This summer saw the launch of GDS’s Environmental Task Force (ETF), a student-run group at the High School that seeks to unify all three divisions as one sustainable GDS. Motivated by their learning during the inaugural Environmental Justice (EJ) Track of the GDS Policy Institute, student leaders began envisioning a comprehensive yearlong program to educate, co-create sustainable art, promote environmentally sound practices, and inspire action. Their work has since demonstrated longevity and the capacity to grow year over year.
In the group’s mission statement, they note, “Just as climate change is a complex, intersectional issue, these leaders come from the many disciplines of our school to innovate cross-sectional solutions—solutions that will instill environmentalism into every facet of our community.”
Since their inception, students and faculty/staff partners from various departments—notably the office of community engagement and experiential learning, the arts teams, the Hop Shop, Enviro Club, SSC, and transportation—have participated in nearly a dozen subcommittees, including school/lifestyle waste, education, food, environmental justice curriculum, infrastructure, transportation, theater, athletics and health, publications, and Lower/Middle School connections. Led by seniors Caleigh Vergeer, Evan Bianchi, and Harrison Lundy with alum Abby Murphy ’20, who was on staff this fall and winter with the school as a sustainability intern, the group has led two Social Justice Teach-in Day workshops on environmental justice, begun establishing baselines for the school’s (pandemic-era) carbon footprint, and laid foundational work for an Environmental Justice Week (April), plant-forward dining initiatives, and a collaborative mural project.
“Climate change and environmental injustice seem so daunting—it’s difficult to know what to do or where to start,” said Caleigh, founder and chair of the ETF. “But I’ve learned that anyone can be a leader. What’s important is that we take the risk, we work, we try. I didn’t know what I was getting into—one moment, it’s a green committee, and then it’s a school-wide interdivisional task force. But we’re growing together.”
The school/lifestyle waste group is currently establishing waste audit surveys—one for the faculty community and one for students. They have targeted several paper waste reduction initiatives, and they are looking ahead to longer-term projects, including an augmented composting program, e-waste drive, clothing exchange, and single-use plastics reduction campaign. As co-chair of the ETF waste committee, Harrison said, “Working with the ETF has been an incredible experience. The group connects a fantastically diverse network of students, administrators, faculty, and community leaders to address a wide range of sustainability and equity issues at our school. The organization is filled with talented, driven and creative people who are united in their passion for the environment. Already, the ETF is making an impactful and lasting difference. In my time at GDS, I have been amazed by the things this community can accomplish with collaboration and dedication, and the ETF is a prime example of that spirit in action.”
You may have seen the food-focused team’s Thanksgiving infographic initiative to promote plant-forward, vegan meals, cutting the carbon emissions associated with meat production and consumption. They also connected with our director of dining services Alex Buc of Meriwether Godsey to determine places we can improve our practice in the future, particularly when COVID-era measures are no longer necessary. Even as the dining hall just added lunches for the Lower School, which recently began full days, Alex and the team have continued to discuss some aspirational plans for a “Meatless Monday” later in the spring. Aside from dining, the group has been exploring the possibility of an expanded garden, in addition to the new garden boxes located between the High School field and the Spike Memorial Sprint Track.
Caleigh, Harrison, and Abby led workshops for the Social Justice Teach-in Days (Middle and High School) to foster ongoing discussion about environmental justice throughout the school. As part of their mission, the task force noted, “As we work to centralize environmental justice, we will acknowledge that we are part of a privileged, primarily White, and elite institution—and our actions impact the entire DMV.” The workshops began with a land acknowledgement, recognizing the campus sits on the “traditional land of the Nacotchtank people and neighbors the ancestral lands of the Piscataway and Pamunkey peoples.” They discussed environmental racism, in which environmental hazards more often impact people and communities of color, using a case study of two aging and highly polluting private trash transfer stations in Ward 5 and 7.
Environmental sciences teacher C.A. Pilling’s class has been collecting and analyzing data on GDS’s carbon emissions with respect to energy consumption, transportation use, and waste management based on interviews with the GDS facilities team, waste audits, and surveys to the school community. The ETF’s “moonshot goal” is to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint for the unified campus.
Thinking about the important, individual roles of the many task force supporters, Caleigh said, “I’m most proud when I watch a member gain a leadership role and run with it—it shows me that the ETF has helped someone find their own voice and their own path to action.”
One of those leaders, Asha Adiga-Biro ’23 of the athletics and health breakout group, has a particular interest in the connection between natural spaces and mindfulness. She said, “Right now we're working on creating a healthy living group under the ETF to work on creating more green spaces for GDS and DC for mindfulness and meditation. We're also trying to get more students to spend more time outside in nature. The Earth provides so much for our mind and body and we need to give the same care back.”
The GDS youth climate publication 1.5 Degrees, produced by several of the same students working on the ETF's education subcommittee, continues to put a spotlight on current issues and stories from the climate crisis, especially to highlight young voices and educate other young people. You can see their work online at www.1point5news.org, including content from their February newsletter.
In addition to her GDS internship, Abby (along with Ana Gunther ’19) also worked this fall/winter as an intern with Boyer Sudduth, an environmental consulting firm specializing in sustainable solutions for schools and businesses. Her work there as well as her perspective as an alumna gave her much to be hopeful about. “I’ve loved working with the ETF to further GDS’s sustainability goals,” she said. “The ETF has worked tirelessly to engrain environmentalism into every fiber of the school. The group has worked across divisions to show that sustainability is important in every part of GDS—from the curriculum, to our food services, to how we talk about social justice. Honestly, it’s really beautiful how the ETF has grown step by step and person by person; the ETF has made institutional changes because each ETF member has acted on a love for our community and world.”
While many projects are still in planning stages, including mural projects and an environmental justice week, the group has made headway despite the pandemic. The ETF also welcomes new voices and new members to join. Contact any of the leaders or members mentioned below.
“All in all,” the group’s mission concludes, “the Environmental Task Force strives to make GDS a more sustainable and environmentally conscious space, collaborating with commitment, compassion, self-awareness, and imagination.”
“Our members are so awesome,” Caleigh said. “We need that kind of creativity to make GDS a more sustainable and just institution, and to make the world a more sustainable and just place. The ETF has so much work to do. And we’re just one group within one school within one country. But we have to start somewhere. The ETF brings me a great deal of hope.”
Current student leaders and membership
Caleigh Vergeer ’21
Evan Bianchi ‘21
Harrison Lundy ’21
Abby Murphy ’20
Waste team: Camilla Salwen ’21, EJ Joseph ’21, Claire Cooper ’22, Luke Cohen ’23, Sophie Axelrod ’22, Corbin Buchwald ‘21
Education team: Deepa Bhargava ’23, Bryce Savoy ’21, Asha Adiga-Biro ’23, Sadie Foer ’23
Food team: Emily Scarrow ’21, Nadine Ameer ’21, Annabel Williams ’22, Amelie Beck ’21
Air Quality Infrastructure team: Maggie Hacker ’21, Ben Adomaitis ’21, Noah Abramson ’21, Aiden Banerjee ’21
Athletics/health team: Asha Adiga-Biro ’23, Deepa Bhargava ’23, Katie Young ’23, Elsa Cutler ’23, Julie Steele ’22
Publication: Sadie Foer ’23, Tabitha Lynn ’21, Deepa Bhargava ’23
Faculty Advisors: C.A. Pilling, Chris Oster, Leigh Tait, Bobby Asher
LMS connections: Jana Rupp, Kathleen Dawson
Transportation and dining connections: Noah Hansen and Alex Buc