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‘Old Roots, New Roots’: An exploration of environmentalism and free speech at Brown University

View of the campus of Brown University with students walking through a hallway.

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Students mingle on the campus of Brown University, a landmark Ivy League research university located in the College Hill neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island.

Logan Torres is a junior at Brown University and a FIRE Campus Scholar.

Growing up gay and Hispanic in the middle of Wisconsin has always been a challenge. Consistently met with snide remarks about my origins and sexuality by neighbors and classmates, I was constantly reminded of my non-belonging. When searching for a college, I aspired to go to a place where I could be free — somewhere I could express myself and learn from my peers about their experiences in life. 

I always welcomed intellectual challenge, but I also yearned for an escape from personal politics. 

I decided to attend Brown University, mostly due to its Open Curriculum and commitment to diversity. A true melting pot of ideas, identities, and experiences — or so I thought. 

At Brown I became increasingly concerned with attitudes toward political discourse. In the numerous environmental classes I attended, there was no discussion of how to interact with the more than 20% of individuals in America who do not believe humans cause climate change. While I vehemently fought for anti-climate change bills in political arenas and built relationships with grassroots community organizers, I was disheartened seeing classmates ignore critical questions I heard firsthand within the frontline communities. Reflecting on my experiences, I wanted to explore how individuals in the environmental advocacy community perceive free speech. 

Therefore, when I was accepted into FIRE’s Spring 2023 Campus Scholars Program, I chose to produce a podcast recording individual perspectives on environmentalism and free speech at Brown. FIRE gave me the equipment and support to speak directly to members of the student body about their experiences speaking their truth. 

For Emma, environmentalism did not look like protesting at Faunce Steps at Brown or throwing tomato soup over Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London.

The podcast, titled “Old Roots, New Roots,” is based on the idea that free speech was the original propellant for environmental action. With the creation of Earth Day stemming from protests on college campuses about air and water pollution, old roots of free speech and new roots of environmentalism were intricately interwoven since the beginning of environmental movements in America. 

At first, the project met with hard resistance, even among Brown’s environmental clubs. However, after months of outreach I found an amazing student willing to talk: Emma

Emma’s conversation reflected many private conversations I had with other individuals at Brown. For Emma, environmentalism did not look like protesting at Faunce Steps at Brown or throwing tomato soup over Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London. Instead, Emma chose to focus on individual actions: using reusable period underwear to reduce tampon and pad waste and reducing her own personal clothing waste in creative ways. 

FIRE Campus Scholars Spring 2023

FIRE’s Campus Scholars bring free speech culture to campus


Last year, we set out to empower the best and brightest student advocates for free speech by launching the Campus Scholars program.

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After experiencing months of rejections from other student climate activists, I enjoyed Emma’s emphasis on not shaming individuals for not taking any specific environmental action. In many of my previous classroom and activism conversations it had become second nature to categorize climate change deniers as evil. Emma focused on principles that engaged everyone, allowing for diverse solutions to pursue a cleaner and better Earth. 

It is my hope that this six-episode limited series contributes to the discussion around challenges to free speech at Brown. In other episodes we will explore perceptions of climate activism at Brown, and the future of free speech at the university. Hopefully my podcast will help Brown students reflect on their actions and truly engage in debate and activism with an open mind and open heart. 

To me, this is the only way forward to protect our environment from degradation.

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