Out of the Forest: Executive Director Reflections

Melissa Spear, Executive Director

Melissa Spear is Executive Director at Common Ground.

By: Melissa Spear, Executive Director

While getting ready for work this morning I looked out at the cold, gray day to see snowflakes falling on a white landscape still buried under snow from last week’s storm.  Is it really March 21st, the first official day of Spring?  The fence along the road in front of our house lies broken and battered, missing large sections that were knocked down by a tree felled by NEMO… or was it Sandy or maybe even one of the other weather events we have experienced over the past 12 months?  These storms are all becoming one big blur of shoveling snow for me.  First I have to help clear my own driveway (our driveway is hard to plow because it is so steep), then get my mom dug out, before I head to Common Ground to help deal with the snow that has fallen there.  And as is true across New Haven and Connecticut, a lot of snow has fallen at Common Ground this year.  This snow fall has had serious implications for us.  For one, the large high tunnel in our garden collapsed and we are in the process of replacing it.  We also incurred significant snow removal expense.  But perhaps the most vexing is how the winter weather has impacted the very tight schedule we operate on.

Yesterday in a management team we began the very difficult discussion of how we were going to make up school days lost as a result of this winter’s brutal weather.  We have lost so many days that even Liz, our school’s Director, could not off the top of her head recall exactly how many – somewhere between 7 and 14?  Four days were made up over the February break but it looks like school will still run later than ever this year.  This has serious implications for Summer Camp which is slated to begin July 1st.  A lot has to happen between the end of school and the start of camp.  Over 70 staff has to be trained and prepared to represent Common Ground as employees.  Many of our summer staff work for schools that will also be running well into June to make up for snow days and so unavailable until much later than usual.  The campus and its facilities have to be transformed so that incoming campers don’t experience a high school environment when arriving at Common Ground but a warm, whimsical and magical place that holds out the promise of adventure.  All of this needs to happen over the five working days from June 24th to July 1st.  Can we get it done?  And what are the implications if we can’t?

These are very hard questions for me and the organization to grapple with.  But I don’t mean to burden (or bore you) with the day to day of running an organization like Common Ground.  I liken the day to day to trees – we spend a lot of time focused on the trees, but I don’t ever want to lose sight of the forest.  That is to say: Even as Common Ground deals with the complex and painful day to day impacts of what appears to be the “new normal” of climate change, we must stay focused on doing our part to address climate change itself.  As a center for environmental learning and leadership, this is really at the heart of our mission.  It is why we are making the necessary investment in sustainable features that will earn at minimum LEED Gold status – and hopefully LEED Platinum status – for our new building.

It is also why we jumped at the chance to participate in the first round of the Connecticut Green LEAF Schools program, a collaborative, multi-agency effort to promote green and healthy schools throughout Connecticut.  We were honored to be recognized last week by the Governor and the Commissioners of the Department of Education, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Department of Construction Services and Department of Public Health as one of first Green LEAF schools in the state (along with Barnard here in New Haven and Mary Hooker in Hartford).  To earn this recognition we were required to demonstrate that we are committed to providing effective environmental and sustainability education, to improving the health and wellness of our students, and to reducing the environmental impact and cost of our operations.  As a Green LEAF School we are automatically put forward by the State of Connecticut as a nominee for Green Ribbon School designation by the U.S. Department of Education.

While I am thrilled to see the staff and students of Common Ground recognized for their commitment to sustainability, we all know that there is something much more important than accolades and awards going on here.  While I generally resist using war metaphors, there is no better way to express my feelings than to say that Common Ground is part of an important battle against ignorance, inertia and complacency when it comes to climate change.  We are just beginning to deal with the day to day implications of global warming.  It is the next generation that is going to have to face the impacts head on.  They need to be prepared with the right information, the right skills, and the capacity to lead us out of this forest.  Committing to being a Green LEAF School is at heart NOT about the recognition, but about our commitment to preparing the next generation for the challenges that lie ahead.

Thanks for reading!  I look forward to your comments.


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