My 8-year-old daughter attends an all-girls school in San Francisco called Hamlin where each academic year the students, faculty and parents adopt a central theme that provides a cohesive rallying point for our community. This year’s mantra, “It’s Easy to Be Green,” was just pure luck for me as the opening days of our Fall session coincided with my newfound devotion to exploring the environmental health of our campus.
Over the Summer I began to learn how to assess the safety of our as-built environment by reading about the myriad of schools across the country, both public and private, that were being recognized for their green practices. While some had edible gardens, others were highlighted for sustainable building materials, educational programs, energy efficiencies and various other categories of environmental innovation. Not only was I inspired by their efforts, but I wanted to help our school, which was founded 1863, become a noteworthy model of a healthy, responsible, modern educational institution.
So early in our 2007-2008 school year, I sent a rather long email to our Interim Head of School, Dr. Priscilla Winn Barlow, whom I had not yet met, inquiring about the environmental health and sustainability of Hamlin’s campus. It is important to note, that Dr. Barlow had only arrived from New York weeks before, to take on a year-long position while a search for a permanent leader was in process.
My list of questions followed a brief introduction of my goals, as well as my assumptions that I was jumping into political water that would involve constituents from all corners of our campus. What I asked her included the following:
• What cleaning products are we using and what are the implications of their possible toxicity? Can we consider alternatives that meet a Green Seal of approval?
• How careful are we about our food sourcing – what percentage of the food we serve is organic? Locally grown? Free of hormones, pesticides, antibiotics? Is there an opportunity for improvement in our lunch room?
• Can we consider alternative power options such as wind or solar and is there a possibility for cost SAVINGS in the future? PG&E is attempting to be a thought leader in the industry - can we partner with them for a win-win?
• How do we manage energy usage - have we set timers wherever possible to activate lighting as needed? Do our computer labs shut down at night? Does our faculty remember to turn off their major equipment at night? Have we purchased EnergyStar appliances where possible?
• How clean is our ventilation system and how can we increase fresh air circulation in our buildings, especially since our climate does not require significant air conditioning or heating?
• How safe are our laboratories – how do we protect our girls from toxic materials and fumes?
• What are our procurement policies for school supplies, administrative materials etc.? Do we buy recycled products? Do we work with green vendors?
• What is our water usage - are we equipped with low-flow toilets?
• What kinds of toxins might be lingering in some of the older corners of the school, i.e., molds, lead from paints etc.? And what other materials in the classrooms, especially carpets, may be emitting synthetic toxins into the environment? Would we consider a professional environmental audit to answer these questions?
• How effective is our on-campus recycling program? Are we maximizing re-use of materials? Does our recycling commitment extend to computers, ink cartridges, batteries etc.? Do we actively compost?
I then added inquiries about forming a multi-disciplined group to address our environmental future. And I suggested creating a green resource section within our library, as well as publishing weekly green tips in our school newsletter, encouraging curriculum enhancements, community service projects focused on the environment and relevant assembly topics.
As I had no idea how my LONG list would be received, I also sat down with the Head of our Parents’ Association and wrote to a few Board members in hope that we would open a multi-tiered dialogue to honestly assess if it really was easy for Hamlin to be green. Could we walk the talk, or better yet, were we doing so already?
I am very happy to report that there was enthusiasm to address every one of these questions from constituents throughout our school. So in October, we founded an ecoCouncil chaired by our Interim Head, Priscilla Winn Barlow, and comprised of individuals from our Board, Administration, Faculty, Facilities, Student Body, Alumni and Parent population. We designed our Council to address strategic, as well as short-term initiatives by including representatives from groups who control our purse strings, our long-term development, our curriculum, our light bulbs, our volunteer efforts and our fundraising. But most importantly, we wanted to include our girls who have become an integral part of rallying their fellow students to explore, explain and demand a more sustainable existence for all of us.
Although we have only been in existence for 5 months, we have been tackling my original list of specific questions – with great success thus far. In addition, the faculty and staff have created a much broader list of micro and macro goals we are focused on achieving.
The girls have already overseen an ecoWeek which occurred in December 2007, and are working on another school-wide event to coincide with Earth Day in April. As an all-school activity, they initiated a fundraiser sponsored by EcoPhones, to collect old cell phones, ink cartridges, PDAs etc. for proper disposal and they organized a battery collection, which resulted in the responsible disposition of 100’s of used batteries. The Eco-Ambassadors Club sponsored the week's assembly and presented an amazing educational fair to our students who gathered to learn about pollution, plastic bottles, organic farming, reusable bags, household cleaners and many other valuable topics.
That week also offered my debut as a speaker, with a presentation to our parents on how we can all make healthier choices for our bodies and our earth by becoming more aware of the toxic properties lingering in so many of our daily food, water, personal care and household purchases. That speech is now in its third iteration and I am sharing it with other schools and organizations that have heard about my research and are interested in my presentation.
Perhaps the most exciting opportunity for me that week was the invitation I received to speak with the girls about what they CAN do to “be more green” in their own lives. With so much negativity swirling in the world about impending doom, I wanted to empower them to understand that there are SO many opportunities for them to contribute to change and a brighter future. That too has lead to other opportunities to speak with younger audiences, who represent an essential link in our effective communications about environmental sensitivities today.
Apart from ecoWeek, the Parents Association hosted our annual fundraising week-end in February and the theme was, “Seeds of Change,” to further perpetuate our focus on “being green” as a community. As an example of one event we featured, I co-chaired a literary luncheon for 300 people where the meal we served was locally sourced and entirely organic. In addition, our centerpieces were simple glass vases filled with organic vegetables and fruit whose colors were a blend of simple perfection. Water was poured from Brita pitchers and the moregreenmoms gift bags were filled with products from Bay Area companies leading the charge in green innovation. For the record, the food was DELICIOUS and we came in slightly under-budget – so organic and responsible choices do not have to be more expensive!
Our next goal for the year is in the works and will coincide with Earth Day. Because our community has learned more about the lack of governance in our country pertaining to chemical exposures in our cosmetics and personal care products, we have decided to launch an education and advocacy program to increase awareness, and to demand protection from our legislators. I plan to share more about our letter-writing campaign in April, as I believe it will be a brilliant example of how young women can affect important change in this world by making their voices heard.
To close, our ecoCouncil at Hamlin is a new group, but it is now firmly established within the culture of our school. We have not achieved all of our goals, but we have secured credibility and support within our community. We have our eye on important details for healthy living today, with a glimpse toward the future when we hope to install our photovoltaic panels, eat from our garden and graduate motivated leaders who will safeguard our planet.
If I can offer any advice to you on how to initiate a similar conversation at your school, please email me. It would be my pleasure to support you!