This is a story I wrote for The Daily Tar Heel about UNC’s first annual Climate Action Day and UNC’s unenthusiastic response to criticism of its work toward net zero carbon emissions.
Last Thursday, colorful presentations and games were scattered across the Pit, educating students about sustainability and demanding climate action from the University.
These events were all part of the Graduate and Professional Student Government’s (GPSG) Climate Crisis Committee’s first Climate Action Day.
Representatives from Orange County, Carolina Dining Services, Edible Campus UNC and more came together to discuss how students can lead greener lives. The presentations included topics like food and fashion sustainability, as well as Orange County’s upcoming climate action plan.
The plan will focus on what the county needs to prioritize to address climate change. It covers sectors such as transportation, green energy and climate justice. Students at Climate Action Day could brainstorm strategies with colorful drawings.
Bladen Currier, an environmental studies major and a sustainability programs intern with Orange County, said the county values student opinion and wants to include policies in the plan that matters to students.
“(Students) come from so many different backgrounds,” she said. “There’s so many things that people here have to say that people in the government might not have thought of. There’s so much knowledge here.”
Climate Action Day also featured a petition that urged UNC to increase initiatives regarding sustainability and climate change. Students signed the petition to encourage the University to transition away from fossil fuels, continue sustainable energy projects and shift investments toward renewables.
Maya Powell, graduate student and member of the GPSG, said though UNC claims they are climate conscious, she does not believe that they follow up on their promises of sustainable practices.
She said students who signed the petition were most surprised to learn that UNC still partially operates with energy generated by a coal plant on Cameron Avenue.
Throughout last week, the GPSG advertised the day by putting signs all over campus regarding UNC’s sustainability statistics and policies, with comparisons to other universities. Powell said that the GPSG received a call from the University regarding these signs.
“They didn’t really like them,” she said.
UNC Media Relations did not respond to comment regarding this call by the time of publication.
Climate Action Day received a lot of attention and support from members of the campus community who want to know more about sustainability and the environment.
Victoria Hill, sustainability manager for Carolina Dining Services, said she enjoys sharing her passion with students through education.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people,” she said. “Almost a nonstop stream of them. It’s been really fun to teach people about the different packaging and everything we do.”
Those who ran the informational tables at the event engaged in conversations with students eager to make a difference, Hill said. The climate action petition collected about 450 signatures.
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“(The event) really shows how many people out there care,” Currier said. It’s really good for educating people and bringing people in so more people can learn about it and take action.”
The event concluded with screenings of “Pushed Up the Mountain” and “Into the Weeds,” two documentaries about the high-stakes of continuing to employ unsustainable practices on humans and the environment. Powell said those who attended had meaningful discussions with Julia Haslett, UNC professor and creator of “Pushed Up the Mountain.”
The Climate Crisis Committee described Climate Action Day as a “great success” and aims to host more in the future.
“We’re climate conscious,” Powell said. “We’re trying to prioritize that for the University.”
This is a lighthearted story I wrote for a feature writing class at UNC about a campus character/celebrity called the “hot crossing guard.”
A camera’s bright flash startles Michael Latus, UNC-Chapel Hill’s very own “hot crossing guard”, from his thoughts – sneakers, cars, the new Mortal Kombat game he has on pre order – anything to distract him from the impatient honking of drivers and the screech of his traffic whistle.
He catches a student, a freshman, Lululemon skirt short and ponytail tight, giggling and whispering with her friend, their phone pointed directly at him.
He rolls his eyes with a smile and blows his whistle, waving the students gathered at the crosswalk along and away from him.
“Thank you!” one of them calls.
He nods and averts his gaze.
During classes, he wanders down the sidewalk toward the Student Union, escaping the blistering heat of the sun.
He scrolls through YikYak, a discussion thread app that connects you with everyone in a five-mile radius, and stops to laugh at the posts about him.
“I need that South Road crossing guard so bad,” an anonymous user writes.
“Love seeing crosswalk daddy every day,” writes another.
That is his favorite one this week.
After a long day of dodging Carolina blue clad paparazzi, he rides his motorcycle back to the Holly Springs home he shares with his parents around 6 p.m. Students watch him go, riding off into the distance like their knight in shining neon green armor, and can only wonder one thing:
What does that guy get up to when he’s not here, anyway?
“Nothing,” Latus said. “I don’t do anything when I get home.”
Latus, 26 and standing at a staggering height of 6 feet 4 inches, directs traffic on South Road between UNC Student Stores and the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower, and has done so almost every day for the past two years. He’s the tall, dark and handsome type, broad shouldered with an air of easy confidence. But before his rise to campus celebrity status, he admired the common worker from the window in his family’s small Rochester, New York apartment.
“I was always really appreciative of people who did the small things,” Latus said. “Waitresses, garbage collectors, construction workers. I don’t think people realize how important they are to everything we do.”
Latus and his family moved to Holly Springs for his father’s job in 2007. He graduated from Middle Creek High School eight years later, and said he was never interested in furthering his education.
“I’ve always worked odd jobs. McDonald’s, a mechanic for a couple garages, things like that,” he said. “I want to be helpful. I want to be useful. But I don’t need to change the world or anything. I’ll leave that to someone else.”
In 2019, Latus brought that attitude to UNC. He worked event parking and drive-through COVID-19 vaccine clinics before finally landing on the job that would become his claim to fame.
“Mike has the right attitude for this job. He’s very calm and collected,” Latus’ co-worker Sharita, who asked that her last name be kept anonymous, said. “But he likes the students and likes helping things on campus run smoother in a small way.”
Latus said he was surprised to find out that students regularly posted about him, but that it is more amusing than it is uncomfortable.
“I’m genuinely really flattered,” Latus said. “I didn’t believe they were talking about me at first. I’ve never thought of myself as very attractive. It’s been a much-needed ego boost.”
The other crossing guards on South Road look at the posts often and think they make what can be a “boring” job more interesting, Sharita said.
“It’s funny to watch girls walk up to him and ask for his number. We all get a good laugh out of it,” Sharita said. “We make fun of him and he gets a little embarrassed. It’s been something fun for all of us.”
In complete darkness about his personal life, UNC students adore their “hot crossing guard” from afar. Sophomore Sydney Jones said that passing him is a “highlight” of her day.
“I’m being completely serious when I say I don’t think campus would be the same without him,” she said. “I know it sounds really silly, but living on campus can be hard sometimes. We all need little things that make our days more fun and interesting. My friends and I talk about him all the time. His presence genuinely makes my days better.”
When told this, Latus laughed and shook his head.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “But I’m happy to be of some help.”
The next day, Latus stood on the crosswalk once again. Students and cars came and went, and he thought maybe today will be the day. Maybe today will be the day he replies to a “thank you” with a “you’re welcome.” Maybe today will be the day he asks the pretty graduate student for her number.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
He blew his whistle and let the thought pass.
This is a story I wrote for The Daily Tar Heel about the UNC School of Social Work’s Family and Children’s Resource program that creates a positive impact on both social workers and the communities they serve.
The UNC School of Social Work’s Family and Children’s Resource Program (FCRP) is supporting social workers beyond the UNC community.
Established in the early 1990s, FCRP encourages social work organizations to increase their positive impact on the families and communities they serve. The program offers training courses and practice-improvement coaching for social workers and facilitates conversations about challenges in the field.
“I think overall we’re really wanting to support a more resilient human services workforce,” Laura Phipps, FCRP director, said. “That’s our biggest goal. Because I just feel like there’s so little support for the people doing the hardest jobs right now.”
FCRP delivers resources to social work organizations that request their assistance. They offer both in-person and online courses for human services professionals, parents, educators and others taught by experienced trainers and experts. The training covers topics like behavior management, substance use and more.
“We rely on feedback from the frontline to us to say what you need. They rely on us to take research information and disseminate it in a way that they can apply it given the resources that they have,” Rodney Little, clinical assistant professor at the School of Social Work and training specialist, said. “So, it’s definitely this constant dialogue back and forth that we need to improve the system so families benefit from it and don’t get stuck in the system.”
As a former frontline social worker, Little enjoys maintaining the positive impact social workers can have on children and families.
FCRP partners with organizations like the Family Focused Treatment Association and the Foster Family Alliance of North Carolina to best serve children and families across the state through the social workers they train.
“The participants we train are the people that touch the families, not us,” Little said. “So, it’s our responsibility to make sure that the information we give them is going to help change lives because we don’t get that opportunity.”
The resource program aims to provide social workers with the tools they need to properly serve their communities. They value keeping social workers “trauma-informed” and improving their practices.
“I feel like this is a very necessary tool for social workers to be current on situations, because things are actively changing society,” Ericka Hurt, a graduate student and student ambassador at the School of Social Work, said. “So, we have to keep up with it in order to provide the best level of care to our clients.”
She said social workers are continually seeking out ways to further educate themselves and improve their practice to avoid causing people further trauma or harm in their work. She believes many people forget how much responsibility social workers have and that organizations like FCRP are supportive and beneficial.
The Child Welfare League of America reports that job turnover is a serious concern for child welfare professionals. The median annual turnover rate for frontline social workers was between 23 and 60 percent across public and private agencies in 2022. These turnover challenges continue to escalate as a result of the pandemic.
FCRP plans to make every effort to ease this issue so social workers can focus on learning and their growth as a professional.
“I’ve just never seen it like this in my career, where people seem so at the breaking point,” Phipps said. “And so it’s really hard to get people to focus on training, which we know and support them, because that is, understandably, not a crisis-level kind of thing.”
Throughout the upcoming year, Phipps said FCRP is committed to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in their coaching and practices, as well as within the organization. The program also plans to design tools and strategies that allow it to assist other North Carolina counties and organizations that might be struggling to provide workforce aid.
“We felt like we really needed to look internally at: How are we serving the state? Are we serving the state equitably?” Phipps said. “Are we really representing diverse voices? Are we bringing in the lived experience of people who are in the system?”
This is a story I wrote for a public affairs reporting class about the N.C. General Assembly overriding the governor’s veto on a bill that will allow a controversial natural gas pipeline project to move forward in the state.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C – A controversial natural gas pipeline project can move forward after N.C. General Assembly Republicans overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto on House Bill 600 Tuesday.
H.B. 600, the “Regulatory Reform Act,” included provisions that would help the Southgate extension to the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline obtain water quality certifications the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality denied earlier this year. They were denied because of “adverse environmental impacts” and an unnecessary risk to drinking water in the state during construction, according to NCDEQ.
“The department is putting the best interest of North Carolina residents forward,” Laura Oleniacz, public information officer for the Division of Water Resources for the NCDEQ said. “Our team wants to protect our water and protect our people.”
The pipeline runs 304 miles from north West Virginia to southern Virginia. The extension would allow the pipeline to run 75 miles into North Carolina. Rep. John Bradford (R-Mecklenburg) said the project will create hundreds of jobs and strengthen gas supply reliability in rural parts of the state.
“I’ve been trying to focus on what I can do to best help our lower income, rural citizens. And I think this is something that will benefit them greatly,” Bradford, a primary sponsor of H.B. 600, said. “This project will provide jobs, better access to gas and make more money for the state. How could I not support that?”
The construction of the pipeline has raised concerns among environmentalist groups concerning its potential effect on erosion, water pollution and endangered species. A provision of H.B. 600 prevents North Carolina from restricting the use of PFAs, synthetic chemicals found at industrial sites and landfills, and a significant source of drinking water pollution.
“This new legislation blocks efforts to keep our water clean in exchange for jobs that could be created elsewhere,” Oleniacz said. “It puts North Carolina communities in danger and arguably violates federal law.”
According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, hundreds of thousands of North Carolina residents already suffer from exposure to toxic chemicals in their drinking water. The center claims the bill “encourages pollution,” and is in violation of the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Another provision of H.B. 600 limits North Carolina and its citizens’ say in large federal projects like the MVP. Under the new legislation, public comments from residents of impacted counties Alamance and Rockingham will not be considered in the permit decisions of the NCDEQ.
Nicholas Andrews, a Rockingham county resident, said the bill feels like “a slap in the face.”
“It doesn’t feel like much of a democracy when our lawmakers are actively trying to give us less say,” Andrews said. “Our health and safety is on the line and the opinions of North Carolinians are not considered? Not even allowed to be considered? I don’t like that.”
Once the pipeline project’s water quality permit application has been refiled, the NCDEQ has a 60-day period to approve or deny it. The department may only deny the application if it “determines that no reasonable conditions would provide assurance that the proposed discharges into navigable waters will comply with State water quality requirements.”
“Republicans knew the project wouldn’t pass water quality requirements, so they changed them,” Andrews said. “That’s really disappointing, that the state would put people like me and my family in danger.”
H.B. 600 passed 72-41 in the House in May, and 31-13 in the Senate in June. The governor’s veto was overridden 30-18. The bill will be law effective immediately.