When we featured Rachel Gutter in our April 2011 issue feature "Planet Keepers," the then 29-year-old director of the U.S. Green Building Council's Center for Green Schools was working towards her goal of greening all of America's schools within a generation. A year and a half later, Gutter is launching her latest initiative, called the Green Apple Day of Service, happening this Saturday. The project's goal is to "raise awareness and create scalable solutions to make schools healthy, safe and sustainable places for kids to learn and grow," Rachel says.
Whole Living: Tell us what's going on this weekend during the Green Apple Day of Service on September 29th. Who is involved? What kinds of events will be going on?
Rachel Gutter: It looks like we're on track to have at least 10% of schools across America involved, well over 1,000 projects happening this Saturday with over tens of thousands of volunteers. Projects are everywhere, from Idaho to Ovetria, in all 50 states. This first-ever Day of Service is designed to be a rallying point to collectively be able to convince parents, teachers, elected officials, taxpayers, that where our kids learn really matters, and that we can actually do something about it.
We’ve not been prescriptive about events, but on our website, MyGreenApple.org, we’ve provided, along with our partners, a whole number of different ideas for how people can get involved and plan projects around improving the places where kids learn. It can be anything from planting an edible schoolyard to doing a simple classroom or schoolyard cleanup. It could be creating homemade recycling bins that can be placed in classrooms and libraries to collect materials, it could be a scavenger hunt where you’re arming your kids with cameras around the school to take pictures of things that are healthy for the planet and things that are harmful, as well. We hope that Day of Service will not just be a one day a year occurrence but that Green Apple will start to take place much more regularly in communities across the country.
WL: Given the event is only a few days away, how can parents, community members, and our interested readers get involved?
RG: First of all, MyGreenApple.org is a full services site so you can go in and search for projects by site and by ZIP code; you can also register your own project there. There is also a blog I just did about six projects that can be done in 60 minutes, which explains simple opportunities from posting a coffee chat with other parents in your neighborhood, to screening our promotional video, to hosting a drive for surplus school supplies that can be used for the classroom.
They can also be placed in our Where We Learn Matters photo campaign on our website. We have a way to upload photographs of students holding green apples in the places they learn. One of the things we really want to do through that effort is highlight some of the disparity that exists in learning environments, trying to capture some of the best and some of the worst. What we’re finding the more we get engaged and lead the conversation around this issue is that, in many communities, the conditions around our schools are somewhat of a well-kept, dirty little secret. Nobody wants to be known for having a failing school; no principle wants to be known for having a school where teachers complain about mold in their classrooms and are told they are whiners. We want shine a light on the conditions that do exist but in a way that protects the people who are behind the camera.
Also, in early 2013, the Green Apple Mark will start to show up associated with different products, not to endorse them, but as part of the corporate social responsibility initiative of our Green Apple corporate partners. Every time those products are made and purchased, [it] will help the work that all of these communities will be doing across the country to transform schools.
AS: Where did the idea for this rally day model come from?
RG: All of us have had our "Aha!" moments in this work. I’ve run the Center for Green Schools and the Green Schools Initiative for the last 5 years. I’ve seen everything from teachers who suffer from the 2:30 headache, heard how they have terms for how sick they get after a full day of work at a school building, learned about students who have to use their inhalers three times a day on the weekdays but after leaving school don’t need that inhaler at all anymore. The story that really drove it home for me and inspired this initiative happened during something I was judging called the Schools of the Future Design Competition, in which middle schoolers are challenged to design their dream schools. Right after a team from a wealthy district in Maryland presented this amazing super green school design, a group from D.C. brought out their very uninteresting model, a very basic brick box shape, and our judges just started looking around at each other kind of confused.
These kids sat in front of the judges and said "the school that we dream of has windows that we can see through, bathrooms that work, a place where we can go and do our homework and four basketball courts instead of two so we don’t have to wait in line." All these kids could imagine for their biggest dream—and it’s an exercise in "anything is possible"—was a school that met their very very basic needs. I think that was the point at which it occurred to me that our kids can only dream so far out in front of them about where they want to go to college and in what neighborhoods they want to raise their kids. Green apple is designed to address that inequity and show everyone that we can take our classrooms to healthier places, safer places, and simultaneously save money and put that money back into the classrooms where it belongs.