Saxon Stahl: Leading on Climate 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 their hometown. Finding out about their Indigenous heritage at the age of 18 further shook their sense of identity.
“We grew up thinking we were Mexican. So I felt like I had grown up with a culture that I don’t belong to, and belonged to a culture that I didn’t grow up with,” says Stahl. “I was like, ‘Where do I belong?’”
Connecting with nature and learning traditions from Indigenous leaders helped to 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 program, Stahl founded the Columbia Climate Graduate Council — the official student government of the Columbia Climate School — writing a constitution and bylaws that will empower students and promote representation and equity. Stahl’s leadership on this effort was recently recognized with a Campbell Award.
With graduation fast approaching, Stahl is looking forward to their next steps, which include an environmental justice internship at NASA, and working toward a second master’s degree — this time focusing on political analytics at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies. Through this program, Stahl hopes to continue advancing toward their ultimate goal of working in the federal government on policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
In the Q&A below, Stahl shares more about why the Climate School needs a student government, and why governance matters in the broader field of climate policy.
What brought you to the Climate and Society program?
In undergrad I double majored in environmental science and political science, and everything kind of converged here at the Climate School. I’m interested in influencing climate policy.
Professor Andrew Kruczkiewicz (of the Climate School’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society) once said, ‘We’re teaching you how to be translators.’ I think that helped me understand how important it was to not just have scientists, but also climate policy makers. And so that kind of affirmed my space and why I belonged at the Climate School just as much as everyone else. My colleagues are doing a lot of important research, and I want to make sure that the research they’re doing is going into the right hands and getting translated into policy.
Why create a student government?
I wanted to create a space that allowed Climate School students to bolster their civic literacy, engage with advocacy, and translate climate research into policy. These are important skills for climate leadership.
There are other students who have done amazing work in getting us to meetings, uplifting the student community and the resources available, and addressing student concerns. I really wanted to centralize all of these efforts into one space, because everyone was kind of off doing their own thing. We needed to come together and have a collective front, because that unity is so important, especially when we know that part of the fight for climate change is building coalitions. And so having the Climate School be a place that fosters those values is important, because it’s actually applying what we learn in class.
I took the reins on this project because if we were going to create a student government, I wouldn’t want it to be established by admin — I would want it to be established by students. This way, it’s a space for students, by students.
How did you do it?
This past year, I have had the honor of being the Arts and Sciences Graduate Council’s vice president of administration, where I looked over the bylaws and the constitution and also kept a diligent track record of student groups for the council. It was easy for me to conceive of this passion project of creating a student government and writing governing documents, because I realized I could just look at what other schools are doing and tailor it to the Climate School.
Over winter break I started developing the constitution and the bylaws of the Climate School student government. I was intentional about including positions that had a climate lens — such as the vice president of climate and equity — and emphasizing how important it is to keep cultural influence alive and at such a prestigious level of governance.
Then I held meetings for students to come and give their feedback on how the student government should be established. We gathered a lot of student feedback and a lot of things changed from the original draft. For example, we cut out two executive board positions so that we have a more centralized executive board, and we lowered the number of committees and added a checks and balances system with our university student senator.
We were required 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% of the cohort’s consent.
Even though I wrote the bylaws and constitution myself, it took literally a village to actually make them and to have the drafts 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 entire process, and now we’re in the final steps of having the rest of the deans sign off on the Council. It is essentially approved, and we’re moving forward with the deans in configuring how much money is going to be allocated for the student government in order to have advocacy networks, events, invite speakers, and do other types of civic activities.
Had you worked in student governance before this?
During undergrad, I was my university’s vice president of diversity and inclusion (DEI). I got involved in a lot of coalition-building initiatives and creating policies that uplifted different student communities on campus, to support them and to advocate on their behalf in administrative spaces where they unfortunately didn’t have a seat at the table and I did. It made me understand the process of finding out what the problems or concerns are, going through our resources to understand what can actually be done about it, and making these demands visible.
This position led to other DEI work. I took a gap year between undergrad and grad school, and for a good portion of it, I was working at the Sundance Institute. I was involved in decision-making processes on furthering racial equity in the Institute and understanding how we could uplift storytelling for artists of different communities — such as BIPOC artists or the artists in the 18 to 25 category. In addition, I supported the improvement of the internal work culture within Sundance.
What are your plans for the summer?
I currently have an environmental justice internship at NASA. There, I’ll be working to bring forth a better understanding of how environmental justice fits into the lens of the climate field and how it appears in different federal agencies.
I tend to find myself in fields that are still developing and growing, and it’s because I want to develop and grow with them. For a lot of my life, I’ve found myself in a room where I was in one way or another breaking the glass ceiling, whether through my own background or what I was advocating for. With each new step, I like to ask, ‘How are we breaking through this time?’
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.