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Advocacy, Resilience, and Hope on Display During Harvard Climate Action Week

An Askwith Education Forum and a Solutions Showcase shine a light on education’s impact on climate change

Action and inspiration were at the forefront of this week's climate events at HGSE, including an Askwith Education Forum and talks from educators and others in the field on equity and leadership in climate action. Part of Harvard Climate Action Week, the events centered an active approach to battling the impacts of climate change and how education can drive real change in attitudes and community impact.

Building Our Resilient Future: Education Driving Hope, Innovation, and Action featured a panel of experts — Chancellor of New York’s SUNY system and former U.S. Secretary of Education, John King Jr.; superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Alberto Carvalho; and Michael Hester, superintendent of the Batesville School District in Arkansas — discussing how they’ve worked to use education as a vehicle for climate action. Professor Monica Higgins moderated.

Dean Bridget Long opened the discussion by highlighting the potential impact school systems can have in the battle against climate change. As Long noted, public schools in the United States sit on 2 million acres of land and consist of more than 98,000 buildings. The around 480,000 buses used in education is the largest mass transit fleet in the country as well. Electrifying that fleet and transitioning to renewable energy sources for those buildings offers huge opportunities for green transformation.

“The choices made by education leaders and communities matter,” said Long. “And taking action to reduce the carbon footprint of the education sector and transition to clean energy would make a major difference to our environment.”

King described how school leaders can “foster the culture shift” toward climate action by encouraging new construction to use renewable energy sources and finding resources for climate initiatives through the Inflation Reduction Act.

Carvalho, who joined remotely from Los Angeles, previously served as superintendent for Miami’s school district and described the many ways he’s building green infrastructure into the second-largest school district in the country. He discussed initiatives like electrifying the district’s bus fleet, implementing real-time air quality monitoring in district buildings and improved green space access for students as priorities for improving climate equity.

Hester, meanwhile, described how he spearheaded a program to install solar panels at Batesville buildings that generated revenue for the district and helped fund bonuses for district teachers. The program, Arkansas’ first districtwide solar initiative, serves as a model for tying climate action to community values.

“It was fantastic having people with very different perspectives on the problem and being able to be in conversation with them and see some common themes,” said Higgins. “We recognize that these two issues of equity and climate action are inextricably intertwined. It’s got to be central to our mission at this school but we can also amplify our work and equity injustice through our climate action.”

Crossing campus to Gutman Library, past the electric school bus on loan from Boston Public Schools, the day continued with a celebration of innovation in the field with a Solutions Showcase, featuring presentations from organizations working on climate solutions such as the Billion Oyster Project, which aims to restore oyster reefs in New York Harbor, and SubjectToClimate — founded by Margaret Wang, Ed.M.'20 — an online hub for K–12 teachers to find climate-education resources that have been reviewed by other educators.

Speakers were also on hand to give SPARK Talks about their work and climate advocacy and how it intersects with  existing systemic inequalities. Virginia Beach City Public Schools' sustainable schools project manager Tim Cole spoke about green construction efforts, while Gilbert Rosas, director of sustainability and adaptation at Modesto City Schools, focused on bus fleet electrification. Master's student Alexia Leclerq, co-founder of Start: Empowerment, spoke on her own journey to climate advocacy and environmental equity.

“If we don’t address the root causes, the inequalities will continue,” said Leclercq. “We really do need system change. And I hope that continues to be centered in climate education.”

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