Humans of EarthFest

The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970. Since then, it has turned into a global phenomenon, a day that encourages people around the world to protect the environment. Local festivals are held in many cities, including Syracuse, New York.

Every year, a student organization at Syracuse University, Students of Sustainability, partners with other student groups to host an event on Earth Day weekend called EarthFest.

EarthFest is a sustainable music and arts festival that features art installations, local food and craft vendors, community and student organizations, speakers and live music. People gather in the Thornden Park amphitheater near the university campus to celebrate the earth and share ways that we as humans can protect it.

Photos by Jessica Engs

I wanted to know what sustainability meant to them and why they supported the event, so I spoke to people in the Syracuse community that have taken part in EarthFest. Here are their stories.

Photo by Jessica Engs
Photo by Jessica Engs

Maizy Ludden is a sophomore at Syracuse University in the prestigious Coronat Scholars Program. She is an ambitious student, with a double major in Biology and Geography and a double minor in Food Studies and Writing. Not only is Maizy busy in the classroom, but she keeps herself even busier as co-president of Students of Sustainability. She first joined the club as a freshman, but said she “wanted to get involved on another level” this year.

She attended the annual EarthFest event for the first time last year and loved the atmosphere and the amount of community engagement she saw outside of the university. The mindset of festival-goers, Maizy said, was refreshing because they all truly cared about protecting the environment.

EarthFest bills itself as a “sustainable” music and arts festival. So I asked Maizy what “sustainability” meant to her. “We are sustainable when we can meet our current needs for well-being, without undermining the state of ecosystems that we depend on,” she said. If we can do this and also allow future generations to meet their needs, Maizy added, then “that is sustainability.” She practices sustainability in her own life by recycling, turning off the lights, biking, eating organic and local foods as much as possible and continuing her education to learn more about sustainability and the environment.

She believes if everyone starts making small changes in their everyday lives, change will happen. “I know that it’s such a cliché, but it’s so true,” she said.

Photo by Jessica Engs

Will Cecio was drawn to food studies because of the social issues associated with it, he said, things like “labor, issues of access and growing food.”

After changing his major at Syracuse University from nutrition to food studies, he wanted to get more involved. When another student told him about an organization she started called BrainFeeders, Will became intrigued.

Two years later, he is now BrainFeeders’ president. The group is a food sustainability and activist club open to students at the university and at the nearby State University of New York-Environmental Science and Forestry School. The members hope to “increase transparency of the food system on campus,” said Will.

The club has developed a student Community Supported Agriculture program that allows members to access high quality, fresh and, in many cases, organic produce from local and regional farmers. For example, BrainFeeders gets it organic produce from Common Threads Farm in Cortland, New York, about an hour outside of Syracuse.

The members of BrainFeeders receive a box of vegetables every Thursday from September through October. The boxes include all types of produce, such as peppers, garlic, onions, lettuce and rainbow chard. They also get a variety of more unusual vegetables, like kohlrabi. Will envisions BrainFeeders as a 600-member program and he believes that it will grow because of its convenience, low cost and overall benefits.

“Compared to the vegetables that you might get at a grocery store,” he said, “it’s honestly either right around the same amount that you’d spend or a little less.”

Will is an advocate of community supported agriculture because, in terms of sustainability, it reduces “food miles” – a measure of the distance that food is transported in moving from producer to consumer. Community supported agriculture projects significantly reduce food miles because the food goes directly from the farmer to a local consumer. And the projects also support the local economy.

Will thinks people should view community supported agriculture “as an exploration into different foods.” He says, “you should see it as an experience, as a way to explore new cooking techniques, explore new flavors and check out new vegetables.”

Asked what sustainability means to him, Will said he views it three different ways: economically, socially and environmentally. He defines a sustainable economy as one that provides affordable food for all, that doesn’t exploit food producers and that allows them to live a comfortable lifestyle. A sustainable society, he said, is one that has no food deserts, where each individual limits his or her ecological footprint. Such a society ensures minority groups are included in the food system and that labor practices are socially just.

In his own life, Will says, he practices sustainability by cooking often, walking rather than driving and, as much as possible, getting his food through community supported agriculture.

EarthFest, Will said, is a great way for people to enjoy good music and food. But more than that, it exposes people to speakers who talk about important environmental issues they may not be aware of.

“I definitely think it’s important to have these community events to not only raise awareness about sustainability issues, but also,” says Will, to “feel like you’re a part of this community of organizations that is trying to do something beneficial to the earth and to people.”

Photo by Jessica Engs
Photo by Jessica Engs
Photo by Jessica Engs

Shewa Shwani loves helping people. In junior high, she started helping her mother out at a refugee center in Syracuse, going grocery shopping with refugee families or accompanying them to appointments. Shewa says her journey of “volunteering with individuals in the community started from there.”

Before coming to college, Shewa said, she “didn’t care about global warming.” But in college, she noticed people being interested in the environment and her own interest grew from there. During her first semester – she is a junior majoring in environmental science at the State University of New York-Environmental Science and Forestry school – Shewa heard about a club called Food Recovery Network and decided to join. The group is a student-run organization that recovers prepared but unused food from dining halls and donates it to charitable organizations. After her first time recovering food and delivering it to a charity, Shewa knew the food recovery club was the right fit for her. The founders of the student organization gave Shewa a lot of work to do, even though at the time, she was just a freshman.

Now Shewa is president of the club. In the beginning, her goal was to make the Food Recovery Network well known. But now, she said, the main reason she does it is to make people happy. “These people in Syracuse and these agencies, they don’t have the opportunity to eat the food that we have,” she said. “Sometimes us college students are ungrateful for the food that we have at the dining hall, so I’m very happy that they get the chance to eat it.” At the end of the day, Shewa loves helping individuals directly and seeing smiles on their faces when they see all the food the club brings them.

Shewa has accomplished a lot in her past three years in college. And the best thing about her is that she is humble and kind. Yes, she may have won a prestigious award. Yes, she may be president of Food Recovery Network and vice president of the Muslim Student Organization, but her mission never wavers. And that is to make people happy.

Photo by Jessica Engs
Photo by Jessica Engs

After studying in India for a year as a Rotary Youth Exchange student, Lauren Wallace fell in love with Mehndi. What is Mehndi? Here in the United States, we call it “henna.” Living as an exchange student with various families in India for a year in high school, Lauren focused on mastering the art of henna tattoos.

In India, specifically Surat, Gujarat, she learned how to make organic henna. She would frequently visit a local henna stand on the side of a road where she learned how to make the organic material from an old couple. Henna comes from a plant that is dried then made into a powder. The henna plant can be mixed with “sugar, honey, water, eucalyptus oil and tea tree oil,” she said. “It’s all natural” and has “no chemicals.”

Besides drawing henna tattoos, Lauren also worked with infants, mothers and children, helping to fund a foundation that collected donations of breast milk, which was then used to feed the infants of mothers who were severely ill or had died. In return for the milk, Lauren said, these mothers would receive clothing, protein and a bag of personal hygiene products. Most of the mothers who donated were poor and needed the items they received in return for donating the milk. Additionally, Lauren said, she served food in villages, played with children at school and most importantly, showed them a lot of love.

After moving back to the United States, Lauren continued drawing henna tattoos at festivals and at a local boutique in Syracuse called Midnight Sun. She attended EarthFest last year, she said, and loved the friendly atmosphere.

In her own life, Lauren said, she tries to live sustainably by wasting as little as possible. “I don’t want to create garbage and waste,” she says.

She said that in the current political climate, paying attention to the environment is even more important than before. And she said that people would pay more attention to Earth Day this year because of the “chaos that’s going on in the U.S. right now, or just in the world in general.” However, despite what’s going on at the national level, Lauren thinks that there’s a chance for people to be at peace.

Photo by Jessica Engs

Theresa Evans’ official title is recycling specialist, but she likes to call herself a “professional trash talker.”

When it comes to recycling, Theresa knows what she’s talking about. She works for the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency, the solid waste authority for the Onondaga County community. At the agency, Theresa said, “we control the waste flow and where things go.”

Part of Theresa’s job is to educate communities and the other part is to help improve the agency’s buildings. Education involves visiting schools, hospitals, apartments and businesses that are large waste generators and guiding them in how to recycle. Through grants from the state, she also helps improve waste facilities with things like signage and recycling bins.

Theresa attended EarthFest last year and said she loved giving recycling tips to the people who attended. But she added that most people who lived in the Westcott or Thornden Park neighborhoods around the Syracuse University campus, “are already really good at recycling and composting and it’s a little bit like preaching to the choir.”

She said she is glad that people at EarthFest know how to recycle, but she hopes to reach a wider audience, especially at schools. Theresa and her co-worker Dale Cocca, also a recycling specialist, want to encourage people outside of the EarthFest community to participate in trash cleanup year-round, not just on one day.

Theresa defines sustainability as “inputs and outputs of resources and energy.” Her ideal is for people to have their needs met “in a way that isn’t overexerting the capacity of the resources available.”

Onondaga County has seen a great improvement in its recycling rates since the start of the resource recovery agency in 1990. The county has achieved about a 60% recycling rate, far ahead of the national rate of 34%.

The agency makes it simple for every person to recycle. They send out a quarterly newsletter that highlights the “dos” and “don’ts” of recycling (never put plastic bags in the blue bin!) and they organize an annual Litter Day Clean Up on Earth Day weekend. The agency’s website has a handy “How do I get rid of ___” search function on their website.

As a recycling specialist in Onondaga County, Theresa understands that the cumulative effect of throwing a single plastic bottle in the correct bin is hard for people to think about. Just as in voting, she said, “every individual, small item adds up when it’s the cumulative community.”

But, Theresa understands that it’s hard to think “about the polar bear” suffering thousands of miles away when you’re struggling to make a living. She believes that focusing on the next generation will encourage people to make small changes in their lives. The future of the world is in our hands, she said, and we can improve it if we reduce, reuse, and recycle.

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