Organizing at the grassroots
(Above) A poster in the Nelson Collection sent in by a school child at Bricktownship Intermediate School in New Jersey participating in Earth Day.
The National Education Association (NEA) estimated that 10 million students took part in Earth Day events in nearly every one of the country’s school districts. The success of Earth Day was that students and educators made Earth Day their own.
“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level,” reflected Gaylord Nelson. “It organized itself.” Indeed, Nelson and the Washington D.C. coordinating office, Environmental Teach-in Inc., could never have produced—in 7 months with a tiny budget of $124,000—an event of Earth Day’s national scale and individualized form.
While Nelson's national office did organize a few events itself, its primary work became cataloging as best it could the extent and variety of Earth Day plans. As letters from organizers inundated the office, staffers publicized these local actions in press releases and their newsletter, which served as an idea bank and gave those at the grassroots a sense of being united in a nationwide effort. However, it was the grassroots—not Washington—that gave Earth Day its profound impact. In fact, when funds from their donation campaign ran thin in February, Nelson considered closing the Washington office. The frenzied Earth Day work of individuals in their own in cities and towns across the country had convinced him “success was assured.”
Perhaps the most powerful testimony to Earth Day’s grassroots foundation was the involvement of elementary and high schools. Although not part of Nelson’s original vision and a minor part of the Washington office’s focus, schools would end up the most common site of Earth Day action.
The National Education Association (NEA) estimated that 10 million students took part in Earth Day events in nearly every one of the country’s school districts. Students and educators made Earth Day their own. Rozanne Weissman, working in the NEA’s public relations department, had heard from students their concern about ecological matters and desire for environmental education. When she heard about Earth Day in October 1969, she quickly sent a memo out to state NEA journal editors calling their attention to it and later secured an interview with Nelson, which she also sent out as well. She also urged editors to help teachers pinpoint local sources of pollution and opportunities for environmental education. As a result, the Nelson interview and fruitful curriculum suggestions ended up in the mailboxes of hundreds of thousands of NEA’s members.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association published ten tips for planning a teach-in and stressed teaching students about the 1948 fatal air pollution event in Donora, PA, while in New York the Bureau of Education suggested principals schedule field trips to the American Natural History Museum’s new exhibit “Can Man Survive?”
Apart from schools, it was millions of Americans in civic clubs, neighborhoods, small governments, churches, families, and industry who now imagined what Earth Day could be in their community—and made that vision a reality.
View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:
A pamphlet detailing how concerned citizens could write to their legislators
A set of letters from Wisconsin constituents with Earth Day plans
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