Trowels and Podiums

Garden at the ATS

So a couple Sundays ago I volunteered through Arlington’s Community Volunteer Network, or CVN, which is a social network centered around young adults in their 20s and 30s who are looking to get engaged / involved with the community. I signed up in the winter time when I tried to battle my “seasonal affective disorder” by motivating myself to jump start my self worth. Inconveniently I signed up for a half marathon for the end of March so the majority of my days, including weekends, were dedicated to training. Just thinking about it makes me tired…but the runner’s high sure did a number on my “SAD” (my boyfriend thinks I’m a hypochondriac, which may very well be true…).

Anyways, I finally made time for CVN and signed up for one of my “favorite” past times – gardening! Of course gardening can be fun, but I have many memories of “gardening” with my mom which consisted of me squatting for 5 hours straight and picking out minuscule weeds with my tiny child labor hands (now I know why my parents had 3 kids). But the end result was a well manicured and thriving garden! Sunday’s experience ranked much more favorable in my memories of gardening and consisted of, well, weeding, but also interacting with interesting people. As a 20 something year old, I have a little more tolerance for dirty work so the weeding wasn’t so bad this time around…

I eavesdropped on some interesting conversations and met some even more interesting people. The girl who organized this specific volunteer opportunity had recently gotten her Master’s in Urban Environmental Leadership and creating this project was part of her program.

Mary and the young gardeners

The woman (Mary) who ran the gardening project, which is actually a project geared towards getting children and students involved in the natural environment, hailed from England and had some very interesting stories to tell about her recent (and not so recent) involvement with the Arlington Public Schools (APS)…more on this later.

Turns out she is the chair of the Arlington Traditional School Grounds and Gardening Committee, which is presumably how she was able to start this project.  The garden was very impressive and included a variety of different plants, flowers and shrubs…I’m not going to pretend like I know their names.  But there is also a vegetable patch where just a couple weeks ago the 4th grade gardeners harvested 12 lbs worth of potatoes, fava beans and snap peas and donated them to the Arlington Food Assistance Center.  How sustainable!!  Mary maintains the ATS Garden Blog, recounting all the activities involved with the garden.

Well, while getting my hands dirty, I chatted with Mary about her current efforts with APS to inject sustainability into the school system – that is, to add Sustainability as a Core Value as well as focus on environmental stewardship and sustainability throughout the APS Strategic Plan.  Once she realized I had recently gotten my Master’s degree in “Sustainability” and wrote my final 15,000 word disseration on sustainability initiatives in the higher education sector (p.s. 15,000 words are A LOT of words), I could see a light bulb flash in her head.  She graciously asked if I could attend the School Board meeting that Thursday, as they would be discussing the draft Strategic Plan (SP), and if I could speak on the topic, as a whole time slot of the meeting is dedicated to Public Opinions on the SP.  I was honored to attend, and was happy to speak.  So, for the first time since October of last year, I revisited my lengthy dissertation.  Of course the major link between me and the board meeting was that I had actually researched what works and what doesn’t work in terms of implementing environmental programs in schools (albeit universities, but education is the same across the board).

Maybe it was the knowledge I had about this topic that empowered me, but I didn’t hesitate to follow-up and attend the meeting, though it may have also rendered me unprepared to really speak my mind when the time came.  I wouldn’t say I’m a great public speaker, but with careful preparation, and after the longest 30-60 seconds ever of a quivering voice and shifty eyes, I can normally relax and provide a quality presentation to a crowd.  After a few days of re-reading sections of my dissertation about barriers to environmental sustainability, I threw together a brief speech that would first and foremost request the board to add Sustainability to the Core Values (as discussed with Mary).  I also threw in some other points to prove I had done my homework and read the SP.  I have always learned that when giving a presentation or a speech, it is not good to read directly from your notes.  So in being loyal to my studies, I prepared myself in such a way that I would use my notes to guide me through my comments.  Turns out, every single person that prepared comments on the SP did exactly what we learned in school not to do – they read, verbatim, from their notes.  So it was obvious that I was the rookie in the room and since we weren’t being graded on our comments, the veteran speakers knew it was best to have thoughtfully pre-written the comments to present to the board.  So after seeing 6 people go up to the podium and offer well read comments, it was my turn to face the board.

Why was I so nervous?  I wasn’t speaking to more than 20 people, I knew what I was talking about (hell, I wrote 15,000 words on the topic), and I was only supposed to speak for less than 3 minutes.  180 seconds.  Well I stood up there and followed suit in thanking the board for the time to comment on the strategic plan and started my comments NOT reading from my notes.  Already I had lost my place when I started to add in thoughts that weren’t on the page.  Why didn’t I just pre-write my speech?  This isn’t hard, I was thinking, control the shaky vocal cords and focus.  After forgetting what Goal 3 was, even though I had read it countless times, I uneasily shifted through my notes to refer to it in my speech when asking to add “environmental accountability” to the list.  Well, there goes my confidence.  I resorted to reading straight from my notes, which wasn’t very much as I had scribbled down some other points in the margins of my notes that I not so tacitly omitted.  I finished rather abruptly, thanked them again for their time, and after being told that they are always pleased to see someone speak who is not involved in the public school system, I flashed a genuine, yet nervous smile at them and sat down.  Of course Mary and the other sustainability supporters were pleased that I came because, well, power in numbers.  I’m glad I did it, but now I know there are a few things I have to work on before I stand in front of another podium…


About Zanna Leigh

I am a born Wisconsiner, native New Englander, short term (and wannabe) European, vegetarian foodie, good music lover, public transit enthusiast and sustainability devotee in the DC metro.
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