Earth Day Connects Students, Environmental Justice

Environmentalism and environmental justice, involving the deepening and healing of our relationship with the land while acknowledging injustices within our current systems and trying to envision and embody alternatives, are important for students such as Orly Rubinfeld ’20. Rubinfeld sees Earth Day, celebrated every April 22, as a day to reflect more deeply on why our reconnection to the land is so important and why we work for change.

Orly Rubinfeld Earth Day story page
Housemates Orly Rubinfeld (top left), Aiden Voss and Maya Gurfinkel; and Yasamin Shaker (bottom left) and Madeline Ward display some of the plants they’re growing in Kalamazoo.

“Earth Day is an opportunity to re-center on our values,” said Rubinfeld, an independent interdisciplinary major in Environmental Studies. “But we have to remember we have only one Earth and we’ve been pretty unkind to it. If we only pay attention one day a year, we won’t solve our environmental problems. And not just planetary problems but how climate change and other environmental injustices are disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities.”

This year, though, is adding a few challenges to K’s environmental efforts. For example, one way that students engage with food justice is through K’s gardens, including the hoop house. A hoop house, a little like a green house, is a year-round environment for growing vegetables, flowers and other cold-sensitive plants. With distance learning keeping students away from the campus hoop house, students are finding ways to bring that experience home.

Megan Earth Day Cold Frame Hoop House
Megan VanDyke ’22 assembled a cold-frame hoop house at her home in Seattle. The temporary structure stands just a few feet high, yet provides a similar environment to the hoop house at K.
Nora Earth Day plants
Nora Blanchard ’22, is tending to plants at her home this spring in Traverse City.

That’s where Rubinfeld and several students like her come in. She is one of eight housemates living in Kalamazoo’s Vine neighborhood this spring, sheltering in place together through Michigan’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order and continuing the work they began at the hoop house, a facility raised in fall 2018 through the Just Food Collective. The student organization, an effort of the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement, wants to increase student awareness about the challenges and inequities within the food system. This is done while targeting nutritional inequities, climate change and other environmental injustices.

Megan VanDyke plant
A plant begins to sprout at Megan VanDyke’s home in Seattle.

“Food insecurity has always been a problem,” Rubinfeld said. “But in this unique moment, well-resourced people are paying attention at unprecedented levels so I think that’s something we should try to take advantage of as we search for systems that allow people to have more sovereignty over their food systems.”

Rubinfeld and her friends, who all lived together in an environmental justice Living Learning House on campus their sophomore year, have taken on the responsibility of bringing home the lessons they learned at the hoop house to pots and planters on their porch and in their home.

“Our goal was to do something small where we are in our urban space,” Rubinfeld said.

And the Vine neighborhood roommates aren’t the only students planting this spring. Nora Blanchard ’22, is tending to plants at her home in Traverse City. Plus, Megan VanDyke ’22 assembled a cold-frame hoop house at her home in Seattle. The temporary structure stands just a few feet high, yet provides a similar environment to the hoop house on campus.

Efforts like these might seem small, but they represent how the spirit of Earth Day, a time to demonstrate support for environmental protection and environmental justice, endures for the K community.

“I can’t imagine a large-scale effort until I’ve seen it on a small scale,” Rubinfeld said. “How can we expect large change until we see small changes? If my seven housemates and I can do this, imagine what could happen if everyone in our neighborhood could do that. We could be in a very different type of place. I think if everyone had access to the means to grow own own food, we would be much closer to individuals having sovereignty over what they put in their bodies and having access to just, local, and sustainable food for humans and the land.”

Bags to Benches Targets Plastic, Unites K

Bags to Benches Plastics Drive
Lezlie Lull ’20 participates in the Bags to Benches plastics drive that is uniting the Kalamazoo College community in an effort organized by the Council of Student Representatives and the Eco Club. If the campus can collect 500 pounds of plastic or 40,500 pieces of film during the six-month drive, it will receive a bench made of recycled plastic from the Trex Recycling Co. in Winchester, Virginia.

The Kalamazoo College Council of Student Representatives (KCCSR) and the Eco Club are offering a creative way for you to deal with your plastic waste—including that supply of plastic bags that seems to grow every time you shop.

From now until July, the organizations are collecting clean, dry and residue-free produce bags, closeable food-storage bags, cereal bags and more in receptacles around campus through their self-titled Bags to Benches program.

With the Bags to Benches program, a volunteer will weigh the plastic collected each month at the Hicks Student Center, Upjohn Library Commons, Dewing Hall, Dow Science Center, Anderson Athletic Center and the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership collection sites. If the Trex Recycling Co. in Winchester, Virginia, then confirms that K’s plastics drive has gathered 500 pounds or 40,500 pieces of plastic film, bags and plastic during the six-month drive, the College will receive a bench made of recycled plastic it can place on campus.

Council of Student Representatives President Karina Pantoja encourages the K community to think big when dropping off plastic. Don’t just settle for plastic grocery bags; think about bread bags, bubble wrap, dry-cleaning bags, newspaper sleeves, plastic overwrap, closeable food-storage bags and more.

She said the Bags to Benches program began as representatives were looking for a way to unite the campus and build community around a common cause. The sustainability aspect of the project is a bonus and it shows prospective students they can come to K and seek ways of acting to benefit the greater community.

“We avoided making this a competition between student groups or departments because we think it’s important for everyone to come together and work toward one goal,” said Pantoja, of Paw Paw, Michigan, who majors in English with a concentration in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. “An effort like this can tell students that someone on campus cares about sustainability, that student contributions are valued, and that student representatives exemplify their values. It’s nice to have something that sustains an optimistic and exciting energy throughout campus as all of us can come together to accomplish a goal like this.”

For questions and more ideas about how you can support the Bags to Benches program, email KCCSR at

Alumna Spotlights K in Climate Conversation

A 2015 Kalamazoo College alumna is helping colleges and universities find a variety of ideas for teaching students about environmentalism and climate leadership. As it turns out, her alma mater provides a good model for such ideas.

Bronte Payne has worked as a clean energy associate through Environment America in Boston since graduating from K with a degree in biology. The nonprofit organization works to bring people together to protect clean air, clean water and open spaces.

Bronte Payne Sparks Climate Conversation
Kalamazoo College alumna Bronte Payne, a clean energy associate at Environment America in Boston, will lead a climate conversation for higher-education administrators, faculty and sustainability directors at the Presidential Climate Leadership Summit in Tempe, Ariz.

Climate conversation upcoming

Payne will lead a panel discussion with higher-education representatives, including presidents, sustainability directors and faculty, this Tuesday at the Presidential Climate Leadership Summit in Tempe, Ariz. The climate conversation, she hopes, will encourage administrators to engage students in finding ways to commit their institutions to full renewable-energy use by 2050.

“It’s not so much a presentation as it is a panel to get administrators thinking outside the box,” Payne said. “We want them to see a commitment to renewable energy is an opportunity rather than something that ties their hands. We want to show opportunities for students to get involved.”

Her portion of the panel discussion will focus on how students helped K ensure the environmental “fitness” of its Fitness and Wellness Center, which opened in October after a September dedication. K’s Sustainability Advisory Committee – which included faculty, staff and students – suggested that the College hire two student LEED-equivalent auditors, training them in the design, energy and sustainability criteria that inform LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

LEED-certified buildings use less water and energy, and have less greenhouse gas emissions. Michelle Sugimoto ’17 and Ogden Wright ’16 were chosen from a dozen applicants and met with designers and builders every few weeks during construction. The actual cost of their training and stipends proved to be a small fraction of the cost of LEED certification. Of course the training and the integrity of these two physics and engineering majors ensured their rigorous conscientiousness as LEED-like certifiers. And the overall cost savings allowed the College to buy a 12-kilowatt solar panel array that offsets 5 percent of the new fitness center’s energy costs.

“I would like to show how this was an example of an amazing opportunity for students to get involved in environmental planning and how it might lead to more involvement after school,” Payne said.

Climate conversation at K was inspiring

When Payne first came to K from West Bloomfield, Mich., she planned on attending medical school one day. But plans soon changed.

“I remember talking in class about how the actual city of Kalamazoo was the site of the largest land-oil spill in the U.S.,” she said. “Learning about it was eye opening. The school itself and professors pushed me to think more creatively about what I could do, and how I could engage the community at large. I fell in love with environmental science courses.”

The discovery of her passion for environmentalism led to a Senior Individualized Project involving a Paul Clements congressional campaign, during which she learned about national environmental policy. Now, she can tell others about the exciting things done at K to address sustainability.

“A lot of the work we did at K is how I ended up working in environmentalism,” Payne said. “It’s exciting to talk about the role I have now with Environment America. I also love to tell the story about all the cool work students and administrators did because I love talking about K.”

Thanksgiving Journey Home

Jamie Schaub and Brenin Wert-Roth
Jamie Schaub and Brenin Wertz-Roth

Jamie Schaub ’12, a Montessori teacher who lives and works in Traverse City, Michigan, traveled to Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota during Thanksgiving. She shared her story of leaving home to go home.

A few days before Thanksgiving I decided to travel to Standing Rock, an impulse initiated by donations collected in Traverse City by Jenn Demoss, who knew Lee Sprague, an elected tribal leader in Michigan currently living at Oceti Sakowin camp, one of several that compose the Standing Rock community of Water Protectors. Jenn had more than she could fit in her car, a testament to the power of human connection, a power my partner, Brenin Wertz-Roth, and I experienced often during the journey. We felt love and support from our families and friends, as if all of the people we know were traveling with us, and in addition to warm clothes, gear, tools, and supplies, we also were carrying prayers, hope and love.

We wanted to support the protesters who have left their homes and created a new community at Standing Rock camp. I believe in protecting the water and the earth, and I wanted to support those who have been standing strong for such protection against the Dakota Access Pipeline, in spite of violence, harsh weather, and sleep deprivation.

Throughout our drive our friends from near and far sent donations which felt like little hugs along the way. Friends with whom we hadn’t been in touch reached out, and it initiated beautiful conversations as we caught up about our lives. We were welcomed to stay in many homes in Minneapolis (the journey’s halfway point). How lucky to have such kind friends in our lives.

We received around $3,000 in donations within hours of deciding to go, which meant we could purchase more supplies for the Standing Rock community along the way.

The most expensive of items needed were dry suits, (a new one starts around $1,000). We searched Craigslist and made a couple of detours in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In Minnesota we decided to purchase more neoprene gear, binoculars, walkie talkies and space blankets. We needed to find an outdoor store; Cabela’s opened the earliest. I decided to ask for a discount at the checkout stating that we were buying supplies for Standing Rock protesters. The manager gave us employee pricing without hesitation. Beautiful human. With the $200 saved we purchased more building supplies.

Outside Minnesota we let Lee know we were on our way. He recounted the violence of  the previous Sunday, the deployment against the protesters of concussion grenades, rubber bullets, water hoses, pepper spray and mace. He had a large deep purple bruise on his side despite having many layers of protection. Most people at the camp, including Lee, had suffered injuries. We made plans to arrive at Standing Rock following morning.

Next day, car stuffed, we drove north, anxious to arrive at camp. It was a cool, muted morning. The grassy landscape greeted us, and then the river–it was beautiful, worth protecting. This landscape was like the view of Lake Michigan, vast and seemingly unending, just more yellowy-beige than blue.

As we neared the camp its immensity (physical and symbolic) nearly overwhelmed us. It was so much larger than I thought—cars, teepees, yurts, tents, and buildings everywhere; all sorts of flags flying in the winds. The person at the gate embraced us saying, “Welcome home.” We found the flags Lee told us to seek atop a plywood building next to several tarpees (teepees constructed from donated heavy-duty,cold-resistant poly tarp material).

Cold weather shingling
Cold weather shingling

We unloaded the provisions we had brought, and I felt such a lightness. All of the hours in the car disappeared as everyone’s faces lit up with happiness and gratitude. The words “thank you” radiated around us with such deep feeling. Their hugs lasted and warmed us. We found ourselves at home at Pueblo Camp in Standing Rock.

Offerings to us were made throughout the day and evening as we prepared the plywood house for winter. I helped Brenin build storage shelves for food. We shingled, sealed holes, insulated walls. I kept thinking: “This is where I am supposed to be right now.” Actually, I NEEDED to be here. I needed something bigger, something important, something meaningful. At school my students are representing Venezuela for Montessori Model UN. Our  months of discussion had opened my heart to the thoughtfulness of children. I had been feeling like I wanted to take action, my mind afire with ideas, some of them from my students.

My work at Standing Rock was concrete, worked in wood. While most folks went to protest at the front line on Thanksgiving day, Brenin and I stayed back to continue building and insulation projects, helping prepare the camp for a long winter.

When we left camp for the journey home the moment, and its magnitude, hit us. Gratitude for the ability to go and do something we believe in. Gratitude for those who love us. Gratitude for the strong people at Standing Rock. Gratitude for each other.

I remember the Pueblo people talking about how they are a family (and yet most of them didn’t know each other before they arrived in North Dakota from New Mexico and Arizona). I remember the idea of “family reunion” and a gathering of humans happening at camp. This way of interacting with each other I had felt once before, on study abroad in Thailand–the feeling that you are accepted, loved, and family.

I remember a tepee conversation around a fire late one night about the need to realize our shared humanity, that we are brothers and sisters. We talked about people losing their drums, and if we went back to our drum we would go back to acting with intention and care. We discussed prayer, meditation and mindfulness. What a gift to have been with such present and focused human beings.

I am feeling anxious for the friends I met at Standing Rock. I fear that more violence may be coming. The Water Protectors need our support and the action is about much more than an oil pipeline. Where do we stand on an action that gives hope to all?

The people we met at the Standing Rock community are peaceful, loving, kind and welcoming. I am in awe of their strength to maintain a peaceful protest in the face of incredible provocations. I stand with them.

by Jamie Schaub

Dining Green

Food Recovery Network members prepare unused food for donation
Food Recovery Network members prepare unused food for donation.

Fulfilling the food needs of an entire campus can be a pretty resource-heavy task. This is why dining services has been especially active in their efforts to create an environmentally-friendly operation. Those efforts include using locally sourced food, donating what food isn’t used, and composting what can’t be given away.

There are numerous benefits to eating locally. On top of tastier and more nutritious food, less travel time means significantly fewer carbon emissions by trucks and fewer preservatives used to keep the food fresh. Moreover, eating local foods supports local jobs and businesses. Food is considered local if it is grown or manufactured within a 150-mile radius of a given location. For K, this means much of southwestern Michigan, as well as parts of northern Indiana and Illinois. Some of these local products include apples from Crisp Country Acres, dairy products from Prairie Farms, bread from Aunt Millie’s, sushi from Hunan Gardens, and coffee from Simpatico and Kalamazoo Coffee Company. Most recently, free range eggs from Old Town Farm were added to this list, and it will continue to grow as the weather warms different fruits, and vegetables become in season in Michigan. Not limited to the dining hall, these foods can be found at the Richardson Room, the Book Cub and catered events. Look for the Michigan sticker that says “Local Flavor!”

A major part of creating a more sustainable dining operation is the reduction of food waste. Kitchen staff keep track of how much food they make in order to avoid excess waste. Still, many pounds of food go unused at every meal and ordinarily would simply be thrown away. This is where the Food Recovery Network comes in. This student group, founded last winter by Calli Brannan ’19, comes to the dining hall kitchen every Tuesday and Thursday to “recover” unused food and provide it to food insecure families in the area. In the weeks it has been active at K, the group of 16 volunteers has recovered more than 1,500 pounds of food. That translates to more than 1,000 meals to people in need. This food goes to Eleanor House, a shelter for families in Kalamazoo where more than 60 percent of the residents are children. The FRN seeks more volunteers so that it can expand its efforts and save even more food.

Composted food supports landscaping
Composted food supports landscaping at new buildings like the social justice center.

Not all food that’s uneaten is fit for donation. That food is composted. Every week a group of student compost interns collects between 600 and 1,100 pounds of pre- and post-consumer waste from the cafeteria and bring it to Facilities Management for composting. There, large earth tubs use augers and the natural heat from the composting process to accelerate the process. About six weeks later, the final product is used all around campus on landscape beds, notably at the Arcus Center and the new Fitness and Wellness Center. The use of compost on these areas will count toward LEED Gold certification – a trademark of sustainable buildings across the country. This symbiotic relationship enables both Dining Services and Facilities Management to run more sustainable operations, and students to live on a more beautiful campus. Moreover, compost is open to all members of the College community for use both on and off campus.

These are just a few of the growing list of efforts made by Dining Services to run more sustainably. The move toward a totally green operation is an ongoing process that continues to produce extraordinarily valuable benefits.
Text and photos by Jeff Palmer ’76

If We Build It, They Will Come

K alumna and bee expert Rebecca Tonietto ’05
Becky Tonietto ’05, Ph.D., on a bee search. (Photo by Robin Carlson)

K alumna and bee expert Rebecca Tonietto ’05 is interviewed in the Huffington Post on the ways humans can help address colony collapse among bee populations. Tonietto is a postdoctoral David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow exploring urban bee communities, pollination and conservation through the Society for Conservation Biology at Saint Louis University.

The interview is fascinating. Did you know there are over 20,000 species of bees, more than all species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians combined. That may be a very good thing given the pressure on honeybee populations from herbicides and the loss of plant diversity to agricultural expansion. Enter wild pollinators and, yes, urban environments. Turns out the patchy habitat of urban settings–with a little help from human friends–can, from a bee’s perspective, look at lot like the norm in meadows and prairies. As cities shrink, more green space is added. Humans help with flower boxes, landscaping, by leaving a limb or log about and holding back on some of the mulch, and allowing those dandelions and clover to keep on dotting the lawns.

Cities are a respite from agricultural pesticides and plant monoculture, and natural pollinators need and love that. And bees benefit city dwellers in many ways beyond pollination of food and flowers. Bee habitat is beautiful, says Tonietto, making urban areas more aesthetically pleasing. “And there is a measurable psychological benefit from urban biodiversity,” she adds. “Just the bees being there is a benefit in and of itself.” Yes! Tonietto earned her B.A. at K in biology.

One Down, 29 to Go

Oxen at Kalamazoo CollegeThe oxen were onsite, which means work began on a new pavilion that will be part of Kalamazoo College’s Lillian Anderson Arboretum. Oxen? Yes, the animals were used to haul 30 logs of red pine harvested from the “Arb,” the lumber from which will be used as material for the pavilion. Both material and mode of transport are consistent with the sustainable character of the pavilion, which will use solar energy, self-composting toilets and a human-powered water pump. The facility will provide learning space for both science and humanities classes. An article on the Arb and its improvements this winter will appear in the Spring 2016 issue of LuxEsto. (Photos by Randy Schau). Watch a brief video (by Susan Andress).
Oxen Deliver Wood at Kalamazoo College

The R in K’s DNA

Rob Townsend standing at recycling receptacles
The work of Rob Townsend has been key to the recycling culture on K’s campus.

RecycleMania 2015 is over, and if you didn’t know that (or if you weren’t aware the contest had even begun) that’s because for the second consecutive year the College has competed without promoting the contest–sort of a test to see the degree to which R (for recycling or Rob, as in Rob Townsend) has become part of K’s DNA. The results are good.

Kalamazoo College recycles far more than half of the solid waste it produces, according to Associate Vice President for Facilities Management Paul Manstrom. “We placed very high in many of the categories despite the fact we did not promote the contest at all on campus–unlike most other schools that competed,” said Manstrom. “Our performance is a testimony to the recycling culture that Rob Townsend has built at K over the years. While some schools need the publicity of a contest to up their recycling statistics, it just comes naturally at K.” This year the College had three top-ten finishes out of eight categories. K’s ranking (and number of participating institutions) by category follow: Grand Champion–32nd (233); Per Capita Classic–10th (334); Gorilla–201st (334); Waste Minimization–116th (148); Paper–20th (141); Corrugated Cardboard–4th (163); Bottles & Cans–3rd (142); and Food Service Organics–129th (175).

RecycleMania is a friendly competition and benchmarking tool for college and university recycling programs to promote waste reduction activities to their campus communities. During an eight-week period, colleges across the United States and Canada report the amount of recycling and trash collected each week and are in turn ranked in various categories based on who recycles the most on a per capita basis, as well as which schools have the best recycling rate as a percentage of total waste and which schools generate the least amount of combined trash and recycling.

Kalamazoo College earned silver-level recognition for its 11 years of RecycleMania participation, and it’s unlikely to rest on the excellence of its tradition. Said Townsend: “The data shows our numbers slipped a bit from the previous year. We won’t get complacent.”