Sean Miller, director of education, Earth Day Network
Credit: Earth Day Network
What drew Earth Day Network to pursue green education and advocacy issues?
In 1970, the first Earth Day had a strong educational message and was billed as a national teach-in. We’ve really carried that mission forward, not only with traditional environmental education methods like working with teachers and creating curricula, but also in greening schools and changing policies.
We were one of the original groups to develop and advocate the No Child Left Inside concept and subsequent legislation. That legislation seeks to mandate environmental education as a formal national teaching standard, meaning it will be woven across K–12 curricula. Currently, we are lucky to get just one class of environmental education and it’s usually an advanced-placement environmental science course. The other thing the bill would do is mandate states to create environmental literacy plans so that after a certain age, citizens would have a basic knowledge of the environment. It passed in the House of Representatives last year and now is sitting again in the House and Senate.
I’d say the real root of climate change comes from a lack of understanding or a lack of awareness of the climate system itself. The way to address that is to teach people these basic concerns of the environment, as well as taking action in the physical sense. We do that as well. We install solar panels on schools, help green cleaning programs, and start recycling initiatives. We work on the whole gamut, but you can’t green America’s schools without working on the policy changes.
What is the National Green Schools Campaign?
In 2007, we made a commitment with the [New York–based] William J. Clinton Foundation, the U.S. Green Building Council, [Boston-based] Second Nature, and several other groups to help green America’s schools within a generation. We’ve been working to incorporate that idea into our message and programming. The building is the most neglected teaching tool on a campus or school. Why isn’t it used as an avenue of understanding, support, and savings?
Unfortunately, most people go to a dilapidated school building in this country. It’s going to take some time to green schools, but that’s the broad emphasis of the campaign. We do demonstration projects in mostly urban, low-income areas to drum up local support for green schools. And we continue to work on federal, state, and local policies that reflect green schools and environmental education changes.
Are you taking on these projects all across the country?
We’ve done projects in Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and other regions. It’s a wide spectrum. We’re doing projects in San Jose, Calif., and Seattle at the start of the school year.
Credit: Earth Day Network
Where does the funding come from?
The funding comes mostly from the national level, but the support is both local and national. For example, we recently worked with Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va. The school put a photovoltaic system on its facility and did it from the bottom up, working with us and drumming up support in the local community over two years. We helped raise $56,000 for the program, without seeking out federal funds—that was just from local support in northern Virginia and the D.C. metro area.
We’ve done solar installations on more than 10 schools and have more projects planned. They’re all PV systems that save the schools money on energy costs and decrease emissions while providing a learning tool at the same time. Students, teachers, and community members actually can be part of the installation process. They can see it, touch the panels, and really take part in the process of renewable energy installations. Students can see what it means to have a green job and promote understanding within their schools and their communities.
The other educational component of it is that each system comes with a monitoring component, so each school gets its own website dedicated to the performance of that system. It’s updated second by second. Teachers can use it in the classroom and look at the school’s performance by day, week, month, or year. You can compare carbon emissions to the number of hours of TV turned off, or look at it in terms of energy savings. You can compare it to other systems across the nation and even take into account the weather in your area versus the weather in other areas, because solar differs depending on where you install it. It also comes with curricula so teachers are primed to use this monitoring website in lessons.
Do you get involved with other types of green initiatives in schools?
After Hurricane Katrina, we went to New Orleans and did some work on one of the first schools to reopen, the McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts. We put a vegetated roof on the building that filters water, cools the building, and provides an aesthetic learning environment for students. We also introduced green cleaning, as well as bioremediation. For that aspect, we planted sunflowers and other plants to cleanse the soil of toxins that were found on site. The city of New Orleans has a very high concentration of lead in its soil, and many of the schools are built on that. Sunflowers actually take the lead out of the soil naturally. Sometimes our work is something that simple.
In Chicago Heights, Ill., we worked at Bloom High School to build a prairie restoration in the courtyard. You drive across the U.S. and all you see are green lawns—it wasn’t always that way. Especially in the Midwest, it used to be prairie. We helped change the courtyard to reflect that. We incorporated native plants and xeriscaping, which is drought-resistant landscaping. We also brought green cleaning to that school as part of a broader effort. I’m not taking credit for this, but Illinois now is the first state to mandate that all schools use green cleaning projects, and Bloom High School was one of the first to do that.
How do schools become involved with Earth Day Network? Do you find them, or do they find you?
It’s both, but we’re trying to make more of them find us. I’ll give you an example: I got an e-mail recently that said, “Please help my school.” It was from a junior named Byron Thomas in North Augusta, S.C., who wanted solar at his school. He had heard about one of our other projects, so he wrote an e-mail saying he’d contacted President Obama, Van Jones [the White House special advisor for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation], and others but had not received a response. He had a story in his local paper and he actually carpooled up to Washington, D.C.—a nine-hour drive—to meet with us.
We gave him seed money for his project and now he has $2,500 to start with. You need about $15,000 to do one of these 1-, 2-, or 3-kilowatt demonstration projects, so we agreed to work with him over the next school year to raise that money in his community. He’ll have the backing and support of Earth Day Network and we want to do that again with students across the nation. We want to grow students like Byron so they can enact change themselves. It takes people like him, stepping in and making that initial example for their community. We want it to be locally focused.
We’ve created a great resource so that students, teachers, and administrators can tackle some of these issues on their own. It’s online at earthday.net/greenyourschool. There are over 300 pages of information on how to achieve green goals with action plans, teacher lesson plans, background documents, and more. People can have a document in their hand on how to do these things at their school.
Looking forward, what are some of your goals and challenges in the next few years?
The goal is to help green America’s schools within a generation, but that will require a lot of policy changes. Specifically, one we’re working on right now is to have 1 percent of the proceeds from the federal climate bill go to a green education fund that would then provide an estimated $1 billion per year to environmental education. It would fund things like No Child Left Inside and other programs, such as education for a green economy.
There need to be mechanisms—specifically, funding mechanisms and policies—to take that kind of jump. It all involves education, and bridging that gap is going to be the biggest difficulty because of where we’re starting from. I’ve seen studies that have found that 20 percent of Americans believe the sun revolves around the Earth, not the other way around. Somehow we’ve missed something here.
Making up that gap is what we do and what some of the other groups do, but we need the support of everyone out there to create this shift. We need the environmental movement to go mainstream by incorporating it into the education process so we’re learning about nature—its beauty, its benefits, and its relationship to our economy and our daily lives. In this way, we can create a generation that understands sustainability and can take action on it in a full sense.
When Earth Day was first established in 1970, it was intended to raise awareness about environmental issues. Although we still celebrate the day itself nearly 40 years later, the event’s original mission has grown to promote the worthy notion that every day is Earth Day.
Starting in 2000, the Washington, D.C.–based Earth Day Network began to implement yearlong campaigns to broaden the environmental movement. Much of the organization’s attention is directed toward education, with the hope of instilling a high level of ecological understanding and stewardship in students across the United States. Recently, eco-structure had the opportunity to talk about these efforts with Sean Miller, education director at Earth Day Network. The conversation centered on the group’s goal of greening America’s schools in a generation.