Global social change leaders gather at UC Santa Cruz for Right Livelihood International Conference

Phyllis Omido and a group of other people hold signs with slogans against lead poisoning.
Right Livelihood Laureate Phyllis Omido has led a successful battle against lead poisoning caused by battery smelting plants. Photo: Right Livelihood Foundation
Portrait of Juan Pablo Orrego
Right Livelihood Laureate Juan Pablo Orrego worked for decades to preserve the Biobío River, one of South America’s most spectacular and ecologically significant rivers. Photo: Right Livelihood Foundation
A mining pit with equipment
The conference will cover many topics related to the harms of "extractivism", or the large-scale extraction of raw materials for export from developing countries.

Before being called to activism, Juan Pablo Orrego was an ecologist and musician in Chile, and Phyllis Omido was a working mother in Kenya. Both noticed dangerous injustices taking place around them that harmed people and ecosystems. Instead of looking away, they decided to take action. And, together with their communities, they mobilized successful social change campaigns that earned them global recognition as laureates of the Right Livelihood Foundation. Now, they’re coming to UC Santa Cruz to share their insights and perspectives with students, faculty, and members of the public. 

From April 23 through 27, UC Santa Cruz will host social change leaders and student activists visiting from around the world as part of a series of events to celebrate the UCSC Right Livelihood Center’s 10th anniversary and the center’s new leadership role as the Global Secretariat of the Right Livelihood College. The Right Livelihood College network connects students and faculty with laureates of the Right Livelihood Foundation to work on education, scientific research, and practical activities that spread and upscale the work of laureates. 

A new group of Right Livelihood Laureates are selected by the foundation each year, to recognize the impact of change-makers working for a just, peaceful, and sustainable world for all. Omido—dubbed the “Erin Brockovich of East Africa”—was inducted as a laureate in 2023 for her leadership in the battle for the justice and health of the Owino Uhuru community, which has suffered from lead poisoning ever since a battery smelting plant began operating in their village. Her use of litigation, advocacy, and media engagement has set vital legal precedents, affirming people’s right to a clean and healthy environment and the state’s responsibility to safeguard it. 

Orrego was inducted in 1998, recognizing his decades of work to preserve the Biobío River, one of South America’s most spectacular and ecologically significant rivers. That campaign has become a symbol of the environmental and social struggle still ongoing in the country, connecting the dots between energy policy, environment, indigenous people’s rights, monopolies, and the neo-liberal development goals of the establishment. Orrego also now serves on the jury that chooses new Right Livelihood Laureates. 

“Through Right Livelihood, I’ve found out about many heroes and heroines around the world doing amazing work,” he said. “But in that process, I’ve also learned about some of the worst atrocities on the planet today. So, fortunately and unfortunately, being a part of this organization has really widened my consciousness.”

Dave Shaw, the Right Livelihood Center coordinator at UC Santa Cruz, says the conference in April is intended to similarly widen the perspectives of all participants. 

“I hope that people will take away a renewed vigor and commitment to making the world better through international and intergenerational collaboration,” he said. “We have a hub for this amazing global network right here in our backyard through the Right Livelihood Center, so I’m hoping more people will decide to get involved with that.” 

Conference will launch new impact initiatives 

The conference is also designed to launch a new international student network and connect laureates with faculty research efforts. It kicks off on April 23, with a series of dialogues, cultural exchanges, and social events for UCSC students and student delegates visiting from member institutions across the global Right Livelihood College Network. Throughout the week, students will work together to create a mission, goals, and project plans for a new Right Livelihood International Student Network. 

Then, on April 24, an interdisciplinary colloquium hosted by the Latin American and Latino Studies Department will help graduate students, researchers, and faculty make research connections with visiting laureates and international student delegates. In particular, the conference will connect laureates with UCSC's Extractivism and Society Research Cluster. Extractivism is the large-scale extraction of raw materials for export from developing countries, which typically takes place at the detriment of local people and ecosystems and involves modern power imbalances that reflect histories of colonialism. 

Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies Fernando Leiva coordinates the research cluster and has long studied extractivism in Latin America. Leiva said he’s excited about the possibilities for expanding that work by potentially forming connections with Right Livelihood Laureates and researchers and students at other institutions in the Right Livelihood College network.  

“This is a chance to connect the enthusiasm, energy, and passion of undergraduates with faculty who have been thinking about these issues and with laureates who are directly connected to these issues in villages, barrios, neighborhoods, and communities around the world,” he said. “It’s a combination that I think can be tremendously fruitful in terms of research, action, and mutual support.”  

Public events share insights from laureates

Extractivism will also be the theme of two public events. The first, taking place on April 24, starting at 6:30p.m. at UCSC’s Silicon Valley campus, will focus on ensuring a just transition to a green economy, through a conversation between Silicon Valley leaders and the visiting Right Livelihood Laureates. The group will discuss how to ensure that demand for resources like lithium for the transition to electric vehicles doesn’t end up contributing to increased environmental degradation or human rights violations and that those whose livelihoods currently depend on fossil fuel-based energy and transportation systems are able to find new opportunities.

Professor Chris Benner, faculty director of the Institute for Social Transformation, which supports the Right Livelihood Center, studies the relationships between technological change, economic opportunity, and environmental justice, and he expressed excitement about collaboration opportunities that could arise from the Silicon Valley event. 

“This provides a pathway to deeper dialogue with people who are at the cutting edge of profound technological changes in our world, and some of those people care deeply about social justice and sustainability and want to do work that creates a better world,” he said. “So I’m hopeful that connecting those people with Right Livelihood Laureates could result in some powerful long-term partnerships.”  

The second public event, taking place on campus April 25 at 7p.m. in the Merrill Cultural Center, will be a conversation with the laureates, moderated by Professor Leiva, on extractivism and how to eliminate resulting “sacrifice zones'' in the transition to a green economy. Leiva, who is a transnational Chilean and has done extensive research in the country, has previously met Orrego through Right Livelihood, and the two may have opportunities to work together more in the future through the Right Livelihood College network.

Orrego says he has come to think of his work protecting rivers—and his more recent efforts to raise awareness of the impacts of industrial farming and mining in Chile—as all being connected to a larger mission of fighting extractivism. 

“I saw all of these issues as symptoms, and I knew that the disease was deeper,” Orrego said. “So I started looking into the development model of Chile, and I realized that, since the time of Spanish colonization, we have been trapped in a model of extractivism. This has had disastrous effects for the environment and for human rights, because whenever you are impacting the environment, you are also impacting people who depend on the environment.”

Inspiring action, promoting hope

Despite the massive scale of global problems like extractivism, the transformative work of 194 Right Livelihood Laureates across 75 countries demonstrates that change is possible. The conference intends to share that message of hope, especially with the next generation of change-makers. 

An all-day teach-in on April 25 at the Merrill Cultural Center, in collaboration with the visiting laureates, international student ambassadors, and UCSC faculty, will aim to reach about 1,000 UC Santa Cruz students. The teach-in will be an opportunity for students to learn about social and environmental issues, the work of laureates, and effective strategies for organizing social movements. UC Santa Cruz Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies Jessica Taft, an expert in youth activism, is helping to organize this portion of the event.  

Sharan Sethi, student co-chair of UCSC’s Right Livelihood Center, said the teach-in and public events will be a great way for more students on campus to learn about Right Livelihood and how they can get involved.

“One of the things that I really love about Right Livelihood is that the network addresses so many diverse issues going on across the world,” she said. “So if you have any interest in human rights, justice, peace, sustainability, or building your own activism skills, attending any part of this conference will give you meaningful skills, and you’ll learn a lot.”

Orrego hopes the conference might be a turning point that helps attendees think about what they can start doing today to bring about positive social change. 

“Our planet is in turmoil, and we don’t have centuries to wake up from this nightmare, because the ecological clock is ruthless,” he said. “If we don’t comply with the operational guidelines of the biosphere, humanity's existence is at risk. But we have choices. We have history and memory to learn from. We can choose to stop doing the things that cause harm. If we don’t, we are wasting our human potential.”