Mahalia Swyers feels a deep connection with the environment. She lives in Paradise, where she attended high school. She loves hiking, backpacking and camping to spend time in the great outdoors. As she told the CN&R, “I’ve always really had a respect and love for the natural world.”
Until recently, her appreciation didn’t turn into action—“I didn’t have that passion for sustainability.” But that changed after she enrolled at Butte College. This past fall semester, Swyers took a course on sustainability, and when she read about developing a new sustainable infrastructure plan, “something about that chapter just clicked with me.”
She’d already visited the college’s Student Life Center and learned the Associated Students’ sustainability director position was open. She returned, ran for the office and now spearheads green initiatives—notably, establishing a campus garden, organizing an Earth Day program for high school seniors and advocating for more bus service to reduce car trips to campus.
“I got thrown into the world of sustainability, and all of a sudden I was talking to the [campus garden] guys at UNC-Chapel Hill and I was talking to the [Butte] Sustainability Department,” Swyers said. “I just became more consumed by it as I got more into the community.”
That community transcends the college. In January, Swyers joined the Environmental Coalition of Butte County (ECBC), a group of local eco-oriented organizations that meets monthly to share information and streamline efforts. COVID idled the coalition, which formed eight years ago, but it rebooted at the start of 2022. March 24, ECBC is hosting a community gathering (5-8 p.m., Chico Women’s Club) in conjunction with Chico State’s This Way To Sustainability Conference.
Swyers got involved after noticing an email in the sustainability director inbox. She’s attended all three meetings so far, with around a dozen others from local environmental groups, and is finding the coalition valuable.
“We all come together and we share our ideas with each other and then we help each other,” she said. “As much as I’m on the student board at college, it’s hard when it’s so limited to the college community, and I want it to be the community of Butte County.”
The ECBC is an extension of the Butte Environmental Council (BEC), one of the coalition’s members. Founders included Robyn DiFalco, then BEC’s executive director, and John Merz, one of her predecessors, along with Stephen and Susan Tchudi, hosts of the KZFR radio show Ecotopia.
Susan Tchudi, who currently serves as group leader at meetings, said that since its inception, ECBC “has primarily been a clearinghouse and a sharing session, not an activist group. There have been efforts in the past to kind of push it that way—‘Let’s all get together and form a campaign’—but there’s also been resistance to that—‘Let’s just have it be about talking to one another about what’s happening in the community.’”
The coalition has an email list of around 100 people from 40 organizations such as California Native Plant Society and Butte County Local Food Network. Not all are nonprofits (case in point: Butte College). Typical attendance ranges from 10 to 15. Restrictions on public gatherings forced ECBC from the Butte County Library; its community gathering, like the sustainability conference, went virtual last year.
Until the January relaunch, the group itself hadn’t met—Zoom or otherwise—since Caitlin Dalby became BEC’s executive director 12 months earlier. BEC serves as an umbrella organization for ECBC by offering sponsorship and structural support. The relationship is symbiotic, Dalby explained, because the coalition expands the capacity to accomplish environmental work, including advocacy—“it’s more of a teamwork piece than anything.”
Among participants at that first meeting, Dalby added, “There was a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re doing that?’ or ‘You’re doing that, too?’—‘This is how we could support you’ or ‘How could this tie into your project because we could really make this more robust?’”
Tchudi expressed encouragement at the sight of fresh faces.
“We have a lot of new people—a lot of young people, people who I’ve never met before—who have joined the coalition this year,” Tchudi said. “When we were talking about rebooting, we got suggestions for people who haven’t been included in the past, so we had probably five or six new people who had never been to a meeting before at our first meeting.”
Including Swyers, one of the new members both Tchudis mentioned as potential future leaders of the coalition. They may need to ask soon: Swyers applied to USC, where she’d study chemistry and environmental sustainability.
“I’m definitely going to be involved [with ECBC] for as long as possible,” Swyers said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay actively involved from a distance, but I’m going to try my absolute best to.
“Even if I am not at the Butte County coalition meetings, I’m definitely going to be involved with sustainability wherever I go.”
Visit becnet.org/environmental-coalition-of-butte-county for more on ECBC and its March 24 community