When Subhashni Raj, a Fiji native, joined the Master of Urban Planning program in fall 2011, she was already a seasoned environmental advocate, with experience organizing climate action demonstrations and mobilizing environmental leaders throughout the Pacific Rim.
It’s no surprise then, that this Fulbright Scholar has quickly found opportunities to channel that passion here at the School of Architecture and Planning. This past fall, thick in her first-semester studies, she didn’t hesitate to hop on a bus down to the nation’s capital to join 12,000 others in protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.
The Tar Sands Action rally, which formed a circle three layers deep around the White House, was part of a successful grassroots campaign to convince the Obama administration to reject the permit application for a pipeline that would cut a controversial path through an aquifer in the Nebraska Sandhills.
For the 26-year-old Raj, there was no question she needed to be there. “In what seemed like America showing leadership for the first time on issues related to climate action? Of course I needed to be there. If we win this, then it’s history in the making, and for the first time we’ll be on the winning side,” Raj said, noting that the campaign is far from over. The Canadian company seeking the permit is expected to reapply for a pipeline along an alternate route.
Raj’s activism around environmental issues began after a life-changing experience during the summer of 2009 while participating in an environmental leadership development program based in Hawaii. Recalling the vivid evidence of invasive vegetation, rising seawaters and coastline erosion there, Raj says, “Hawaii scared me. It opened me up to the levels of environmental degradation that are actually happening.”
She says the program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department to foster environmental stewardship around the globe, “took me out of my comfort zone, from ‘getting by on a day-to-day basis’ to ‘we can actually do something about it.’”
After graduating from Bangalore University that year with degrees in microbiology, chemistry and zoology, she went back to her hometown of Suva City, Fiji, and became closely involved with 350.org, a global grassroots movement focused on climate change, and the organizing force behind the Tar Sands Action. As a volunteer with 350.org, she organized demonstrations in Copenhagen in front of the United Nations Climate Talks as part of the Global Day of Action. She also took on a leadership role with 350 Pacific, training young environmental leaders and supporting citizen action on climate change across the vulnerable Pacific Islands.
Aside from the cooler temperatures of Buffalo, she says she feels right at home here at the School of Architecture and Planning. “They do things here that I believe in. I am working with faculty members that inspire me. I’m learning, and when I’m learning, I’m happy.” Raj says a planning degree is “the perfect balance of theory and practice” and will equip her with the skills she needs to push for climate action in Fiji. She’s interested in studying the intersection of food systems, water and climate change and would like to help Fiji plan for the inevitable relocation of its coastal settlements.
Looking forward, Raj has no doubt she can make a difference at a global scale – though she knows she can’t do it alone. “We have 12,000 people that changed the game through Tar Sands Action. That’s what we are striving for – critical mass.”