For a cleaner, more prosperous world, ACC mobilizes conservatives around environmental issues, fostering collaboration in the pursuit of environmental conservation.
FREEDOM IN THE SIERRA NEVADAS
Silicon Valley often denotes imagery of a pale Mark Zuckerberg off in the metaverse or the endless quest to invent the next online shopping app. Still, for eight-year-old Sarah Jensen, it was the gateway to her most cherished place on Earth. “We were 45 minutes from the coast and four hours from the Sierra Nevadas,” Sarah tells me over Zoom one Friday afternoon, “and so, all the family trips, excursions, everything we did was to the Sierra Nevadas.” These were not just trips; they were, in Sarah’s narrative, the epitome of childhood’s purest joys, a yearly rhythm of escapades to the mountains and the ocean, where she, as a child, could explore in “the calmest, most fun, most freeing” state.
In a formative moment between adolescence and high school, after a regularly scheduled camping trip to the Sierra Nevadas, Sarah recalls questioning her family’s choice of mostly nature-focused family vacations; “…like, why? We didn’t go to places like Hawaii or Europe; we just spent time here.” During the drive home, after pondering Sarah’s question, her dad shared a previously unspoken fear. Considering the serious environmental challenges ahead, he wanted her to enjoy these places as much as possible before they might change. The journey from childhood to adulthood is filled with many reality-shattering moments. For Sarah, on that familiar journey home, as the evening mountains faded in the background, she grappled with the newly introduced prospect of a changing planet.
“And so that was, I think, one moment that pushed me into environmentalism and wanting to protect it so that my [future] kids could then enjoy all the fun things that I got to,” Sarah later recounts as Policy Associate for the American Conservation Coalition.
“…and then, as ACC does, they pull you in and empower you.”
THE COVID RESET
The pandemic, despite its challenges, became a catalyst for unexpected opportunities. Having recently moved to Colorado from California, Sarah felt a unique form of isolation by experiencing COVID-19 lockdowns in a new place. On one of these lonely days, she was scrolling on “the former” Twitter.com when she stumbled upon an op-ed on conservative environmentalism by ACC founder Benji Backer. As a right-leaning environmentalist, she was shocked to find a place that felt like a home. “I was like, no way! Is that real!?” she shares excitedly, “And just started following along, and then, as ACC does, they pull you in and empower you.”
ACC’s uncommon approach of soliciting support and actively empowering its members was a breath of fresh air for Sarah. However, the stark contrast to her previous experiences with other environmental groups naturally caused skepticism for her. “I remember when I was first asked to write an op-ed, I ignored it because I thought it was spam,” she recalls laughing. We both laughed. It is a funny thought, though born from a not-so-funny state of the environmental movement. “I was definitely living in a bubble of ‘everybody cares about the environment, this isn’t a controversial issue,’ and so whenever I did try to engage with other environmental organizations, nothing happened. They were just like, ‘Can you give us money?'” When Sarah realized that engagement for ACC is about active participation rather than financial transactions, her new journey began.
Initially set on becoming a physical therapist after finishing her undergrad, the pandemic-induced pause led her to reassess her plans. Moving to Colorado with aspirations of pursuing physical therapy in Denver, she found solace and inspiration in the outdoors during the lockdown. A quiet, persistent inner voice, previously drowned out by the noise of daily life pre-pandemic, nudged her toward a greener path— “…in that time, we spent a lot of time outside in Colorado, and I just came back to that love for nature and, that little voice in my head got louder, and I decided to go back and get my Masters in Environmental Policy.”
With her newfound connection with ACC, Sarah initiated a local branch, forming bonds within the Colorado environmental community. The isolation of peak COVID, a recent move, and limited social ties made her career pivot more poignant. Yet, ACC’s community proved a welcome antidote to this isolation, providing ideological alignment, empowerment, and inspiration. “It was really inspiring to meet other people who are so passionate about this issue. A lot of people were really craving it [ACC], so that was also just really inspiring,” Sarah shares.
In the buzzing corridors of COP26, Sarah’s perspective of what is possible with ACC blossomed alongside the global conservative environmental movement. What felt like suddenly, she found herself amidst political leaders from across the world, all converging to discuss climate change. Her voice resonated with awe and disbelief, describing it as “living history” at the first-ever Global Conservative Climate Summit. “I remember at the end of COP26 just being like, ‘this is real,’ what ACC is doing is real, and it’s so important.” She felt more energized than ever by this experience and returned to Colorado, ready to fortify her local community and amplify its impact.
Less than four months later, on February 16th, 2022, Sarah did just that when she testified on behalf of ACC to the Colorado Senate in favor of legislation unleashing nuclear power in the state. Despite the bill’s outcome falling short of ACC’s goals, Sarah gained something arguably just as valuable. “I remember really feeling like I found my voice in that moment,” she shares. The experience, as she explains, was not just about legislative results but about voicing Colorado’s concerns and feeling empowered to stand for what she believed in.
Two truths: 1) Sarah Jensen is a special person willing to use every tool at her disposal to make a difference. 2) Moments like this are why pivotal moments in her journey of self-discovery and empowerment could not have happened without ACC.
ONE YEAR LATER
It is now March 2023, and after growing ACC’s presence in Colorado as an Ambassador and earning her Master’s Degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Colorado Boulder, Sarah has officially transitioned from an admirer of ACC on social media to a critical player within the organization. The excitement is still apparent, “I’m still in shock,” she acknowledges as we discuss her evolution from a reader of ACC op-eds to a full-time policy associate. Sarah’s journey, she reflected, wouldn’t have taken this pivot without ACC’s empowering approach. “I probably truly might be a physical therapist, and I probably wouldn’t be a part of these conversations,” she said.
We pivoted the conversation to a discussion about ACC’s trajectory. Sarah predicts that “In 10 years we’re mainstream, like, we’re the norm,” she envisioned, expressing a wish for ACC to be the staple model for conservation and environmentalism in the United States. This sounds like a tall order, but after spending a few months working closely with ACC staff, her takeaway is, “These people can do anything.”
While we sat down to talk about Sarah, there was no shortage of gratitude for what ACC’s financial supporters have done for her. “Oh my God, thank you doesn’t even cover it,” she admitted. The significance of building a movement and effecting change hinges on the support of donors, allowing young people to transform environmental passion into action. She emphasized that the non-profit served as a home for individuals who cared about the environment but hadn’t found their place until encountering ACC.
In a closing reflection on her journey, Sarah acknowledged ACC’s role in shaping her future self. “In so many ways,” she expressed, “giving me a voice, really empowering me to do something about this issue.” When we empower one, they have the strength to go out and empower many. This cyclical nature of empowerment became evident as Sarah contemplated how the strength she found within ACC has extended to empower others, embodying the ACC’s spirit by embracing empowerment, evolution, and the power of one person to make a lasting impact.