Online Additions

Alumnae/i Doing Their Part to Go Green

Jeannette Smith Egan ’29

While more radical environmental warriors during the 1960s were dropping off the grid to live in organic communes, Jeannette Smith Egan ’29 was at the front lines of the environmental battles, working within the system and ultimately changing the way Americans thought about trash.

Beginning with just a few homemakers in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, the initiative was one of the first in the country to have a publicly funded recycling program. But, routine as it may seem today, Egan and her fellow organizers had to coax residents to take the step to sort their trash every day.

Along with other members of the community who were aware of overflowing landfills, Egan organized designated “drop-off days” at local schools, in which people could bring old newspapers to be recycled.

When the organizers decided to incorporate glass bottles into their recycling campaign, they reached out to city council to arrange recycling bins for each home and a pick-up schedule.

Though the recycling program initially encountered resistance, including a housemaid who called the organizers “crazy” at a meeting if they thought she had the time to rinse out every ketchup bottle, Egan always expected the movement to grow.

“I’m not surprised at how big recycling is now at all,” said Egan, who turned 100 years old this fall. “It was and is the sensible thing to do,” she said.

Gary Skulnik ’91

Gary Skulnik ’91 aims to make a big difference through the Clean Energy Partnership, a company he founded in Silver Spring, Maryland. Skulnik’s business guides other companies toward finding and embracing their green sides.

After working several years for the environmental non-profit lobby, Skulnik sought to debunk the stereotype that a business would have to sacrifice profit in order to be environmentally friendly.

“A Vassar education sets you up for anything. You learn to look at things and not just take the standard wisdom as the only way,” he said. “That’s what being an entrepreneur is all about: visualizing a different way of approaching issues.”

He started out with two partners, and they built the company from the ground up. Today, the Clean Energy Partnership provides renewable energy credits to offset the carbon emissions released by the fossil fuels that normally heat and cool buildings. The company mainly helps other businesses switch to sustainable and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

On a day-to-day basis, Skulnik said he is “out there, pounding the pavement, trying to get businesses to go green,” speaking with local groups and working with government agencies to develop sustainable initiatives.

The company has worked with 60 businesses and residential groups in the Maryland area over the past year, and is preparing to expand internationally.

“At the end of the day, I’m just a little blip, but everybody is a little blip,” he said. “If we all do something, and we encourage bigger businesses to see that this is not some ‘Chicken Little’ quest. We can change the course of the world.”

Maile Rice Arnold ’59

In California, Maile Rice Arnold ’59 has created a successful business in environmental work. First exposed to the organic movement in 1970, she has developed an environmental curriculum for the Orinda School district and Alameda County schools and has taught classes in organic gardening.

In 1975, she and her husband moved to the countryside where she began growing all of their food, including their meat, organically. Arnold’s organic farm and garden, which have been profiled in regional and national magazines, grew into a landscaping and consulting business for others who want to develop organic gardens of their own.

“Any client with whom I work must agree to garden organically,” said Arnold.

Her own garden, born of the same techniques she uses in her business, demonstrates the potential of her organic gardening and landscaping methods. Arnold calls her garden the “laboratory,” and gives tours to interested parties and uses her own heirloom vegetables as starter vines for clients.

The beautiful garden is the product of years of hard work. Arnold estimates she has hauled hundreds of yards of manure, compost, and chips over 30 years. These days, she spends on average one hour a day planting seedlings, shredding old vegetable plants or composting with the shredded plants.

Benjamin Lee ’01

Around the world, sustainability has been a bit of a “do-over” situation to correct previous bad habits. But Benjamin Lee ’01 seeks to implement a sustainable infrastructure as developing countries are beginning to get into the act.

“[Developing countries] can save money, the environment, and have more socially just communities,” said Lee, who has spent the past three years in Guatemala where he says the solution is to avoid the problem in the first place.

Working as the education and outreach director for the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG), a Weston, Massachusetts-based, non-profit organization, Lee is part of an effort to build a sustainable, environmentally friendly infrastructure from the ground up.

He bikes to work every morning, where he recruits and supervises interns (mostly engineering graduate students), coordinates service-based learning tours, and raises money.

According to Lee, AIDG has a two-fold mission. The organization develops technologies such as water filters, stoves, and renewable energy devices that will benefit the rural poor. Members then train local businesses to make and sell the devices, encouraging the local economy to grow around green technologies.

Lee had spent several years as an environmental consultant, but quit once the learning curve evened out. “I decided I’d never do anything I wasn’t passionate about again,” he said. “So far, it’s working.”

Catherine Evans ’83

Catherine Evans ’83 didn’t plan to enter academia as a career. But as a senior lecturer at the Australia’s University of New South Wales’ landscape architecture program for the past eight years, Evans is teaching the next generation of environmentally conscious architects.

Evans was drawn to the discipline by a concern for the quality of life of city dwellers. Environmental issues in Australia are becoming increasingly focused on economic equity, with water shortages and proposals for uranium mining and pulp mills. Environmentally friendly designs also face unique challenges because of rare natural features, such as the Great Barrier Reef and the outback, that exist only in that country.

She credits the college with instilling in her important lessons that she employs in the classroom today. “The ability to think critically — and then to act on that knowledge — is what I think enables sustainable thinking,” said Evans. “You can make sense of the vast range of issues surrounding sustainable development.”

Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam ’55

For her senior thesis at Vassar, Liz Cushman Titus Putnam ’55 conceived of a program in which young people could perform hands-on conservation service to save U.S. public lands. Her thesis adviser and others in the conservation field challenged her to make her dream a reality, and in 1957, Putnam founded the Student Conservation Association (SCA).

The SCA started out by placing 53 volunteers in the Grand Teton and Olympic National Parks in Wyoming and Washington State. It has since expanded into all 50 states and beyond, developing urban programs, and building partnerships with more than 400 governmental agencies, environmental groups, and conscientious corporations.

The SCA is the largest nationwide conservation force of college and high school volunteers who protect and restore America’s parks, forests, and other public lands. Putnam ran the SCA for its first decade and has remained an active participant and guided it throughout its 50-plus years.

SCA volunteers perform over 1.6 million hours of service annually to help preserve the United States’ natural legacy for future generations. Nearly 50,000 alumni continue to carry out the SCA’s conservationist message as teachers, resource managers, park rangers, businesspeople, and in their personal lives.

Organizations such as the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, The Wilderness Society, and the National Wildfire Federation have recognized the SCA for its achievements in conservation and youth developments.

The SCA is now working in conjunction with Mazda’s North American Operations to launch a nationwide competition to discover the next big idea in conservation. The contest, a cornerstone of SCA’s 50th anniversary celebration, challenges young people to develop action-oriented environmental solutions. The entries will be judged by a prestigious panel, which will include Vassar’s Associate Professor of Biology and Director of Environmental Studies Margaret Ronsheim.

Daniel Holmes ’03 and Caroline Fanning ’04

Nassau, Long Island, residents will soon have the opportunity to buy locally grown produce thanks to Restoration Farm, headed by Daniel Holmes ’03 and Caroline Fanning ’04.

Opening in 2008, Restoration Farm will sell its produce to the public through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. For use of the land, Restoration Farm will give a percentage of its revenue to Nassau County on Long Island. CSA is a new agricultural model built upon the relationship between farmer and consumer, CSA farms are partially or entirely supported by members who pay in advance for weekly distributions of fresh produce.

Holmes and Fanning formed Restoration Farmers, LLC to run the private, economically viable organic vegetable farm. They plan to select crops to maintain a steady and varied supply of produce throughout the growing season. Their farm is located on the southern tip of Nassau County’s Old Bethpage Village Restoration.

Both interned at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project while students at Vassar. After graduating, Holmes joined Sophia Garden, a CSA in Amityville, Long Island, as its head grower. Fanning worked for World Hunger Year, a non-profit in New York City that address food and hunger issues, and in 2006, she reunited with Holmes at Sophia Garden.

“Buying locally grown food allows you to talk to the farmer and even visit the farm. You can see what’s actually going on. That’s why farmers markers and CSAs have become so popular,” Holmes told the Plainview-Old Bethpage Herald in October.