If you’re wondering “What can I do?” this post is for you, whether you’re doing TAPIF or back in your hometown.
One of the best things I ever did was starting up my own environmental club and recycling program in my high school, which set the stage for a lot of the work that I continued to do later. I didn’t have any leadership experience before that, but I figured things out as I went along with tons of trial and error.
This post was originally targeted towards students looking to start up an environmental club at school, but these ideas can be applied to whatever issue interests you. I’ve used the same basic concepts to start groups during my TAPIF lunch break and in my village, so they can also be used in a variety of settings.
Please note: This guide is intended for anyone who has the energy and space to be able to start something new but is unsure of how to get going. If you need to be focusing on your own well-being right now, this is not meant to guilt you into action!
Starting up my own club did seem daunting at first, but I found that it was a lot less scary than I expected once I got started! Here are some of the things I did (or wish I had!):
Optional (but recommended!): Find other students who might be interested FIRST
You really can’t have a club without people in it, right? Finding people can be the hardest part, and it’s ideal to get that out of the way first.
See if anyone’s free on a weekday afternoon to spend a little more quality time together, at least for the first few weeks. Having a small critical mass of people in the beginning can be a helpful in attracting more members, but just make sure that your club is welcoming to and reaching out to everyone, and doesn’t become intimidating for anyone who’s different from you to join. Diversity is a huge issue in environmental groups; for more info, check out diversegreen.org.
I kind of tried to figure all this out myself, but got lucky with a few really kind friends who came to meetings and walked around with me collecting recycling. If you can’t find anyone immediately, just get started with setting up the club and check out the tips below on recruitment.
Clubs can have an impact even if they’re small. What’s that saying about change starting with a single person? Yeah, that! Sometimes you have to trust that your action will be magnetic and that if you don’t do something, no one else will.
Think of an anchor project
It helps to have some kind of initial project to focus on, at least in the very beginning. In high school, our project was starting a recycling program. When I was working with younger students, I focused on storytelling about the environment through stop motion videos, and in my village, I focused on climate change. Feel free to adapt it based on the interests of your members.
One way to think of an anchor project is to identify some need that your school has and then try to fill it. At the same time, try to think about what you’re interested in and good at, and how they can overlap.
Could your school use a garden? Are you artistically inclined and is there an empty wall just waiting for a mural about climate justice? Is there time to create a skit for young students to learn about water conservation? If you love to write, can you write a column in the school newspaper or include tips to reduce energy use in morning announcements?
Set the club up
Try to identify a teacher who would be willing to be an advisor; this could be an environmental studies teacher, but the teacher who served as our initial advisor was a French teacher who cared deeply about animal rights. Teachers are people too, and they might have varying interests (or just really want to help students who take initiative!).
Depending on your school, you will probably have to speak with your principal, vice-principal, or whoever else is in charge of student activities. I went to my school’s principal and told him that I wanted to start an environmental club and recycling program. He said that he could easily order recycling bins and voila! We were in business.
If you’re not sure who to talk to, ask a teacher or guidance counselor, and they should be able to point you in the right direction. Or if you’re lucky enough to know of someone else who started a club, definitely talk to them about how they got started!
Ok, you’ve taken care of all that administrative nitty gritty – now for the fun part! Set up a meeting place and time that works for you, your advisor, and anyone else who you know of that might be interested in joining. Our meetings took place in my advisor’s classroom.
You’ll probably want to be focusing on finding a few more students to join at this point. Try to get a mix of people from different grades so that you don’t have to worry about the club dying out (more on that later!). Don’t just rely on finding members through your friends (a mistake I’m totally guilty of making!) – reach out to a diverse group of people starting from the very beginning. A variety of backgrounds and skills is really important, especially when it comes to dealing with environmental issues.
Again, you don’t need a lot of people to have an effective club; I’m pretty sure mine started out with a couple of core people and grew to a larger group over the course of a year. It can take time, but there are a few things you can do to speed things up:
Approach environmental studies or other classes in your school. Ask teachers if you can make a quick announcement at the start of class, or see if you can get a note in daily announcements. I also created flyers (with baby animals!) to announce our meetings.
Another great way to reach people is by collaborating with those who aren’t just interested in the environment, but may be interested in a project you have in mind. For example, if you’re thinking of doing a skit for younger students or a public art project, approach drama and art clubs or classes. In additional, environmental issues aren’t just limited to the physical environment: they are tied in with gender, race, and class as well (wedo.org has some infographics showing these intersections). Consider approaching groups that work on a variety of social or political issues.
Create community service opportunities: At my high school, students needed to fulfill a certain number of community service hours. Even if people aren’t able to commit to coming to meetings on a regular basis or being full-fledged members, they may want to help out! Some opportunities include helping with your anchor project, helping out at bake sales or fundraisers, etc. Have a range of opportunities available for people with different levels of availability and interest.
Create leadership opportunities: Depending on how many people are in your club, you may want to start creating positions for different officers, like co- or vice-president (can help you lead meetings or take over if you’re not available), secretary/outreach (can take notes and create flyers), and if you’re doing fundraising, a treasurer. This allows other students to feel invested in the success of the club, and honestly, it can also help out when it’s time to start applying for colleges. Again, try to ensure that you have a range of grades represented if possible!
Have a kick-off! It’s great to start off with a more informal meeting, with food if you can swing it! Give people a chance to get to know you if they don’t already, and share some ideas about what you have planned and how they can help. Also be open to ideas that other people may have! This could also be a great time to think up a name for your club (mine was called the “Treehugger Club”…reclaiming labels FTW).
Get to work!
Setting up the recycling program was the focus for the first year of my environmental club. In case that’s something that anyone else is interested in doing, continue reading (otherwise skip to the section below on “Other ideas for projects”):
The principal ordered recycling bins for classrooms and cans that we could push around to collect recyclables from each class. I spoke with custodial staff and teachers to give them a heads up about what we were doing. If you have a limited number of bins, make sure to check in with teachers and leave them with those who seem the most enthusiastic about recycling! Don’t be phased by people who seem uninterested; it happens.
Depending on your town, you’ll have different rules about what’s considered recyclable. Create clear signage for students, teachers, and cleaning staff to explain what the bin is there for. You may need to adjust as you go along and encounter issues.
My lovely friends would sometimes come around with me once a week (or once every two weeks) to collect recyclables from each classroom. If you have more people available, set up a rotation; this could be a great community service opportunity as well!
Listen to feedback from teachers and students and adjust as necessary.
Other ideas for projects:
Some other projects that we tried out included;
- growing spider plants and passing them out to different classrooms (my band teacher still had hers years later!)
- creating short lesson plans that teachers could share with classes
- acting out a skit for younger students on environmental issues (ours involved an inflatable dolphin named Dolph-Dolph)
- visiting a recycling center
- planting a native plant garden
Something I wish we’d done? Making sure that the library printer was set to duplex by default. Keep an eye out for those easy wins!
Also consider reaching out to any local environmental groups to come in as guest speakers or to collaborate on projects. Your town might have an environmental committee that would love to work with students! Check out the Diverse Environmental Leaders Speakers Bureau for more speakers.
Another thing I didn’t do too much of in high school is making sure that I documented everything; for example, you can just create a document on your computer where you write down your contact at the recycling center and the steps you took for setting up a field trip. This can be helpful if you want to repeat the same event later (or if a future leader wants to).
Keep it alive
At some point, you’re probably going to graduate or need to leave the club for some other reason. Honestly, I think that starting a club is the easy part, and keeping it going can be a little tough! Ideally, you’ll have some students from different grades in your club, and at least some of them have been in leadership positions. Depending on the size of the club, decide if it’s best to have elections or to choose a leader in some other way. It might be best to choose the next leader the fall or spring of your senior year and have them co-lead with you for a while to make the transition as smooth as possible.
If you have a vision for future ideas for your club, share it with them (but also be aware that now, it’s time to let your creation go!). Depending on what activities you did, there might be some that can be easily repeated or become traditions. If you’ve documented some of the activities as you went along, share them with the group to make their lives easier.
So whether you’re more interested in education about reducing energy use or creating public art out of plastic water bottles, there’s probably something that can combine not just your interest in the environment, but other talents as well.
Ten years later (eek!), I can honestly say that starting up an environmental club in high school has set the stage for my continued involvement in environmental issues and made it a lot less daunting to start up a new group where none existed. It was incredibly rewarding and an absolute pleasure to work with other passionate people to tangibly change our tiny corner of the world.
Let me know if you have any questions and please sign up below if you’d like to read more!