District Leaders Strive for More Sustainable Peralta Colleges, By: J. Douglas Allen Taylor

Tuesday March 14, 2006

A drive to put the four college Peralta Community College District in the forefront of the Bay Area’s environmental movement was kicked off last week with a one-day mini-conference at Laney College in Oakland. 

District leaders are hoping that the conference will spark a Sustainable Peralta Colleges Initiative designed to integrate environmental curriculum with an overhaul of the district’s physical plant into energy efficient units. They also have an eye on the district’s upcoming $390 million construction bond measure, currently scheduled for the June ballot. District officials believe the bond measure’s chance passage may be increased if the projected construction projects are tied in to environmentally sound building practices.  

Peralta Trustee Nicky Gonzalez Yuen, who began promoting the Peralta sustainable initiative even before he was elected to the trustee board, said during a break in the conference that “environmental sustainability is going to be a major part of the bond measure campaign.”  

Pointing out a brisk wind coming through the closed doorway of a classroom where one of the conference sessions was being held, Yuen said that “eventually, this classroom is going to have to be renovated using the money from the June bond measure. We need to make sure that when those renovations are done, the windows have double panes and the doors have enough insulation to make them energy efficient.”  

Yuen said part of the initiative will coordinate what he called “mini-grants” of $500 to $1,000 to provide materials or sponsor grant-writing activities to promote environmental movement projects throughout the district. Another goal of the initiative will be to develop environmental-protection project partnerships with community groups, foundations, businesses, and non-profits. 

The trustee added that he is not sure that existing new building construction going on throughout the college includes solar panels and physical orientation to take advantage of sound heating and cooling principles. “But from now on,” he added, “that’s what we must do.” 

During a morning slide show presentation, local physicist and solar energy expert Donald Aitken painted a bleak picture of what might happen if American builders do not follow sustainable energy practices. 

“We’ve got 40 years of oil reserves left, but 5.5 billion years of sunlight,” Aitken said. “Choose it wisely.” Aitken said that power generated from solar energy, wind, and waste products could meet the country’s energy needs immediately, while oil, coal, and nuclear power were only contributing to the destruction of the planet’s environmental balance. “While there’s plenty of nuclear energy available,” he added that “it’s completely unethical to pass on nuclear waste to our children.” 

Aitken has installed solar energy units at a number of colleges throughout the Bay Area, including UC Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Student Center, Cal State East Bay, and the South Bay’s San Jose State, De Anza College, and Foothill College. At Napa Valley College, he said he has installed a solar energy unit that “provides 40 percent of the energy needs for the entire college.” 

Oakland mayoral candidate Ron Dellums, who delivered the keynote address to the collection of college professors, students, and local environmental activists, told participants that the ecological movement provides a vehicle to unite citizens over racial and economic boundaries. 

“The world is small and we are dependent upon each other,” Dellums said. “We can die equally in environmental disasters, so we should learn how to live equally. If a tsunami were to come to Oakland, it wouldn’t sidestep black folks or poor folks—it would hit everybody. The former Oakland/Berkeley congressmember added that “however ecologically sound we are in our practices, we have to do it in the context of sustaining human beings. Ending poverty. Providing universal health care. These are all elements of sustainability.” 

Taking a jab at the Bush Administration’s rejection of various environmental treaties, Dellums said, “It staggers me that we have an administration that won’t sign a treaty because they might lose a few jobs. Lose a few jobs? We might lose the whole planet.” 

Another speaker, panelist Reg Duhe of the Environmental Careers Organization, told an “Opportunities for Students” panel that environmentalism has entered the mainstream and was no longer what he called “just a bugs and bunnies field.” Saying that he wasn’t an environmentalist, a statement that brought “ooohs” from the audience, Duhe explained that “I think the term “environmentalist” is becoming irrelevant. Environmental jobs used to be the most low-paying, at a nonprofit somewhere. That’s all changed. Now, everything relates to protecting the environment. Making money and having an environmental job are no longer incompatible.” 

Also speaking on one of the conference panel’s was Oakland Councilmember and mayoral candidate Nancy Nadel, a licensed engineer and former EBMUD Commissioner who has been active in the Bay Area’s environmental movement for years, and is an advisor to the Merritt College Environmental Center/Self Reliant House. 

In a letter promoting the conference and the Sustainable Peralta Initiative, Peralta Chancellor Elihu Harris said that “for years throughout the District various people have worked hard to promote environmental consciousness. From recycling programs and courses in environmental sciences to green-building apprenticeships and water conservation projects, many people have labored (often in the wilderness) to promote responsible environmental stewardship at Peralta. I believe it’s time that we pulled all of our past efforts together and dramatically escalate our green profile. … The public is clamoring for solutions to our environmental challenges and the community colleges are perfectly positioned to take leadership in promoting these solutions.” 

A followup meeting has been planned for March 24, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. in the Laney Administration Building to develop committees and working groups to “put the ideas in motion that were suggested at the conference,” according to Peralta’s Sustainability Coordinator Robin Freeman. “We’ve already started to send groups out to other colleges and universities to see what projects they have been working on, as well as take a survey of what is already going on within the Peralta district itself.” Freeman said that “a lot of us have been participating in environmentally-sound activities and education without each other knowing it. One of the goals of the Sustainable Initiative is to coordinate those efforts.”