Using the Pandemic as a Catalyst for Change: Advocating for Herbicide-Free Campuses and Non Toxic Spaces

Written by Herbicide Free Campus

Special thanks to Kate Sabiston, Mackenzie Feldman, Bridget Gustafson, Arianna Maysonave, Aliza McHugh, Asha Culhane Husain, Lila Cooper and Katelyn Mann

Recall the early days of quarantine. As everything changed around us, society began to shift drastically. Activists, including the team at Herbicide-Free Campus (HFC), watched the crumbling of our regulatory bodies intensify and public spaces shut down. HFC’s student fellows left campuses across the country to return home, uncertain about when they would return. In spite of the chaos, communities united to fight for change and explore new ways of adapting. COVID-19 has spotlighted many issues, including social inequities, environmental racism, public health concerns, and feelings of isolation and immobility. The mental and physical safety of our community members have come into the collective conscience in an unprecedented way. With an impending transfer of political power, space has opened for us to push for inclusive and progressive action. 

 As society begins to prioritize health, Herbicide-Free Campus’ mission of stopping the use of herbicides on school grounds and advocating for a transition to organic land care maintenance is increasingly relevant. We ask ourselves: “How can we as an organization utilize this moment to challenge our conventional public health and aesthetic values for the sake of our groundskeepers, students, and all those who walk and use school campuses?” 

Schools are supposed to be safe havens, charged with creating healthy environments for their students, staff, and faculty. In the wake of COVID-19,  moving online to protect the health of campus communities has become the priority. However, the administrations of these institutions have historically failed to address the harm of spraying toxic chemicals, which calls into question the very notion of safety. By continuing to spray synthetic herbicides, which are linked to dire human and ecological health consequences, schools undermine their efforts to protect the people who have access to campus this semester. Exposure to glyphosate alone has been linked to such health conditions as severe kidney damage, lung cancer, reproductive harm, neurological diseases, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and asthma. The CDC reports that people who are immunocompromised have serious heart conditions, liver disease, lung disease, asthma, and chronic kidney disease are at higher risk for COVID-19 – a tragic parallel.

Public health and safety have risen as paramount issues during the pandemic, but what will happen when students return to school? Will safety still be of the utmost importance? The pandemic teaches us that human health is precious; thus, in the post-COVID era, we must uphold even more stringent standards for public and environmental health. Herbicide-Free Campus is committed to upholding a new caliber of safety, and only through ending the use of toxic pesticides in public green spaces can we truly achieve that goal.

In addition to inquiring about the true definition of safety, we ask: “Who has the privilege to be safe?” At Herbicide-Free Campus, a primary focus is to illuminate the work of on-campus groundskeepers. This was in large part inspired by our HFC advisor, Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a former groundskeeper who developed cancer following undue occupational exposure to a glyphosate-based herbicide. We highlight groundskeepers, uplifting their health and wellbeing through reducing the occupational risks they face by going into work each day. This is done, perhaps most obviously, by reducing their use of and exposure to herbicides. Johnson states, “There are several different ways to handle this problem without the use of any chemicals at all… My job as a pest controller was to educate and to make the grounds safe for the kids, parents, and staff. I still feel that responsibility to share what I’ve learned to protect people from harm so nobody else has to suffer as I have, especially a child who’s just trying to go to school, play, and learn.” 

Groundskeepers, landscapers, and farmworkers, who are predominantly workers of color, are asked to mix, handle, and apply herbicides to kill weeds. This highlights the disproportionate risks assumed by these racial minorities while on the job. Consequently, the carefully manicured grass that is a cornerstone of many campuses comes at the expense of groundskeepers taxed with undue chemical exposure on the job, begging the questions: Why are their lives considered less valuable than the lives of the students and faculty schools are trying to protect? Why do institutions of higher education prioritize campus aesthetics over the health and safety of their workers? 

HFC strives to engage with and support groundskeepers as individuals through on-campus weeding work days, during which students and community members work hand-in-hand (or more accurately, weed-in-hand) with campus grounds crews. This has implications beyond just protecting groundskeepers’ physical safety. When reflecting on work days, one of UC Berkeley’s groundskeepers shared that he hoped that as students met the folks caring for and maintaining their campus, they would be less likely to throw trash on the ground, thus developing a deeper respect and appreciation for both the land they learn on and the people tending to this land. 

We stand at a great juncture of potential change. This unprecedented moment in which most students remain off campus in virtual learning, or are leaving campus for long holiday quarantine periods, is an opportune time to rethink campus green spaces. Schools are often concerned with perfectly manicured grounds, yet with the ‘aesthetic bar’ no longer of utmost importance due to pandemic-induced empty campuses, it simultaneously mitigates the need to spray while also creating the space to gain a new perspective on weeds. Weeds are traditionally seen as blights; however, if communities established a culture that instead embraced biodiversity and strengthened the existence of native plants, there would be no need to apply toxic chemicals. The pandemic provides the opportunity to start the long-term transition from conventional to organic grounds management.

This time of radical changemaking creates the ability to shift the status quo and influence collective mindsets. The transition to organic land management is more feasible at a time where students are not on campus, as the process of transitioning prohibits students from traversing the lawns so that groundskeepers could conduct aeration, compost tea application, and overseeding. Herbicide-Free Campus offers resources to facilitate this transition by connecting schools with experts like Chip Osborne, who can offer remote guidance in initiating the organic land care transition process.

Through our transition to remote activism, HFC has turned to new avenues to support at-risk workers. Our focus has shifted from in-person organizing to building awareness online. Although we are unable to collaborate face to face, online spaces have become communities of their own that enable us to rally student and public support. Operating remotely has also facilitated students in more effectively communicating with school administrators; Online meetings have become the new normal, with staff more equipped and willing to connect with students via Zoom. Similarly, Board of Regents meetings are held online as opposed to in person, making student participation more accessible. These opportunities expand our ability to discuss the critical problems we seek to reform. The coronavirus has disrupted the conventional way we advocate, but it has neither dulled our motivation nor our ability to do so.

Now is the optimal moment for schools to prioritize health and social justice. Students have the responsibility and privilege to enact a cultural shift around land care, in addition to advocating for workers’ rights. While students have the choice to remain home, groundskeepers do not. Ultimately, amidst the chaos and uncertainty, COVID-19 is a catalyst for positive change, providing the room to establish a new standard in the protection of human and environmental health.

Join us in this movement today; find or start a campus campaign, sign up for our newsletter to receive action updates, and donate to support our work. 

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