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Independent nonprofit strives to unite Ohio activist groups

United Citizens Action Network is a “neutral agent” to address environmental, social issues.

The founding members of the United Citizens Action Network (UCAN), a local nonprofit, met through a mutual friend before a trip to Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota last November to participate in protests against a proposed oil pipeline. Zak Young ’17, Emma Schurink ’17 and Matt Meyers ’17 had all traveled to Standing Rock the month before. Upon their return, they were approached by Mount Vernon and Gambier residents Jacob Clark and Zachary Parker, who were looking for advice on what they would find when they arrived at Standing Rock. As it turns out, traveling was an experience worth using as a model for future activism.

The UCAN members had seen a variety of approaches to activism at Standing Rock, and wanted to apply similar practices in Ohio, where they perceived a lack of unity among environmental and social activist groups. Their goal, according to Parker, was to act as a “neutral agent” that would facilitate contact between indirect and direct action groups. Indirect action groups, such as the Sierra Club, work inside the law and try to effect legislation and sue companies. Direct action activists typically engage in protest, sometimes by, for example, chaining themselves to trees and organizing sit-ins.

“There were all these people from around the world,” Parker said. “Some of them had different approaches, but they were still working together, and we wanted to mimic that here in Ohio.”

In January, they came together to form UCAN and filed for 501(c)(3) non-profit status in February.  It was at that point that Schuyler Stupica ’19,  another director, also joined the group. As such a small group, they were unsure how to begin until Clark — who frequently hikes in the Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio —  told them that some of the forest’s land was up for auction to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) companies.

“We couldn’t win a fight with oil companies, or fracking companies,” Parker said. “But when we heard about the Wayne, we said, ‘Hey, this is crazy. This is a fight we can actually win.’”

To that end, UCAN is hosting a camp-out conference from April 21-23 at a farm in Marietta, Ohio. They are inviting a wide range of activist groups to pool resources and brainstorm ways to oppose the auction and the fracking already occurring in the area. or example, the Ohio Environmental Council, which is part of a group heading a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, will be sending a speaker. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Appalachia Resist, a direct action group, will also be sending members.

While organizing with other groups is central to UCAN’s mission, the organization has also been focusing on talking to community members. Local verterans already put on a fundraiser for the group, which was  organized in part by Clark who is also a veteran. UCAN is not affiliated with Kenyon, and is entirely funded by members and fundraisers, something the members see as an advantage.

For UCAN, the fact that Ohio has one of the largest numbers of colleges per capita in the United States is evidence that students are an underutilized force in Ohio activism. UCAN members emphasized that colleges are still an important part of the activism network, and that colleges are often centers of activism. Their main goal is to promote cooperation between student and local populations.

But UCAN does not just tackle environmental issues — they plan to work on social issues as well. While their current project is the Wayne, they have plans to help address drug problems in Knox County. They are exploring the possibility of instating a needle exchange box the in area, possibly in the Knox Community Hospital.

The UCAN founders ultimately sees themselves as facilitators — people who help secure funding and government assistance.

Because three of the four student members of UCAN are seniors, it is not yet certain what form the nonprofit will take in the future. Meyers plans to stay in the area and address the group’s targeted local issues, and Schurink is moving to Columbus and plans to get involved with an unofficial activist group called Keep Wayne Wild. Young, who is moving to Maine, still sees himself playing an active role in the group as a writer and editor of the group’s media.

“We’re adapting to the environment,” Schurink said.