Igniting Activists

It’s the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day—Are You Ready to Get to Work?

Earth Day Network has a huge school greening initiative—and the mission to green all the nations K-12 schools in a generation.© Getty Images

Last year, Earth Day took some heat by online green scorekeepers (particularly the eco-mag Grist, which launched a "Screw Earth Day" campaign), but this year it’s reasserting its prominence. Earth Day turns 40 this year, and while that brings with it some generational divide (Grist, at 10, is still a kid), it has also allowed the Earth Day Network, which promotes green initiatives year "round, to leverage its experience into real, on-the-ground activism and creating sustainable schools. Out of that first Earth Day in 1970—celebrated by 20 million—came the Environmental Protection Agency, established by President Nixon the same year. Now, says Jeani Murray, the Global Director of Earth Day 40, the nonprofit has moved far beyond fighting early concerns like smog and acid rain to push for climate change legislation, to encourage green jobs and to leverage its influence to enact real commitment from world leaders at the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December.

With just 20-25 employees, Earth Day Network has quite a roster ahead. "There are three major prongs," says Murray, "advocacy, service and celebration." They are working with mayors across the country to initiate 500 conversations about environmental reform, and advancing climate change concerns and support for a green economy at the Copenhagen climate talks. In honor of the 40th anniversary, they are making service a huge part of the mission, with the campaign "A Billion Acts of Green." "We want to create a hub online and offline, with actions ranging from tree planters to oceanside beach cleanups," says Murray. "This can make a tremendous impact globally, and that service helps people to reengage." Participants sign up online and include their location and planned green action, allowing Earth Day Network to keep track. The reason they chose one billion? "Historically, about a billion people participate in Earth Day," says Sean Miller, director of education at Earth Day Network. "It’s the greatest secular holiday."

Of course, this year will feature a blowout day-of celebration, too (Earth Day is on April 22) to honor the big anniversary. One major concert/eco-village/speaker event will come to the original site—Washington, D.C.—another will be held in Morocco. But, says Murray, "there’s a whole host of other countries involved [whose events] we won’t be organizing and producing. We’re working with 180 countries and 20,000 NGOs."

Two years ago, Earth Day Network brought volunteers together to green the McDonough 15 charter school in New Orleans, installing energy-efficient lighting and a green roof.© imaginelousiana.com

While eco-cynics give Earth Day a hard time, and focus narrowly on the actual day, the nonprofit’s work extends far beyond the calendar date, particularly when it comes to their education program and green school initiatives. Through their national GREEN Schools Campaign, they’ve partnered with the U.S. Green Building Council and the Clinton Foundation to green all of America’s K-12 schools within a generation. Schools can apply for grants for everything from green roofs and irrigation systems to air quality measures and solar panels. In just one of many examples, they brought volunteers together two years ago to install energy-efficient lighting and a green roof on the McDonough 15 School for the Creative Arts in New Orleans, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. This year, they’re adding a new feature to their website, a simple calculator where students can discover their school’s "lighting footprint" to help encourage the transition from incandescent bulbs to energy-efficient CFLs. And they’re putting together a high school activist toolkit, too, to create student leaders in everything from healthier cafeteria options to better bike access.

All the griping, it seems, has done little to dissuade the small nonprofit with a big mission—or to diminish its many long-lasting green acts. The students who are breathing better air, playing in cleaner playgrounds, enjoying community gardens and learning about renewable energy firsthand are certainly not complaining.

CONTACT: Earth Day Network

BRITA BELLI is the editor of E.