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Tolkan Challenges College Students To Fight For Environmental Change

Jessy Tolkan, executive director of programs at Energy Action Coalition, delivers the Larry Adair Centennial Lectureship

Jessy Tolkan, executive director of programs at Energy Action Coalition, delivers the Larry Adair Centennial Lectureship on Wednesday, March 25 at Northeastern State University.

TAHLEQUAH – Building enthusiasm for a cause has never been a problem for Jessy Tolkan. At 19, she was the first student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to be elected to the Madison city council by appealing to and campaigning with her fellow students.

“I spent five months going door to door talking to college students on my campus about what issues matter to them,” said Tolkan, who delivered the Larry Adair Centennial Lectureship on Wednesday, March 25 at Northeastern State University. “Because I had a dialogue and listened to what people actually cared about, they turned out to vote in the city council election.”

Earlier this month, Tolkan, the executive director of Programs for the Energy Action Coalition, brought together 12,000 college students from every state across the country to Washington, D.C. to lobby for environmental change as part of Power Shift ’09.

“I work to empower young people to make change on a local, state and federal level,” said Tolkan. “Power Shift ’09 was the single largest lobby day on climate change in the history of this country.”

Tolkan said she was excited by the turnout of the latest presidential election, which had the largest turnout of voters age 18-29, over 25 million, since the voting age was lowered to 18.

“That demonstrates the power of young people to make transformative change, to step up and take control of ushering our communities in the way they need,” said Tolkan. “There’s no limit to the potential and possibility of what we can do together. And it’s only the beginning of what we can do together. This is the single most exciting time to be a young person in this country.”

Founded over four years ago, the Energy Action Coalition comprises 50 organizations, 700 local groups and hundreds of thousands of supporters across the country in the campaign for climate change. It was formed in response to a lack of action on the part of local, state and federal governments in addressing environment changes.

“This is the defining challenge of our time,” said Tolkan. “With crisis and with challenges comes the opportunity for leaders to emerge and a generation to define itself.”
Tolkan challenged everyone to do one thing personally to help with climate change, then to commit to encouraging other people to join you to start a movement, whether its participating in NSU’s new recycling program, working to create green jobs or walking instead of driving.

“You can walk out of this room today and have at your disposal the tools to make a revolutionary change,” said Tolkan. “I’m not asking too much in the defining fight of our generation.”

Former State Rep. Larry Adair said environmental issues were a good choice for the lecture as the country moves towards looking for alternative energy sources.

“Going green was an issue near and dear to our hearts,” said Adair. “It is an issue that will continue to be very important, not just in this town, but across the state, across the nation and around the world. It is an issue that we will be challenged today to think about and implement some solutions.”

NSU President Dr. Don Betz said that environmental sustainability will be a motivating factor for the institution as it moves into its second century.

“We will be a model for building sustainable communities in this country,” said Betz. “We are called today to step up and meet this challenge.”

Motivating people to join her cause is one of the biggest challenges that Tolkan faces. She stressed that getting people personally invested, no matter what the cause or event, is the key.

“One of the reasons that people don’t show up is that they have been convinced that it doesn’t matter,” she said. “You have to show people the results of their actions, make it a fulfilling experience, and make sure they know the next thing you want them to be involved in.”

Types of communication with the people you are trying to reach are also important. People are more likely to respond to a personal phone call asking them to attend an event than they are to an impersonal electronic invitation, she said.

“That’s the game-changer, it changes the level of commitment that the person invited feels,” said Tolkan. “You still want to send out those electronic messages, but you also want to include face-to-face contact so they feel like they matter.”

Getting the right group of people working together can snowball as they bring more and more people together to support the cause, Tolkan said. If 50 people come together, and each of them recruits six more people, then the group expands to 300 and it grows from there.

“It all starts with a small committed group of people,” said Tolkan.

The Larry Adair Lectureship Series was established at NSU in 2004 by friends and family of the retiring Oklahoma Speaker of the House, the Honorable Larry Adair, to create an annual forum though which to address issues in politics, government, and public policy.

Photos from the day are available at


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