On a recent trip to Yosemite, Diana Michaelson looked out on the natural wonder of one of America’s oldest national parks. She’d yet to begin her sophomore year at Long Beach Poly, but was already planning for major changes at her school, and in her community.
“It was really beautiful and it was definitely something I felt lucky to experience,” Michaelson said. “I would feel guilty to not leave it in the same state that past generations left it to us.”
Last summer, Michaelson solidified her passion for climate change and renewable energy after completing leadership training at the Los Angeles chapter of the Climate Reality Project, a non-profit founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. Then last August, Michaelson put her knowledge into action, founding the Poly Green School Campaign (GSC).
The Poly GSC is a satellite campaign of the national Green Schools Campaign, which provides students with the resources to help transition their schools into using clean, renewable energy sources. The goal of the Poly GSC is to have the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) commit to using 100 percent clean, renewable energy on all of its campuses by 2030. The group recently launched its website (www.polygsc.com) and is circulating a petition online to urge the LBUSD to make a commitment to pursue clean power alternatives.
While that may seem like a lofty aim, there are already examples of this kind of decisive action happening locally. In December of 2019, the Los Angeles Board of Education approved a measure that will transition the LAUSD to 100 percent clean, renewable electricity by 2030, with all other energy sources for HVAC, transportation, etc. moving to renewable energy by 2040. With America’s second-largest school district already on board, the Poly GSC is using that precedent to urge local leadership to follow suit.
“We’re trying to get the support of influential community leaders, but we’re also reaching out to organizations like the Teachers Association of Long Beach,” Michaelson explained. “There’s no reason why Long Beach should still be on fossil fuels. There are a lot of school districts that are like Long Beach–particularly Fullerton and San Diego–who have made the transition. So there’s plenty of examples to show that this is a necessary step.”
In December, the group had a virtual meeting with LBUSD board member Megan Kerr and presented their case for clean, renewable energy. Kerr is expected to present the report to the rest of the school board, which could present an important step forward in the campaign.
Victoria Quach is a senior at Poly and, like Michaelson, a member of the school’s PACE magnet program. Quach was drawn to environmental issues during her freshman year at Poly after taking an AP Environmental Science course. She started a club on campus called Poly Outdoors that encourages sustainability and volunteers at wetland cleanups and tree-planting events in Long Beach.
Quach was part of a group that encouraged the Long Beach City Council to transition to renewable energy back in August of last year. The City Council rejected the proposal for the city to join the Clean Power Alliance, which would have provided Long Beach residents with power from renewable energy sources via existing infrastructure.
“After the city council rejected the plan to go to 100 percent renewable energy, that made me realize that I kind of had to narrow down my goals and continue to hold leaders accountable,” Quach explained. “That challenge, that bump in the road really catalyzed my growth. I feel like I’ve matured in terms of my knowledge about policy change and environmental activism. After having a district board member commit to helping us go to 100 percent green renewable energy, that was a checkmark for me that I had held a leader accountable.”
Michaelson and Quach are key leaders in Poly’s GSC, but the effort is not solely contained to Poly’s campus. They’ve also partnered with groups at Hughes Middle School and Keller Middle School to expand their influence. Ruthann Heis is an eighth grader at Keller, and leader of the Hellen Keller Greenies on campus. She pointed to Long Beach’s air quality as a main driver for change, citing a recent report from the American Lung Association, which ranked Long Beach/Los Angeles as the most ozone-polluted city in America.
“As a resident of Asthma Alley, my community and I face high asthma rates, high ozone pollution, and high particle pollution rates,” Heis said. “These numbers are an accurate representation of my experiences growing up in Asthma Alley. I have vivid memories of my peers having asthma attacks during elementary school and even having to carry some to the nurses after they could no longer walk themselves. This reality is not only the reality of my community, but of millions of citizens across the U.S. After reflecting on my experiences in my community, and learning more about the climate crisis with my green team, I realized that climate change is a major pressing issue that needs to be solved now.”
All three students agreed that having clean energy technology on campus would not only serve to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but also provide an education opportunity for students. It would give students the chance to see green technology up close, and develop a better understanding of the emerging industry.
“I think that it would be very inspiring,” said Michaelson. “I took Environmental Science last year and we learned about solar panels, but I didn’t have the opportunity to go on the roof and actually see them. Having that opportunity would enhance our education and give us a better understanding for the future … It’s happening, and our generation is going to be a part of it, so why not start it where we are right now?”
Heis elaborated on the importance of climate education in schools. Even though she hasn’t started high school yet, she acknowledges the importance of educating young people on a topic with this much global significance.
“Having fully green campuses will give students an early education on the climate crisis, which I believe is a key ingredient in solving climate change,” Heis explained. “In my experience, my peers, family, community, and the general public are not well informed on the reality of our climate. After becoming more informed myself, I noticed how many details of our lifestyles were unknowingly contributing to the downfall of our planet. The more the public is informed, the more people understand the reality of our situation and have the drive to make actual change.
“This all starts with the youth of our nation. Our youth are our future, and if we want a future in America, a bright future, we need to educate our youth on the climate crisis. Having the technology on campus will educate the students with hands-on STEM learning opportunities around clean technologies, and help them prepare for a world of clean systems to ensure a cleaner future.”