The TH Interview: Jill Buck, Founder of the Go Green Initiative

I recently had the opportunity to interview one of the people I've come to recognize is making an inordinate contribution to the greening of schools across America and even around the globe. She's a mother and former PTA President turned environmental activist; and her organization, the Go Green Initiative, has been extremely successful at the incredibly important task of garnering the support of PTA's across the country.

As you can see from her answer to my first question, her organization is literally growing at warp speed. And to put it as succinctly as I know how to do, the fact is that she's succeeding tremendously in ways that some of the traditional, large, eco-conglomerate non-profits quite understandably wish they were doing themselves.

So check out what she has to say, because I think you're going to be as impressed as I have been by her insight into the process of reaching kids and parents about the importance of protecting the environment.

TreeHugger: First I'd like you to describe for us what the Go Green Initiative is, and how it's making a difference in schools and communities throughout the 41 states and 4 countries that currently have schools taking part in the program today.

Jill Buck: Actually, we're now in 46 states, 10 countries and on 4 continents! We continue to grow by leaps and bounds every week! The GGI is a fully comprehensive, one-stop-shopping program that allows schools to examine every conceivable aspect of their environmental impact. It is entirely free to schools, because we want the program to be accessible to communities, regardless of their resources. The GGI is not a curriculum; we realize that many schools simply cannot add any additional instructional minutes to their day. Instead, the GGI is a framework that helps schools examine their current situation, and set their own goals and objectives around environmental stewardship. My organization is set up to help them meet those goals and objectives. We use the "Home Depot" approach: you can do it, we can help.

TH: When we talked by phone you pointed out that in many ways it's a clearing house for access to programs and activities that are already going on How does that make it easier for schools who want to go green?

JB: Schools in our network never feel alone. If they have a question, or run into an obstacle, they can call us or email us, and we will either answer their question directly, or find the person who can. Because we have so many partners worldwide, we have an excellent database of people in every locale who are ready, willing and able to help schools "go green" no matter where they are. In the past, schools often felt like the "Lone Ranger" when they took steps to green their campuses. Under the Go Green Initiative umbrella, our schools work together with our partners to share great ideas and resources that schools working independently might not be able to access. The Go Green Initiative is truly a team effort!

TH: There's so often something that makes people take action while others are standing by watching from the sidelines. Take us back to the day you really decided to jump off the cliff, in a sense, and launch the Go Green Initiative. What inspired you to do it, and how did you envision it growing at the time?

JB: At the time I wrote the GGI, I was the PTA president at my kids' school. PTA is really an organization devoted to child advocacy, and I was fully onboard with that philosophy. When it became clear to me that environmental hazards would have both a short and long term effect on my children, I felt emboldened to make a difference on their behalf. At the time, I really just wanted to find a pre-packaged program that I could take to my principal, and rest assured that we would be covering all the bases of creating a culture of conservation for our kids to see and learn from. However, after exhaustive research, I found that no such program existed, so I felt compelled to create the program that I was originally looking for. I'm like every other mom, I want to do all I can to create a healthy and safe future for my kids. I felt confident that if I simply got the ball rolling, millions of other child advocates just like me would join the movement and that's exactly what happened! The GGI is a family of like-minded people who love children dearly, and are willing to take action for them.

TH: Realistically speaking, having a dream and seeing it through to fruition are two very different things What are some of the biggest challenges you've had to face, and how have you been able to overcome them?

JB: It's true there have been many, many dark days throughout the process of revving up the Go Green Initiative. I've faced criticism from some in the environmental establishment that was quite harsh. I've had to build credibility where I initially had none. And I've had miserable experiences with potential donors that hurt my morale a great deal. Overcoming these obstacles was by no means easy, and I'm sure many more lie ahead, but each morning when I see my kids' faces, I know I have to plow ahead. It's the Don Quixote of it all: If not now, when? If not me, who? I simply can't leave my children's future in the hands of others as long as I believe I can offer something valuable on their behalf. I'm not a perfect mom, but I love my kids with the ferocity of a lioness, and they are the daily fuel in my engine to keep me moving forward.

TH: Historically one of the most difficult things for environmental groups to accomplish has been to reach out to schools in a way that is both meaningful and effective in a consistent manner. But your organization has been able to connect with schools across America and around the globe quicker and more effectively than any other non-profit environmental organization today. Why is it that you've been able to succeed where others, to date, have often encountered such difficulty?

JB: Too often, we see environmental groups looking at schools as a chance to influence the next generation, and that can be plainly sinister. Just because we have children all grouped together in one convenient place does not mean that is an opportunity to indoctrinate them. I think a lot of environmental groups are guilty of exactly that attitude, and as a parent, I'm glad they haven't succeeded. That is the wrong mindset.

I think a lot of groups have developed environmental education programs in a vacuum. The developers are neither parents, nor teachers, so they come up with programs that clearly have no understanding or appreciation for the daily lives of our teachers on campus. They are tedious, prescriptive and inflexible. One look at some of these programs will often give people "in the know" irrefutable evidence that the developer of these programs did zero market research to make their programs work in today's schools. They are simply out of touch.

Many environmental groups have asked schools to rally around nature-centric programs that demonize the role of humans. I've seen my kids come home with a guilt complex, because someone came in for an assembly and told them a monstrous story about how much better the world would be without humans. There is one word that demonstrates the difference between the Go Green Initiative and these types of programs: they seek to save the planet FROM human beings, and we seek to save the planet FOR human beings. And that one word difference has made ALL the difference.

I think a lot of groups have made a grave mistake in not including parents in environmental education programs. Whether it is purposeful or not, I don't know, but the fact remains that parents are a child's primary educator, and it's vital to involve them in the process.

The GGI began in the heart of a parent who had worked closely with teachers in the classroom for years. The GGI continues to be propelled by parents and teachers who understand the powerful synergy created when home and school unite in consistent messages for our children.

TH: So if I or a reader happens to find themselves in a Go Green school some time in the not so distant future, what can we expect to find that sets it apart from any other school that's out there?

JB: Your involvement! I would hope that no one "finds themselves in a Go Green school." I would rather hear that your readers are the ones determining how their campus is set apart from other schools out there. The Go Green Initiative is what you make it, and it's an all hands operation. I'm hoping that very soon, I'll hear stories from your readers detailing how they creatively applied the GGI to meet their own community's goals and dreams for a better future for their children.

TH: During our phone conversation you pointed out how difficult it can be to mandate good behavior in a sense via legislation or any other means when it comes to protecting the environment. Why is that, and what do you believe is the solution?

JB: It's simple human psychology, really. Two year olds don't like to be told what to do, and neither do 30, 40, 50 and 60 year olds. Generally speaking, rewards work better than punishment. Our environmental protection public policy model for the past 30 years has been heavily weighted on the punishment/enforcement side, creating bureaucracy and bigger government, and most people aren't big fans of that methodology. I have faith in my fellow man. I believe that armed with credible information, simple tools, and the answer to the universal question (what's in it for me?), most people will choose to do the right thing on their own. And they will be much more passionate and positive about their actions than they would be if they were simply complying with someone else's rules. The Go Green Initiative is proof that millions of people are willing to do the right thing, not because they HAVE to, but because they WANT to. There are no pieces of legislation or taxpayer dollars driving the success of this program.

TH: When we look at the issue of climate change, probably the most pressing issue we all face, and for which Al Gore recently won the Nobel Peace Prize in conjunction with the IPCC; it seems apparent that we won't be able to solve it unless government does, in fact, get involved and start seriously regulating carbon emissions in one manner or another before those emissions start dictating our lifestyle. What do you say to this, and what would be your approach to the massive challenge ahead?

JB: First of all, I agree that reducing carbon emissions is vitally important, but just as alarming to me is the preservation of natural resources that our children will need in the future as the population continues to expand. Right now, whether we are conscious of it or not, we are either saving natural resources FOR them, or taking natural resources FROM them. I think government's role in these issues is to help create an environment in which businesses and individuals are rewarded for responsible behavior. For instance, if government were to give tax breaks to companies that reduce their carbon emissions, those companies could use that funding to invest in further clean technology, hire more hard working Americans, or provide better healthcare coverage to current employees. That's a far better use of the company's resources than paying fines to the government for noncompliance with carbon standards. If you follow the money trail to where those fines end up, you'd understand why I believe this.

TH: You and I agree that helping people to recognize that protecting the environment is really about protecting their children. In essence, it's not about the owls, but really about protecting owls because they're part of an ecosystem upon which we and our children depend But how can we reach out to those without children, don't believe in basic science, or who are simply unaware of the very real limits humanity faces environmentally?

JB: Most people are motivated to do things that they don't have to if they can see some personal benefit to them. For most people, laying their heads down on the pillow each night and counting the number of trees they saved that day just isn't enough. For parents, the "what's in it for me" for environmental protection, is the same thing that motivates them to save for their children's college education, take them to the doctor for preventative shots, and so many other things to ensure a prosperous future for their kids. But for folks without children, there are just as many incentives for environmentally responsible behavior. Often times, there is a lot of money to be saved by being more energy efficient, using less gasoline, creating less waste to be hauled from their business or residence, etc. These short-term money saving opportunities are a huge motivator for people across every sector. The task for people like us is to do a better job of helping people calculate the savings potential into real dollars. My guess is that most people can think of better things to do with their hard earned money than send it off to a gas station, utility company or waste hauler.

TH: In a sense we're all a product of the people around us, those we've met along the way, and those we've been able to live vicariously through in some fashion or another Who are some of the people who have had an impact on your life, and what were some of the lessons they taught you, intentionally or not?

JB: In many ways, President Reagan had a huge impact on my life. I had my "Alex P. Keaton" moment when I was 10 and watched the 1980 election play out. My parents were both Democrats — in fact, we had a portrait of JFK up in our iving room — but I felt so hopeful and optimistic each time I heard the President give a speech that I wanted to learn to communicate just like him. I've never forgotten how a positive, optimistic speech can be so uplifting and memorable, even on a little TV set. When I travel around the country and around the world to speak about the importance of environmental protection, I always try to make it an optimistic message of hope, that together we CAN and WILL make a difference. I believe that with all my heart and soul, and so do the millions of others bringing the GGI to their communities.

I live in the town that Phoebe Apperson Hearst lived in during the summer months. I've been to the place that used to be her home many times. She is one of the co-founders of what we now know as the PTA, but at that time was called the National Congress of Mothers. She started this organization before women had the right to vote, and yet they influenced elected officials and the government to take action on behalf of children. Child labor laws and mandatory vaccinations were two of her achievements, and I hold her up as one of the ultimate child advocates. I think of the GGI as more of a child advocacy program than an environmental program, and reading about how Phoebe Hearst established the PTA has been a great influence on how I have established the GGI. Imagine what she could have accomplished with the Internet!!!

My own Mom had a big impact on me, too. She could have done a lot of other things with her time, but she was always very actively involved in my school, from kindergarten through high school. She went to college after my brother and I were out of the house, and got a bachelor's in business just before her 50th birthday. Obviously, she had the talent and skill to other things besides act as my school's PTA president, but she was very committed to playing a pivotal role in my education and all matters that pertained to my benefit. Her mother did the same — she was a very gifted woman and my grandfather would have had no problem with her pursuing a career — but she invested her time in being a strong advocate for the children of my town.

TH: You've talked about the environmental realities we face, and how we're at risk of exhausting the earth's resources just in time for our children to reach their prime. How has that influenced the ethos behind the Go Green Initiative, and how you approach everything from potential business partnerships with fundraisers to activities you seek to encourage in schools?

JB: I typically tell groups I work with that if the U.S. Census Bureau is correct, by the time we reach the year 2050 there will be 9 billion people on the planet. By looking at the population charts for the past century, simple math tells us that by 2050 — if the world's natural resources are evenly distributed among the population — the people alive at that time will only have 25% of the natural resources available to them that people alive in 1950 had. That's a tremendous decrease in the amount of "stuff per person." This is the factoid that wakes me up early and keeps me up late. Clean air, drinkable water, and clean soil to grow food in are critical to the high standard of living we hope to pass to our children. A reliable and sufficient energy supply is a critical component of a stable economy. We are wasting our time saving for our children's college education if they run out of basic natural resources by the time they hit their 40's. No pigskin on the wall can replace clean drinking water or enough fuel for electricity.

This has shaped EVERYTHING the Go Green Initiative is about and seeks to accomplish. That is why we ask our schools to measure their waste diversion. We take those numbers and run our collective numbers through an environmental benefits calculator, so we can report to our network of schools how many gallons of water and oil they have saved, how many billions of BTU's of energy they have avoided using, and how many metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions we've avoided.

The crux of the GGI is as simple as Poor Richard's Almanac's saying: "Waste not. Want not." Ben Franklin would have made a great environmentalist!

Every partnership, every project and every collaboration we undertake is aimed at preserving our finite natural resources for our children and posterity.

TH: One of the programs you suggested to me, and which I really love, is the Abitibi Paper Retriever. Tell us about the program, and why you've fallen in love with it yourself.

JB: Pretty simple: Abitibi profit shares with the people doing the hard work of source separating their paper. I'm a fan of any company who helps people understand the economics of recycling and waste diversion. When people know that their paper, plastic and aluminum are worth money, they are far less likely to view it as "trash."

TH: The Go Green Initiative recently committed itself to helping an activist and educator in Uganda raise $100,000 to help plant trees with schools in that country while enabling students to better understand how the environment connects to their daily lives. Tell us a bit about how that came about, and how you envision meeting that goal.

JB: It was pretty incredible, really. One morning I received a phone call on my cell from a gentleman from Uganda who had found the GGI on the Internet. He told me about work he was doing on behalf of needy children and AIDS orphans in his country, and how he wanted to integrate the Go Green Initiative into his program. We began to exchange emails, and worked for many months that way. As I became more familiar with his goals and organization, I wanted to do more than just give him advice over the phone or via email. So, we decided to do two things: (1) bring him to the U.S. to see our programs up close; and (2)help him acquire the resources he needs to fulfill his objectives. Most of the $100,000 will go toward purchasing land that his youth program will reforest. We only have $75,000 to go! A U.S.-based organization called Trees for the Future has agreed to partner with us, and they will provide all the seedlings! We intend to raise the funding for the land purchase by exciting individuals, communities and corporate sponsors about the opportunity to help the children of Uganda. It is no secret to Americans that our African neighbors have tremendous hardships and challenges. This is a very real chance to make a long term investment in the health and well-being of many generations of Ugandans.

TH: I recognize that the Uganda campaign is just one part of the overall plan to get schools involved making a difference, but when you look down the road 5, 10, or even 20 years how do you envision the Go Green Initiative having grown, and where do you believe you're going to be able to make the most difference in getting schools onboard with the environmental movement?

JB: Honestly, I would love it if at some point in the future the Go Green Initiative goes out of business. My hope is that there will come a time when people cannot imagine schools being anything but exemplary role models of environmental stewardship, and a program like mine will be "old school." In the best of all possible worlds, there will come a time when the GGI is no longer needed, and no one even remembers that it ever existed.

Until we reach nirvana my goal is to have the GGI translated into 25-30 languages, at least, so that we can empower parents, teachers and students around the globe to take matters of environmental protection into their own hands. Because the GGI does not require legislation or taxpayer dollars — and more importantly, can be done well with zero dollars — I believe it is a program that could be easily implemented at the local level, regardless of locale or form of government.

I think we have tremendous opportunities to help communities that have no established waste hauling, recycling or environmental protection systems. I hope that our work in Uganda is just the beginning of many projects that will do more than just help schools take advantage of existing recycling programs in their town I hope we will be able to help children who have no other advocates look forward to a healthy, safe environment for themselves and their posterity.

TH: So if I'm a parent who wants to get involved and is unsure of how to go about bringing the Go Green Initiative into my child's school and district, how might I go about it?

JB: Very simply go to our website, and download the Planning Guide (upper right hand corner of the home page). That guide will walk you through the process, step-by-step. Couldn't be simpler and that is on purpose I'm a busy parent, too who needs another headache?

TH: Lastly Jill, if you had just three pieces of advice to give to someone out there contemplating creating their own non-profit environmental organization of one kind or another, what advice could you offer them that could make their lives easier, and their organization more successful in protecting the planet we all share?

1. Make sure the world really needs another nonprofit. I only formed the Go Green Initiative after I was convinced that no one else was doing what we could offer, and that I was willing to simultaneously run a business — which is what a nonprofit is — AND run an environmental education program. If you are only interested in pursuing your passion, but really have no desire to run financials, write a business plan, and ensure your quarterly filings with your state and the IRS are completed on time — then I would recommend that you find another nonprofit to join, and fulfill your dreams that way. You need to be as much a CEO as an activist to run a successful nonprofit.

2. Be prepared to compete fiercely for funding. No matter how noble your vision may be, or how presentable you are, money for nonprofits is not as accessible as many people may think. You'll need to quickly identify what other groups may be going to the same funders that you are, and be ready to convince the people writing checks that your organization is somehow more worthy of funding. The truth is, the nonprofit world can be just as competitive as the corporate world it's not for the faint hearted.

3. If #1 and #2 don't scare you at all, then dive into the deep end and swim!!! Be prepared to endure a lot of long work hours and nerve racking meetings, but if you're motivated, you can do it! Don't expect to make much money, but if you have a passion that wakes you up early and keeps you up late every night regardless of the lack of a paycheck, then you have the right stuff to start a nonprofit, and I welcome you to the club!

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