Being the Change this Earth Week: A Speech

Happy Earth Week! I was invited to speak at my high school, Amador Valley High School, in celebration of Earth Week today. It's been awhile since I visited the place where I spent four years of my life learning and exploring my identity as an environmentalist. I actually started this blog while attending Amador Valley High School! Below is the text of my speech that I used as a reference this afternoon. What I actually said varied slightly, but here's the gist:

Hello, my name is Melissa Ott, and I graduated from Amador in 2010. I’d like to thank the organizers of Earth Week for inviting me to speak to you all today. Before I begin, I would like to a take a moment to acknowledge that we are standing on indigenous land and honor the Muwekma-Ohlone people who cared for this beautiful valley for generations before it was settled and renamed Pleasanton. The descendants of the Ohlone are still alive today, some of them in the Bay Area working to gain recognition and access to their ancestral homelands. I am grateful to all people who have not only called this land home but have tended to it and cared for it so that it can remain beautiful for generations to come. As part of this, I also ask each of you to think of one thing you are grateful for, something that you love about being alive on earth. You can write it on a piece of paper if you wish.

In this talk today, I’ll tell the story of what I’ve been up to since my time at Amador, and throughout, I’ll share key lessons I’ve experienced related to Earth Week that go beyond traditional “green tips.”

Me with my trusty bicycle off to high school sometime between 2007-2010. This photo was probably taken around the time this blog was started!


I’ll actually start my story the night that I graduated from Harvest Park Middle School. A fellow student gave a speech at the ceremony, and in her speech she shared a quote by Gandhi: Be the change you wish to see in the world. That night at dinner, I opened a gift from my parents: a necklace that had the same Gandhi quote inscribed on it. They had no way of knowing the student would share the same quote or that it would become one of the leading quotes of my life. I have taken this suggestion from Gandhi to heart and not only to heart but to hand, finding ways to bring my desire for change in the world into reality through action and example. Certainly I am not perfect at always being the change I wish to see. If it were easy to do this, we would live in a very different world. But I return to this quote as a touchstone, a reminder of how I want to live my life, and I try to make decisions at the daily level, career level, and lifestyle level to reflect the values that I hold and the vision I carry for our future.

At Amador, I was involved in numerous clubs, including the Environmental Club and Human Rights Club. By finding clubs that I cared about and learning skills such as hosting events or garden work days, I began my journey of linking passion with practicality, interest with resume-building skills that also allow me to get things done and be the change in tangible ways. We each have dreams and visions, but without the tools and skills to achieve them or to even begin to work toward them, we can feel trapped in having to choose the path that is familiar.

 Me and other students digging out existing vegetation at Mohr Elementary School as part of a garden project I co-coordinated through the AVHS Environmental Club back in the day.

I love that I was invited to speak about green tips here today because in 2009 when I was a junior at Amador, I started a blog called Green Gal with a mission to share green tips specifically for high school students and young people. At the time, most green tips I could find were focused on adults who made decisions like which washing machine to buy. There weren’t as many resources online for sustainable living as there are today, which is why I’m sharing beyond the traditional green tip today. I do still write on the Green Gal blog, and it’s actually the website for my small business that I’ll describe later.

One thing I began to learn through my involvement with clubs and my blog and other opportunities when I was in high school was that effective social and environmental change is not based on compassion and passion alone. We must be equipped with resources and skills, work with others who have complementary skills, and plan out our work. I continued to learn skills through work that I cared about throughout college, and I am still learning and finding new ways to work with others, stay organized, and work toward my goals.

After graduating from Amador in 2010, I attended UC Santa Cruz and studied English literature to be a more effective writer. I practiced critical analysis in the context of something I cared deeply about--the written word and the stories and narratives of humankind that can teach us so much about the human condition. At the same time, I found a job on campus in the Sustainability Office and brought the skills I’d gained at Amador related to organizing events and doing outreach to eventually become an outreach coordinator, working with a team of students to achieve goals related to educating and engaging students at UCSC. UC Santa Cruz has something like 15 environmental organizations, and by doing work that related to engagement and outreach, I learned about each one and began to weave a web of connections that made my work more successful and also strengthened the community among the many sustainability advocates at UCSC.

But one challenge I faced time and time again while organizing for sustainability at UCSC was this apparent divide between the social justice organizations and the environmental organizations. Although we’re probably all familiar with the three pillars of sustainability--which has many variations but for now we’ll name as environment, economics, and people--the three pillars rarely come together to examine how our individual work is strengthened in collaboration with the other pillars As a white woman who had been raised in a community and family where sustainability was at least discussed and celebrated to some extent, I had no idea about the history of environmentalism and conservation work in this country that has marginalized, silenced, and displaced people of color and poor people.

This is the subject for a much longer talk and something that I continue to learn about and grapple with, but the point I want to make is that it isn’t enough to care about the environment and wonder why others in our communities and in communities beyond our communities don’t seem to care. They might actually care more than most people if their livelihoods and lives of their families are going to be affected first by issues like sea level rise, hurricanes, and severe weather events like drought, heat waves, and frost at unexpected times. What looks like environmental protection to some of us might look like a prioritization of resources and efforts toward other species while our own human species is being poisoned and killed by the actions or inaction of fellow humans. Flint, Michigan and the toxic lead water that still has not been resolved is one example where an environmental issue has a direct affect on people, many of whom are people of color.

Another example at the micro level that has been documented and studied by the People of Color Sustainability Collective at UC Santa Cruz is the way in which environmental advocates inadvertently alienate other students whose families have been “sustainable” for generations but are not acknowledged because their practices aren’t the trendy or mainstream environmental methods. For instance, imagine you grew up somewhere that didn’t have recycling bins and you have no experience with sorting your waste. You come to UC Santa Cruz and go to throw something away, and another student notices that you “put it in the wrong bin” and admonishes you for doing so and explains to you how you did it wrong. This happens at UCSC often. Now imagine the same student who didn’t put her recyclables in the right bin reflects on how her own family has practiced reuse and reduce for her entire life--reusing a butter container for salsa and handing down clothing to siblings instead of getting new clothes--and yet her family has never received any brownie points or credit for being sustainable because for her family, this was necessary to save money. When we talk about sustainability, there are inherent elements of privilege and cultural norms at play that we must be conscious of in order to create an inclusive movement that can one day be the norm without making people feel ashamed or unappreciated.

So I attended UCSC and worked in the Sustainability Office until I graduated in 2014, at which point I was invited to stay on as a staff person, where I worked for a few years. And then last year, I left my job at UCSC to live on a farm for six months as part of an apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture, one of those decisions that felt very much like a response to Gandhi’s quote to be the change I wish to see in the world. The farm is at UCSC and along with nearly 50 other beginning farmers and gardeners, I learned, worked, and lived at the farm and gardens. We cooked for each other, shared a common space, and learned not only technical skills and knowledge about farming but also learned how to work with our hands all day in the sun. After spending years of working primarily behind a screen in the Sustainability Office, being outside every day was wonderful and challenging and hugely educational and I would highly recommend it. The program ended in October, and I was fortunate enough to gain access to a small plot of land in the Santa Cruz mountains to start a market garden, or mini farm that is hand-cultivated with spades and forks.

 Smiling with some friends in the UCSC Farm Center during the Apprenticeship.

With the support of my family and community I've chosen to pursue a career in farming that is supplemented by the independent consulting work I am doing through a small business I started in November. Farming is not for everyone and I'm still learning how I can best participate, but for more than a year I felt very much called to spend time in the garden and to fill a need that is being experienced in the farming world for young people to get involved. Most U.S. farmers today are more than 50 years old, and if young people who care about growing organically and in biodiverse ways don’t start getting involved, the farmland in this country is going to continue to be turned over to large corporations who care more about their bottom line than whether or not the food they’re producing is nutritious and grown in a sustainable way.

In addition to the farming and consulting business I’ve launched, I recently got a part-time temporary position at Stanford University, doing similar sustainability work that I was doing at UCSC, but this time in their housing and dining department. Although in my ideal world I would be able to focus on my farming work, the realities of living in the Bay Area is that farming at the small scale I’m at is not enough to live on. Stanford is also an inspiring place with lots of successful sustainability efforts taking place and I am grateful to be working there. Although my position ends in mid-July, I am getting to know folks at Stanford and hope to keep my opportunities open there. There are numerous creative ways to pursue your dreams by supplementing them with income from other sources and creating networks of opportunity wherever you are.

My first day at Stanford back in March.

I want to share some closing thoughts before we do a short activity. When we celebrate Earth Week, we often think of the planet and nature and perhaps polar bears and other endangered species. What if we could change the narrative around Earth Week, even just for ourselves, to remember that people are the reason we even have to have an Earth Week. Our relationship to our home planet and the many species and resources that have been exploited by humans for generations is the reason we have to stop each year and say, hey let’s remember to be grateful for Mother Earth and let’s try to turn off the sink when we brush our teeth! But there is so much more to it than that. It’s about changing how we see the world, reframing the narrative of what has value in the world and what deserves respect and compassion.

The narrative that says it’s okay to exploit the resources of the earth for our own use comes from the same place as the narrative that tries to normalize sexual assault, racism, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of violence and discrimination that are learned and perpetuated by people choosing to reinforce them. You and I have been taught narratives about what is normal and right, just as generations of humans have been taught before us. But what we often forget is that we write and create the narrative and reality of the world in our everyday choices. Some of us have more choices than others--some have the means to decide to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Others live in such a way that they are already "sustainable" because they don’t have access to enough resources to ever be able to be wasteful. Although this could look like sustainability, it's actually a lack of adequate resources. Some of our voices also shape the narrative more easily than others because of the way the narrative has been told and believed for so long. The narrator controls the narrative and those in power often pass the microphone to those who look like them and have the same worldview. But we are each creating our world every moment. If we are fortunate enough to have a microphone in front of us, figuratively or literally, we can move the microphone from our own mouths and turn it toward the folks who have been shouting for years without being truly heard.

Every day, we choose how to react and act and contribute and support one another in our world. And some days, it’s really hard to face the reality of our world and the countless issues that we face, but we have a choice of whether we want to tune those realities out or if we want to face them and find a way forward that provides meaning and value to our lives. There is a concept called the Spiral of the Work that Reconnects by Joanna Macy and others, which is a metaphor for how to approach the hard truths of life and not turn away. It’s a spiral that returns to the start over and over throughout our lives, and the process first grounds in gratitude, then moves to honoring our pain for the world, then transitions to seeing the world in new ways or gaining new perspectives, and then moves toward going forth and taking action. In each of these steps, we can remember Gandhi’s quote to be the change we wish to see in the world.

I’ll leave you with a suggestion to consider what is one thing you wish to hold yourself accountable to do that reflects a change you wish to see in the world. Remind yourself of the thing you were grateful for at the beginning of my talk. How can you change one thing in your life to support a future where everyone can experience and be grateful for that thing? Write your commitment on a piece of paper, sign your name, and hang it somewhere where you will be reminded of it. What is one specific thing you can do starting today? How will you be the change you wish to see this Earth Week?

Thank you so much for your time!

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing the text of your speech, and congratulations on being invited to speak at your high school. Your talk is so inspiring. I’m sure you motivated the students who heard you speak. It’s great for them to have an opportunity to see a graduate from their own high school go on to pursue efforts in environmentalism. Today you made a difference in many students’ lives, more than you know. Thank you for your energy, your optimism, and your positive approach to problem-solving.

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