Photo: Grades of Green
With Grades of Green, Students Are Becoming Environmental Leaders in Their Own Right
When I was in middle school, I played Pokemon. When Antonio was in middle school, he began a movement that would change California forever.
It would take three years (which means technically the student wouldn’t change the state until he was in high school, about the time I learned how to skateboard), but after meeting with district administrators and local assembly members, Antonio was able to push his “No Idle Zone” campaign from a local movement to a state-level resolution. On June 23, Assemblyman David Hadley (R-Torrance) oversaw the passage of the resolution on the California State Assembly floor, which now awaits approval by the State Senate in August.
Before it swept the Golden State, “No Idle Zone” was one of more than 40 school programs offered by Grades of Green, a non-profit organization that gives students the tools to make their schools more sustainable. Such programs include simple but essential initiatives like establishing paper recycling in classrooms, lowering emissions by walking or biking to school and asking kids to pack trash-free lunches. The “No Idle Zone” program – in which parents turn off their cars while waiting to pick their students up – was spearheaded by Antonio when he attended Hughes Middle School in Long Beach.
“You’re encouraging parents to simply turn off their cars when they’re in the pickup line at school, because all of those harmful emissions blast out of cars and, unfortunately, they’re right at kid level,” said Grades of Green co-founder Kim Lewland Martin in an interview with Planet Experts. “And Because their bodies and their brains are still forming, it’s particularly harmful for them.”
Antonio thought the “No Idle Zone” was important enough to spread beyond the 410 schools that currently implement Grades of Green’s “Green Activities.” His passion caught the attention of Assemblyman Hadley, who went on to author ACR 160 in hopes of encouraging cleaner air for Californians and their children.
Antonio is not the first Grades of Green alum to attain national recognition. Three of the non-profit’s students have received the President’s Environmental Youth Award (PEYA) direct from the hands of President Barack Obama. It’s a significant honor, not only for the youths but also for the non-profit, which is less than a decade old.
“Kids are making huge differences,” said Martin. “Adults, when we talk, you kind of go, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ It can sound preachy, and our habits are already formed. But when kids talk, people really listen. They’re inspired by them.”
It All Started With Four Moms in Southern California
Today, Kim Lewland Martin serves as an Executive Director and the Director of Communications for Grades of Green, overseeing partnerships, marketing and programming for the now transcontinental non-profit. She is no stranger to green action, having practiced environmental law for over 15 years and even teaching it at Pepperdine and UCLA. As a partner with Lawyers for Clean Water, Martin represented groups that challenged companies for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. “It’s always been my passion,” said Martin, “because I think it’s really important. We’re all perfectly capable of reversing the course that society’s been on, but we all have to do it together.”
Martin decided to temporarily put her career on hold when she became pregnant with her second child. “Basically, it’s the age-old story of woman,” she said with a laugh. “I had my second-born and decided to take a few years off, thinking I would go back into environmental law when he was in first grade. I loved my career, so I was excited to get back to it.”
When that child was two and her oldest was starting kindergarten, Martin joined with a group of parents that were interested in improving the school’s ecological health. They were looking to minimize the use of pesticides on school grounds and get the school to convert to virtually 100 percent “Green Seal” certified janitorial supplies.
The mission seemed simple enough. “We just started to take action to green one school in Manhattan Beach,” she explained. “It was a volunteer effort, and at the time I thought, ‘Well, this will be great. It will be a way for me to give back to the school in an area that I have a little knowledge in. That’ll be a fun thing to do until I go back to work.’”
Martin and her group were successful at greening Grand View Elementary School, but what she realized along the way, “and what I think each of us realized along the way,” she added, “as we saw how this program not only resonated with the kids but with the adults and with the community and corporations and the press,” was that they were tackling a problem after the fact.
Martin and three of her fellow volunteers began discussing the issue at length. “It’s [pesticides, cleaning supplies] been a problem and now you’re trying to fix it and hopefully steer companies in a different direction and learn a lesson. But if we were able to get at the problem proactively, to educate kids and instill habits, wouldn’t that be a whole lot more constructive and give our Earth a way better shot than just continually trying to react to problems?
“The other founders had the same thought; we could see it in action. We could see these kids were literally becoming environmental stewards. It was becoming a part of who they were, and it was like, that’s it. That’s the answer.”
In 2008, the EPA honored the founders with the Environmental Award for inspiring students and the community to go green. Shortly thereafter, Martin and the others received requests from other schools for similar initiatives, which led to the creation of Grades of Green.
How Grades of Green Works
Over the last eight years, Grades of Green has grown from one school in Manhattan Beach to 410 schools in nine countries around the globe. The non-profit focuses primarily on teaching kids how they can make a personal difference to the environment by adjusting behaviors and practices in the classroom and beyond.
“Our thought was, we wanted to take out that overwhelming factor for any student, parent or educator wanting to take action to green their school,” Martin explained. “We try to make it as easy and clear as possible, give them all the resources they can use, all the knowledge they need.”
That includes artwork, pictures and step-by-step instructions for the 40+ Green Activities outlined on the website. The activities are broken down into categories, asking students what they’re truly passionate about: Energy, water, toxins, waste or air.
While Martin and her colleagues are still hoping to limit pesticide use around schools, Grades of Green doesn’t directly engage with large-scale initiatives of that kind. That’s not what it’s designed to do. However, many of its students, like Antonio, will take what they learn in their programs and grow them into larger campaigns.
“Each of these activities has to be kid-focused,” Martin explained. “It’s wonderful to get toxins out of the schools, but at Grades of Green we want to instill these values to the kids and allow the kids to be part of that action. Instead of just a parent meeting with a district maintenance person to learn how we can switch out our cleaning supplies to non-toxic alternatives, we want the kids to be involved.”
That means creating a lesson on green cleaning supplies that can be taught in the classroom, and giving students the knowledge to make changes at the class-level and potentially beyond, in their homes and community.
And while Grades of Green has a curriculum available for teachers, its activities are meant to be conducted outside the classroom, which frees schools from financial burden. When a school registers to join Grades of Green, they’re assigned their own Green Advisor that helps them navigate the non-profit’s website, works out goals and helps them figure out what kind of program they want to implement. “Our motto is, ‘Every shade makes a difference,’” said Martin.
Schools can track their progress on the website, receiving a badge every time they take on a Green activity.
The first Grades of Green students are now in college and some still keep in touch with the teachers and advisors that helped them work the program. “One wants to be an environmental lawyer,” said Martin, “one wants to be an environmental scientist.” That thrills Martin, though her goal is not strictly to inspire students to pursue green careers.
“Whatever career they go into, we want them to have these values at their core. Whatever company they ultimately become the CEO of, or if they’re in government or education, whatever they’re doing, they have these values. Then our society can get away from this ‘either/or’ mentality, that it’s ‘either the environment or…’”
Right now, Grades of Green is running two special programs, the Trash Free Lunch challenge and the Youth Corps Eco-Leadership program. Trash Free Lunch is a year-long competition between Los Angeles schools to see which can reduce the most lunchtime waste. The program has grown year over year, and Martin says it’s seen great success. “On average, schools who participate reduce their waste by 72 percent,” she said. “The schools that win reduce by 90 percent or more!” Meanwhile, the Eco-Leadership program selects 60 students from between second and twelfth grade and provides them one-on-one guidance to enact a unique Grades of Green Project.
Former Eco-Leaders have organized e-waste collection drives (eighth-grader Sydney collected over 9,000 pounds to be recycled), water conservation programs (fifth-grader Joshua taught over 250 students on a class-by-class basis) and recycling and compost stations (ninth-grader Annemarie helped divert over 60,000 pounds of waste from a landfill).