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A History of Celebrating Raleigh's Green Heroes

Sustainable Raleigh Spotlight Feature

News posted Jun. 08, 2016 - 6:00 am
Environmental Awards Selfie

Encouragement, not punishment: the classic carrot vs. stick approach is exactly how the City of Raleigh first began elevating progress around its most pressing environmental concerns.

Celebrating green heroes through its Environmental Awards program, first held in 2008, “offers a way to call attention to individuals, companies and organizations choosing to make a difference for the environment,” said Cindy Holmes, assistant sustainability manager for the City of Raleigh.

When the City Council created the Environmental Advisory Board (EAB) in 2006, awards recognizing environmental stewardship were included in its mission. Julian Prosser, assistant city manager for the City of Raleigh at the time, advocated that the awards recognize “quantifiable results that positively affect the environment.”

Holmes, actively involved in the program for each of its nine years, has witnessed the awards’ impacts first-hand. “Many things have changed over the years. Our locations, first hosted by Marbles, then the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and now The Glenwood Club; our keynote speakers, focusing on topics such as native plants, climate change and healthy communities; and even our primary environmental concerns, starting with drought and water conservation and now placing more of an emphasis on managing potential flooding through enhanced stormwater techniques, as well as the importance of urban agriculture.

“But what hasn’t changed is the teamwork it takes to pull off a successful event, and the winners’ outstanding commitment to protecting the world around us,” she added. Strong internal partnerships between the Office of Sustainability and the City of Oaks Foundation with Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources; Communications; Public Utilities; Solid Waste Services and Stormwater Management ensure the event’s success.

Public Utilities sponsored the young adult Donna Jackson Trailblazer video public service announcement water and environmental stewardship competition for several years, and for the past three years Stormwater Management sponsored a high school version to promote stormwater awareness.

“The Raleigh Stormwater Program PSA contest engages high school-aged kids in environmental stewardship. By actively forming and promoting messages related to water quality, they build a level of ownership in Raleigh’s water resources. The hope is that this feeling of ownership persists and is shared with others to create a new generation of environmentally responsible citizens,” said Blair Hinkle, Stormwater Program Manager.

Throughout its nine years the program has recognized more than 150 winners overall. The host for the first several years, then-Mayor Charles Meeker was always eager to see the next “green” feats on the horizon.

Though each is uniquely important, one in particular stands out for Holmes: 12-year-old Ryan Berglund, a youth award $500 scholarship winner in 2009 who began making rain barrels in his garage to help his mom, and eventually the community, during Raleigh’s historic drought. Berglund’s rain barrels, made from recycled barrels once used to store pickles, olives, peas, cauliflowers and jalapenos, are now sold in 119 stores in nine states. While he no longer assembles the barrels himself, Rain Barrels International’s crew still creates them out of recycled food-grade barrels that would otherwise be headed to landfills – a win for recycling, and water conservation.

Highlights of the 2016 celebration included Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation Healthy Living Senior Program Officer Jennifer Zuckerman’s moving keynote on healthy communities; the enthusiastic on-stage group selfie moment led by Wake Soil and Water Conservation District’s Dale Threatt-Taylor; and audience giveaways for a year’s worth of compost pickup service, kitchen compost bins and “dirt bags” filled with compost and flowers. This year’s celebration took a more personal turn, offering winners an opportunity to speak to the crowd after an EAB member personally recognized them, a first for the event.

Without sponsors none of this would be possible – although it is a City program, the Environmental Awards relies exclusively on outside funding each year. In addition to financing the event, for the past two years, sponsors’ generosity has allowed the EAB to award nearly $20,000 to 20 urban agriculture winners, jump-starting local food efforts such as childcare providers’ kid-friendly veggie plots and outstanding community gardens.

Acknowledging the challenges facing our food system, the EAB works to promote the personal and societal benefits of urban agriculture. Research demonstrates that eating food grown locally, and participating in its cultivation, motivates people to consume more fresh fruits and vegetables. Urban agriculture contributes to the livability of the city by improving the environment and local economy, as well as social relations and household economic behavior.

Waste is a critical environmental issue, and for 2016 the City’s Solid Waste Services team organized its first Trashion Design Competition, encouraging individuals ages 14 and older to repurpose materials destined for the landfill into a fashion statement. The winner crafted inner tubes from bicycle tires, an item seldom recognized as a waste product, into a recycled garment that could easily be mistaken as a wearable piece of clothing.

“The Trashion Design Competition challenges participants to combine fashion with environmental awareness. It’s an outlet for college and high school students to exercise their creativity, constructing garments that are both eco-friendly and eco-couture solely from recycled materials. The goal is to raise awareness about recycling and all the materials people toss every day,” said Terri Godwin Hyman, Solid Waste Services Communications Manager.

A zero waste event, the Environmental Awards uses only recyclable, reusable and/or compostable items, and donated 36 pounds of excess reception food to the Inter-faith Food Shuttle this year.

Larry Larson, EAB member and Environmental Awards jury chair for the past two years, summarized the event well: “The breadth and depth of the applicants over the years gives you a good feeling about what's going on in the Raleigh community. The stories are always interesting and engaging. It’s particularly inspiring to see active youth rewarded, and to learn about the legacy winners with their lifelong commitments to the environment.”

This Sustainable Raleigh Spotlight is one in a series of City of Raleigh sustainability stories.

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