As the 19-year-old education intern for a small nonprofit like the Human Impacts Institute passionate about grassroots organizing and creative writing, the world of 12-floor office buildings and business casual is totally foreign to me. So when I entered the glass conference room for the NYC Green Groups Coalition Meeting in NRDC headquarters, I can’t pretend that I felt immediately comfortable. Everybody seemed to know each other, to know all the same acronyms, and to have the same opinions on the new NYC budget.
What became quickly evident, though, as everyone forgot about me and I mostly forgot to feel out of place, was that we all cared about the same things. The NYC Green Group is just that: a coalition of groups devoted to sustaining NYC’s population and environment in a safe, healthy, equitable way. Recapping the mayor’s new budget, assessing the 2015 NYC environmental scorecard, and looking forward to what will be on the 2016 scorecard, it was actually really heartening to learn that behind the sliding doors of such and important office building, all the same goals were being discussed -- just in suits with powerpoints rather than hiking boots with shovels.
With a problems as immense and overwhelming as those that threaten our environment right now, when you’re doing grassroots organizing, planting trees, and environmental education for 10-year-olds, to forget a little bit about the big picture and wonder how what you’re doing could possibly fit in. Many in this room -- mostly advocacy professionals -- might have the opposite problem: it seems like it would be easy in an office setting to lose sight of the individual people who, in the end, we’re all doing this work for.
Nilda Mesa, an incredibly eloquent representative from the NYC Mayor’s Office, presented on OneNYC -- basically, initiatives from DeBlasio’s office on what the City will look like by 2030. The plan, Nilda explained, has four blanket goals for NYC: 1) a growing and thriving city 2) a just and equitable city 3) a sustainable city and 4) a resilient city. These applied as filters to check that all the OneNYC Initiatives meet these criteria. (You can check out their fascinating study about where NYC GHG emissions come from here, their tips on how your NYC building, transportation, waste, and lifestyle can be more sustainable here, and can claim your own free BYO bag, mug, or water bottle here).
To me, just as useful as their list of tips and freebies is their four-point philosophy. I believe that we should run our own projects through those filters--or, if those four points aren’t the most relevant for us--to figure out what are, and then to check our actions with them. Since joining the team at HII, for example, I’ve been helping to run weekly Tree Care Tuesdays (sign up to join us in caring for Brooklyn street trees and help us keep the program running). Tree Care Tuesday 1) helps the city grow and thrive by greening neighborhoods and educating the next generation of NYC’s environmental leaders, 2) creates a more just and equitable city by working in environmental justice communities 3) makes the city more sustainable by improving air quality and 4) more resilient by helping to fight combined sewer overflows (the reason why we don’t go to Coney Island after it rains). Tree Care seems like it passes--though there’s definitely room to improve, especially in the category #2. I challenge HII, similar organizations, myself, and YOU to consider what your top priorities are, and to see how what you’re working on measures up. It seems like an excellent way to keep the big picture in mind when doing local work.
When I got home from the meeting, I tuned almost immediately into Periscope, where the House Democrats were hosting a sit-in on the House floor, refusing to budge until Congress did something about commonsense gun control. I left the livestream on for most of the evening, watching as staff and Senate members brought food, sleeping bags, and pillows to those sitting in. I found the whole thing incredibly inspiring -- the conviction and the resilience of the Assembly Members gave me, personally, a lot of hope. But it was also pretty surprising: the sit-ins I’m familiar involve college students with hand painted signs and scrubby clothes advocating for Fossil Fuel Divestment; in the livestream, you could see the glossy wood of the House and well-tailored suits of the Congress people. The moral, maybe, is that the important part is really caring about things. The means and tools and the space come next.