned the line between what is known to be true and what I was told to believe is true even though it is not scientifically possible. I have come to know that both religion and science can and do coexist. Without one, there is not the other. With that foundation, I am able to keep moving in both my spiritual life and my STEM education. Unsurprisingly, I still am figuring out my beliefs, questioning everything, and finding God in new places. One of those new places was here at Olin.

In my first semester, I knew of two people who were outwardly religious (not just Christian). Thus, I kept my faith hidden and took a break from regularly attending church, singing in the choir, and bible study. By the end of December, I was longing for a faith community again which, by asking a few people, I found in the Olin Christian Fellowship group (OCF). Here, I found a group of 15+ students actively meeting for prayer and bible study. We are sometimes even joined by one of our hall directors who is active in their own Christian community outside of Olin. I was welcomed in with open arms, and I started to let God in again. A few weeks into this semester, I was once again shocked when I heard that a few of our professors attend church, and I started attending church with one of them. I learned through conversation with them that there are over 10 faculty and staff who are actively part of Christian communities. 

While religion is not talked about at Olin and seems to me to be rather taboo, it is ever-present and growing. Oliners are a group of people who know science and engineering are important, and when used correctly, can make the world a better place. I want to make it clear that being religious does not contradict those beliefs.   I wrote this article with no intention of trying to convince anyone to join OCF or to share my faith. I write this to let you know that OCF exists, various other religious groups at Olin exist, and religious people at Olin exist. Religion and Olin can and do coexist. If you ever do find yourself interested in learning about Christianity, please come talk to me or join the OCF discord. We meet every Wednesday from 6:30-7:30 in the Jam Room and have morning prayer at 7 am in Nate Hutcherson’s apartment every Tuesday. All are welcome, with no exceptions.

What does it mean to be an Oliner?

Being at a small institution can be socially challenging sometimes. Being worried about what other people know about you, rumors about you, finding the right people, all of it can get to your head. You can get scared of being yourself and can end up feeling isolated. That was exactly what happened to me during my first year at Olin.

Coming to Olin in the fall of 2021, I was excited to be in a new environment and meet new people. After a rough end to high school socially, I really wanted to “fit in” at Olin. I wanted to connect with everyone and be well-engaged in the community. Knowing that many at Olin had liberal views, I was scared that I would be ostracized if I shared my faith explicitly, and people would not like me. I did not want to repeat the same struggles I did in high school. So, I decided to hide my faith/not engage with it as much as I had as a child. However, this decision hurt me more than it helped me.

Throughout my first semester, I often felt lost and that I didn’t fit in. The small community felt choking, and at times there were parts of me that wanted to leave Olin. I often would go to Babson and Wellesley College for other activities and to meet new people, but that didn’t help how I felt at Olin. During the second semester, I didn’t hide my faith as much, but I  would still put social events over faith engagements. I wasn’t making time for what was truly important to me. Letting people know who I was still wasn’t the same as expressing myself, and as a result, I still felt isolated.

Fast forward to this school year, the president of Olin Christian Fellowship sent a message in discord for people to fill out a when2meet so we could set a meeting time. I was a little hesitant to join, but I knew that after a year of pain I needed to try something new. I filled out the when2meet, yet initially, I refrained from going to the meetings. I was still concerned about what other Oliners might think. However, a third of the way through last semester, something in me said that I should go to meetings and deeply engage in this part of my life. I began to worry less about what people would think of my faith and began to consistently attend and participate more and more in OCF events. As OCF looks towards our first retreat in seven years, I am glad I decided to fully express this part of me.

Being at Olin, it can often feel like there is this pressure to be like and believe what everyone else does, but trying to fit into that cohesion can be detrimental to one’s emotional health. The fear of being hated is gut-wrenching. If Olin is to be the place it says it is, a place where engineering is for all, we as students, we as a community, need to ensure that everyone can express every part of themselves. If you feel isolated or ever feel so in the future, know that others have felt that way. You are not alone. Olin isn’t always what we hoped it would be, but we can work to shape it to be better than it currently is.

(If you are ever feeling isolated or alone, feel free to reach out to me. I know what it feels like and am more than happy to listen. You can email me at echen1@olin.edu or discord etbikehome#2392)


Hello everyone! As the semester winds down, I thought I could be nice to share some poems I’ve written over the last few weeks with you all. I wrote them for a specific person in mind, but please, interpret them how you will at your heart’s content. I feel like I’ve grown a ton over the last semester, and I hope to pursue this kind of non-STEM activity more over the next x-number of years (no hints!). Please don’t judge them too harshly, and I encourage you all to share a little love before the semester ends. Love you guys <3.

Sonnet 5:

Frosted gaze or sin-ged remark

A warm embrace never knew winter’s frost

Crimson leaves atop a glowing bark

Love enflamed lifts love lost  

Cold respite or scorch-ed bond

A firefly always finds its light

Roots entwine to blossom fond 

Petals bloom for fruit’s fertile flight

Orange dawn or amber rose

A painter’s brush never knew such bliss

Scarlet love in river flows

Winter’s chill mellowed with Summer’s kiss

Seasons struggle with time apart

Yet equinox begins within our heart

Sonnet 2:

I was never much of a writer,

Too weak to lift pen’s ink

I was never much of a sculptor

Too brain-scattered to think

I was never much of a painter,

Shades never seemed to lighten

I was never much of a singer,

Waves could never match Siren’s

I was never much of a poet,

But my heart compelled me so

She said I could be a poet 

But how could she ever know

I was never much of a lover

But that doesn’t seem to bother her

Sonnet 1:

I know your name

Better than my own

Endlessly articulate it in my mind

Like a schoolboy’s detention

But your name is all I know

And yet it is my own

Cork it in a bottle

Fawn over its waves 

If only you’ll let me know more

So I can be yours

Your name is the only

I wish to know

I’m never gonna know you now

But I’m gonna love you anyhow

Reflections on the Way to Divesting

The anonymous March 5 Frankly Speaking (FS) article, “Let’s Make Real Environmental Impact,” has me reflecting on what I had hoped to give when I came to Olin in 2018.  Prior, I served as a professor for 27 years, the last 13 as the founding co-director of a center for sustainability in engineering.  I learned many great and terrible lessons on my path to “have impact.”  The first was that we will always have an impact; is it the impact that we want to have? 

As I witness the divestment efforts unfolding I am moved to offer a few observations and learnings. I hope they are useful. My first observation is that Olin Climate Justice (OCJ) is cutting an admirable, textbook path of democratic action in service to social justice; I am awed by the high standard of scholarship in their communications that transparently grounds their case for divestment in data and explicit logics. Tyler’s March 9 email (subject: Olin Climate Justice’s Response to Board Statement) is another example.  All would do well to follow their lead, it seems to me. A lesson I cannot forget is that I am part of the system that I long to change. The truth of anthropogenic climate change is that my actions are causal to the problem. It is not “someone else” who is to blame–it is me, yet I am not alone.

The March 5, FS article, if I understand it, is expressing a students’ sense of betrayal. It goes a little like this: 

  1. OCJ communicates -> Author believes OCJ,  presuming factual communication
  2. Board members communicate -> Author believes Board, presuming factual communication
  3. Board communications do not equal OCJ communications
  4. Author concludes OCJ communications are false
  5. Author feels betrayed by OCJ because of 4

All communications, as theorized by linguists Grinder and Brandler1, re-present the world in ways that delete, distort and generalize and therefore are neither factual nor true.  I include the things I’m attempting to communicate now (and always, really).  Our options are then to test what is said for its coherence with reality, investigate it, or have faith in the speaker. The “faith” option is frequently granted to those with perceived authority, but not always warranted.

I have noticed at Olin that “collaboration” is often conflated with “consultation.” Collaboration is a mode of working that involves mutual respect and open power sharing. There are other properties but collaboration is distinct from consultation which is a mode in which one party holds power and exercises it unilaterally after seeking input from other parties (i,e., “consulting”); cooperation is another mode2. It is useful to recognize the distinction between these modes of working3. As the FS article points out, a dictate that another party adopt one’s point of view is not an act of collaboration–it is, as the biologist Humberto Maturana pointed out, a demand for obedience4. To be clear, the Board’s insistence that OCJ recognize what the Board believes to be a superior non-divestment approach is a demand for obedience; is it not an invitation to collaboration. The communication is this: If you only saw things the way I do, you would know I am right. That is, the assertion that OCJ was “non-collaborative” is a projection of the asserter’s state. 

It is very tempting to relate to what is said as right or wrong. What is more likely is that the things said are both right and wrong or equivalently neither right nor wrong. For example, the claim that Environment Social Governance (ESG) is “more effective” than divestment requires all kinds of assumptions about the meaning of “effective.” Effective at what and for whom? Whose standard, shareholders’? How do stakeholders whose life, livelihood and future are stolen rate the “effectiveness”?  In the end, I believe the dilemma of divestment must be addressed through authentic collaboration.  

In my five years at Olin, I have witnessed cooperation many times, but I have only seen collaboration ~3 times.  As I understand it, collaboration requires:

  1. A consciously-held, shared commitment to something larger than any of the party’s individual interests;
  2. A willingness for all parties to suspend their point of view for the sake of 1.
  3. A tolerance and patience with holding ambiguity long enough for a solution to emerge from the emptiness created by 2. 

How do we access C? Usually through inquiry: A compels B and produces curiosity; this curiosity causes the parties to real-ize that their individual points of view are not as comprehensive as believed. In this realization, people relax their attachment, literally relax (somatically) and gain access to collective creativity. I have often found at Olin that if we get past B, the space for creativity in the social field (C) collapses.  We cannot hold C–it is often said “we don’t have time,” but I think we mean that we don’t have courage.  

At this, the end of my career, I have learned that all inequities, whatever form they take–environmental injustice, racial injustice, social injustice, organizational injustice, classroom injustice–are one thing: an abuse of power.  The incredible beauty of the Olin community is that we long to do better.  For this reason, I came to Olin. As I retire, my hope is that all of us would pursue a conscious awareness of how we wield power and ask, “Is it just?”  We all want to live in a thriving world and we are the people we have been waiting for to bring it. I leave you with this quote from the 13-th century Persian poet Rumi:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Thoughts from an Island

In response to the anonymous March 2023 Frankly Speaking article titled “Let’s Make Real Environmental Impact”.

I appreciate the action, courage, and time you put into thinking about the role of OCJ in the climate justice movement on campus. We feel very misrepresented from the perspective that the board of trustees has presented to you, but I want to put that aside for a second and address a simple difference between the way I see the role of OCJ at Olin and the way I think you do:

The climate crisis is now. If we don’t reach net zero by 2030 – less than 7 years away – it will lead to catastrophic loss of lives, livelihood, and much more, especially in the most underserved regions and communities of the world. But you already know this from our articles and banners. I don’t think we have done a good job of explicitly stating the next link.

If we are to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2030, it will only happen if we radically reshape our current value systems. It will only happen if the climate crisis is our number one priority. It will only happen if we challenge the existing power structures around us (including at Olin) which will not lead us to net zero emissions by themselves.

For me, fossil fuel divestment at Olin is important because that act represents a fundamentally different political stance – that fossil fuel companies necessarily need to not exist in 7 years if we are to reach net zero. Fossil fuel divestment is important because it’s asking Oliners to be someone they haven’t been before. Students are learning to protest. The faculty are in the process of passing their first-ever climate-related resolution. The Board is learning that it cannot exist in a bubble and that its meetings can be interrupted by students filled with rage and passion. The discomfort you feel right now is the point. We want the board to divest because they don’t want to do it. The pressure, stress, and perhaps alienation you have felt from the divestment movement is part of the incredibly uncomfortable process of challenging your sense of comfort and stability when something is a crisis.

We can’t make Olin build solar panels tomorrow, but we can make Olin divest tomorrow. Literally. And making that decision would involve the board members we have been meeting with fundamentally reshaping their values very quickly. And I too agree that the board thinks it’s genuinely being collaborative while we are disengaging, but that difference is what defines the climate crisis – we are trying to set the bar for caring a lot, lot, higher.

Ultimately, the divestment movement is about the struggle and what that struggle reveals about Olin. So far, we feel like that struggle has been fruitful – it has completely reshaped the discourse at the college, it has exposed students to nonviolent direct action, and – most importantly – it has brought people like you to think about this, care about this, reach out to people in power, and respond. So thank you, and I genuinely ask you to join the next OCJ meeting. We are unwavering but not perfect, and you will have a lot to learn from our meetings only if you are really ready to challenge a lot of your assumptions because that’s what it takes to combat a global crisis at an unprecedented rate. We have studied and discussed and challenged our own assumptions so much, and trust that we will continue to do so.

I know that this will be difficult for many of my Olin friends to read. I know that if my parents or high school friends somehow found this article, they would not recognize me. And I know that I feel so deeply privileged to stand on the shoulders of giants who brought me and keep me in this school, but that doesn’t mean I stop trying to see through the clouds. My story of care at Olin would not feel genuine to me if it stopped at student support, cultural communities, and building safe, open spaces. I hope you can understand how deeply valuable each of those components are, and OCJ,  in the way that I’ve been trying to understand for the past short three years.

No community is exempt from dissent. No institution is too perfect for reckonings of power. No college, no matter how caring, well-intentioned, and hardworking, is exempt from disruption. 

I never thought that I would be writing a Frankly Speaking while studying abroad, but turns out that the climate crisis is a crisis, well, everywhere. The island I’m living on has visibly eroded this past semester. It’s time to be honest about how we got here. We at Olin, an institution with an incredible amount of influence, money, and hard-earned respect need to take big, bold steps, because… (say it with me!)

Climate justice can’t wait.

Green Space: Why I Am Not An Environmentalist

I am not an environmentalist.

I do not disavow the label because I enjoy tweeting about the emissions of my personal car collection out of irrational hatred for a young Swedish activist. Like everyone else, I recognize the existence of climate change, and I know that recognition is not enough.

No, I am not an environmentalist because an environmentalist forgets that the climate crisis is fundamentally a crisis of injustice that cannot be fixed by recycling harder. I am not an environmentalist because an environmentalist believes that if only everyone cared as much about some romanticized notion of the colonized outdoors as they did, “we” would stop exploiting the “environment”.

An environmentalist cannot see that the climate crisis is not a lack of awareness by the many but an abuse of power by the few; yet an environmentalist blames the greed of the few on the individual shortcomings of the many.

As Michael Maniates writes in ”Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?”, “when responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions […] or the ways of collectively changing the distribution of power”.

An environmentalist has forgotten, to bring in Jessa Crispin, that “for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible”. And so “environmentalist” is comfortable and easy to those in power—indeed, it is couched in power, it originates from power, it hides that there are certain individuals and institutions reaping profits from this crisis, who would very much like to continue doing so with market-based wishful thinking.

In its meaninglessness, environmentalism obscures power with compostable plastic straws and one billion trees and organic sustainable beeswax wrappers.

Environmentalism is steeped in whiteness and the idea that climate change is the most important issue, the issue we can fix first and then address those other things like racism and sexism and homophobia, which have been happening forever anyway so just wait a bit longer okay? An environmentalist cannot understand that the only way we address the climate crisis is by addressing the legacy of imperialism and the white racial order. An environmentalist cannot draw a connection between polar bear habitat loss and Manuel Esteban Paez Terán’s murder in Atlanta’s Cop City.

In the depoliticization of environmentalism it has become universal, so universal that people like Jamie Dimon of Chase Bank can claim the label. Dimon states that “climate change and inequality are two of the critical issues of our time” while pouring billions into new fossil fuel infrastructure through Chase, against the absolute deadline imposed by science that we had to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure two years ago.

Recognize that any new infrastructure will be responsible for the avoidable loss of so many lives and livelihoods, and wonder whether we are really building this new infrastructure because of supposed individual shortcomings, or because all of our systems are set up to extract every last drop of carbon on this planet. Remember who benefits when the sky turns orange and soot chokes our lungs.

We cannot forget that we are the perpetrators of this climate crisis. I do not mean your styrofoam cup is causing the climate crisis. I mean that the institutions of the Global North that enable my livelihood and privilege, our systems of extraction and exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few, are also causing unimaginable suffering to people around the world whom I will never see and never know, the people who have done the least to cause this crisis.

If by declaring myself an environmentalist I forget that fact, then I am not an environmentalist.

Inspired by Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto