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This year’s Green Schools Conference and Expo I’ve found to be the most impactful. There was a strong acknowledgement between all attendees that furthering the green schools movement is imperative in helping to address the climate crisis we’re in, and it’s only by working closely together with a unified commitment to the implementation of green, healthy, and sustainable practices that we’ll create access for all students to healthy, sustainable schools.

It was fantastic to connect with so many passionate people and experience the deep collaboration that takes place during the conference. I was fortunate enough to attend The Women in Green Breakfast featuring a stellar panel of women who each lead initiatives to create tangible change in their communities. The panel moderator was Jaimie Cloud, the founder and president of the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education. Jaimie, a dear friend and colleague of mine, has been instrumental in supporting the sustainability work I do through Natural Pod. She also introduced me to Jennifer Seydel, the Executive Director for Green Schools National Network (GSNN), which led to another deep friendship and me becoming President for the GSNN board.

My overarching key takeaway from this panel was the inseparable relationship between sustainability and social justice. The work of the panel members is very diverse but this thread ran throughout their discussion as they shared their unique perspectives. This year’s theme for the panel was ‘Stand Up!’ and focused on the power of individual influence to encourage other females to stand up for what they believe in, stand up for others, stand up for speaking their minds, and stand up for paving the way for future generations.

The panel consisted of:

  • Whitney Ellersick, MS, RDN, is the Nutrition Services Senior Director at Portland Public Schools, where, under her leadership, the PPS Nutrition Services department has been recognized as a leader in local food procurement.
  • Dilafruz Williams, Ph.D., is a professor of Leadership for Sustainability Education at Portland State University. She has given keynote addresses around the world and has designed, co-founded and supported several cutting-edge initiatives at Portland State, such as its Learning Gardens Laboratory and Leadership for Sustainability Education master’s degree program.
  • Darcy Winslow is the president and co-founder of the Academy for Systems Change, an organization focused on advancing the field of awareness-based systemic change in order to achieve economic, social and ecological well-being. She has 21 years of experience at Nike, Inc., and sits on multiple sustainability-related boards.
  • The discussion was moderated by Jaimie Cloud, the founder and president of the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education.

The opening question posed by the moderator, Jaimie Cloud: “How do you find the will to keep standing?” Such a great question!

Whitney Ellersick began with the challenges her organization frequently faces and she effectively brought home the stereotype and bias issues she confronts by sharing that when she has the opportunity to describe her work, she can either state, “I operate the largest restaurant in the North West with an emphasis on locally grown foods”, or, “I run the food service for the public school service”. This point illustrates how differently they resonate and helps to uncover our biases. Whitney shared her ability to ‘keep standing’ comes from activity sharing the challenges with her team and community and listening closely to their diverse viewpoints.

Dilafruz Williams explained that her strength to keep standing comes from the heart of her work with children and youth in poverty, recent immigrants, and refugees who have been traumatised by being displaced. She helps provide them with access to land in order to offer some literal grounding, where they can grow food and get rooted and reconnected. She described how she has witnessed the power of connection to land and soil to help heal. Dilafruz went on to beautifully explain how the very essence of healthy soil can connect traumatized children to life itself through the cultural understandings of different plants and connection to earth. She continued that her work within social justice, stewardship and sustainability are all interlinked and that progress in any of those areas supports progress in the others.

Darcy Winslow’s response to the opening question really resonated with me. She stated, “once you understand what’s at stake around sustainability you can’t go back to not knowing”. How true. Darcy was also honest enough to share that when she expressed her excitement that Portland was in the top 10 cities that were carbon neutral, her colleague pointed out “that’s great but the bar is so low” – and the truth of that statement really pushes Darcy to challenge the status quo and create large scale systems change.  Hearing about her sustainability work at Nike was fascinating as she was the one back in 1999 that put in place their sustainability goals for 2020 by asking – “what do we want to take to zero, and what do we want to take to 100”. I find this clarity of goal setting really inspiring. She also pointed out that back then no-one knew what sustainable consumption was, so in many ways we’ve come a long way.

Darcy also talked about the importance of soil but from a very different perspective to Dilafruz. Darcy explained that it’s too late to consider becoming carbon neutral to address climate control; we actually need to become carbon negative, and the most effective and cost effective carbon sink in the world is soil. 

Hearing from two different women regarding the importance of soil to all of us, from both a social justice perspective and a sustainability one, and the relationship between the two, was very powerful. Dilafruz really emphasised how even the simple act of turning compost can thoroughly engage children as they delight in finding worms and bugs resulting in a widening of their understanding of biodiversity. She went on to highlight the importance of women with the power to do so to facilitate that learning by bringing resources to communities that otherwise would not be able to access them. And not so we can push that learning onto those communities but by facilitating access in such a way that we all learn together and from each other, as nobody has all the answers.

When then asked, “how do you know when to keep going and when to switch gears?”, it was quite clear these women had no intention to do anything but keep going. Dilafruz explained, “as we connect with the land, and soil, and to our bodies, we get in touch with ourselves. Those who don’t have power is because they don’t have voices. So the work is bringing that to children, by showing them plant growth and getting in touch. Giving them connection to the earth, awareness and therefore, voice.”

The panel unanimously agreed it was incredibly important to celebrate the small successes along the way as the challenges can be overwhelming, and those challenges can only be overcome by being in the work for the long haul – “It can’t be a trend, it has to be built into your behavior, who you are, your culture, your environment.”

This led to the last panel question – “Where is the leverage?”

The answer rang out in unison – “Women!”

The panel concluded that the work of sustainability in schools needs long term, deep commitment and engagement. We need to come in as learners, not experts. Willingness to work together prevents the ‘us versus them’ mindset. “By listening to the voices of children and marginalized communities, by collaborating, exchanging and questioning, it enriches all lives!”

Thank you Jaimie, Darcy, Dilafruz and Whitney for sharing your insightful experiences and perspectives.