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Weis: The Ripple Effect

01/12/12 7:55AM By Russ Weis
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(Host) As Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday approaches, environmental educator and commentator Russ Weis considers the ripples we can each set in motion today to make our world a better place tomorrow.

(Weis) Confucius supposedly said, "If you're planning for one year, plant rice; for ten years, plant trees; for a hundred years, educate the children." I like this emphasis on the lasting impacts of education. In fact, I think teaching in general, and environmental education in particular, are extremely hopeful fields to enter. After all, why take the time to educate future generations if you think there won't be a healthy planet for them to inhabit when they grow up?

An unlikely career arc brought me to environmental education. It all stems back to when I served as, believe it or not, the Environmental Director of a Manhattan nightclub. Called "Wetlands Preserve," the club opened in 1989, and there we pioneered many practices to green up the nightclub business. We also worked on a host of environmental campaigns, along with our earth-conscious patrons.

My office was a psychedelically-painted 1966 VW van located in a networking center built right into the club. My job was to organize benefits and informational programs, and, along with my student interns, keep the "Eco-Saloon" stocked with environmental pamphlets. Some years I heard we got the most petitions signed in all of NY State, but I don't know that for sure.

What I do know is that we at Wetlands believed that even as we danced the nights away to our favorite bands, by day we could get some serious work done. In this way, we eventually became a vital hub for those swept up in the rejuvenated eco-movement of the times.

We also became a mecca for local hipsters thirsting for the strains of such Sixties songs as "Ripple," a poetic ode by the Grateful Dead about how we must all choose our own paths in life. I relished my role as "Russ in the Bus," and often stayed at the club from the early morning into the wee hours. And so, from those improbable beginnings between the dawn and dark of night, my pathway towards becoming an environmental educator was laid out.

As I walk it, I keep in mind that we all create ripples of one kind or another, no matter what trail we tread in life. Robert F. Kennedy once said, "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope."

These days, it's words from students in my "Thinking Globally, Eating Locally" course that send ripples down my spine. As one wrote: "I now encourage all my friends to try things, like organic food, that we learned about in class."

Although such words are music to my ears, I do understand that simply being a teacher is not enough. And that reminds me of another bit of wisdom, this time from Martin Luther King, Jr., who pointed out that "You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love." Words anyone, not just educators and Deadheads, can live by - this New Year, and always.
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