Clark alumni play active role in local, national eco-friendly efforts
By Claire Sykes
Ellen Ives especially loved putting on the safety glasses and smashing empty apple-cider jugs against the wall. As a high schooler in the early 1970s, every Saturday she went to the reclamation center her mother started and ran in Naperville, Ill., and helped sort the glass, cans and newspapers that people brought to be recycled.
“I’ve been an environmentalist ever since,” said Ives, a 2000 Clark graduate. As a waste reduction specialist and environmental educator with Waste Connections, in Vancouver, Wash., she gives presentations to residents and organizations on waste reduction, recycling and composting. Mostly, she teaches K-12 students and those in post-secondary such as community college students, about these topics as part of the Clark County Green Schools (CCGS) program with the county’s 130-plus public and private schools.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the program’s Waste Audit project had students sifting through a day’s worth of school refuse, noting the types and amounts, to launch recycling and waste-reduction campaigns. At school cafeterias, Ives demonstrated how sort tables let kids separate their trash from recycling, and leave room for their untouched food to be shared with each other. She also pushed to reduce plastic and disposables, and replace milk cartons with dispensers. Now, because of the pandemic, Ives’ classes are all online, and field trips to the West Vancouver Materials Recovery Center happen on Google Earth, instead of in person.
“Everyone needs to know how much waste we produce in Clark County and the massive effort involved in transporting it to dispose of it—250 shipping containers totaling 7,750 tons of garbage every week. About 30 percent coming in as recycling is garbage, because not everyone has learned what’s recyclable. We need to change what we do on a daily basis to reduce that vast amount of waste,” said Ives, who received the 2018 Green Medalist Award for Outstanding Community Leader from EarthGen, formerly known as Washington Green Schools. EarthGen partners with K-12 educators and communities to involve youth in environmental activities, solidifying their commitment as they work together toward a EarthGen School certification. In the 1990s, while Ives and her husband were raising their three children, she first volunteered at Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School in Vancouver, teaching kids about recycling; she later worked there part-time as a staff assistant. Aiming for a teaching certificate, she began taking Clark education classes.
“I had incredibly good instructors with whom I was always talking listened and were interested in what I was learning, and instilled in me a love for that,” said Ives, who felt inspired to emulate them. With her associate degree in education, she transferred to Washington State University Vancouver and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s in education in 2002. She was 48 years old.
While at Anderson, Ives started a Green Team of students, staff, parents and others to examine the school’s environmental issues and arrive at solutions. This is the first step toward becoming an EarthGen Certified School.
“We picked up litter and staffed the school carnival to guide people to recycle and compost, among other things,” she said. “I enjoyed that and teaching, but as the years brought more state testing, I saw how it was reducing students’ love of learning, and that was heartbreaking for me. I was also working 70 hours a week and was exhausted.”
Ives decided to leave the classroom and instead took her gift for teaching and respect for the Earth to Waste Connections. “Children know that our environment needs care and they want to do something, not just talk about it,” she said. “I suggest they choose one thing and let others know, and maybe they’ll start doing that, too. Use less and reuse. Turn off lights, unplug your cellphone charger when not in use, pick up litter, don’t let the water run. And urge stores and restaurants to put those cookies in paper bags instead of plastic clamshell containers.”
Ives sees climate change as the biggest threat, and tells her students that the anguish they may feel can sharpen their awareness and propel them to act. I’ll never stop trying or lose hope. As long as I’m here, I’ll always be working to make things better for the next generations.”
Bridge between generations
The same goes for Marquis Mason ’14, a climate justice community organizer at Citizens for a Healthy Bay, an environmental nonprofit in Tacoma, Wash. In order to stay current on new local permits and industries that pollute, he frequently reviews stormwater-runoff data and proposed environmental regulations. He turns the information he learns into videos, webinars, podcast interviews and infographics on the toxic contamination of Tacoma’s Commencement Bay and South Puget Sound. All this helps inform the people Mason mobilizes to testify at public hearings.
“I try my best to reach and engage the young people in communities disproportionately impacted by racism and/or economic hardship, who are not yet involved in this kind of work because they’ve got too much on their plates,” said Mason. “It’s time to pass the torch on to the people even younger than me, to get them ready to uphold the mantle from those from the 1960s and 1970s. We learned so much about responsibility from them. As a young person of color, I see myself as a bridge between generations.”
That bridge extends to Mason’s 10 hours a week volunteering with Sunrise Tacoma, a local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, whose goal is to stop climate change through advocacy of environmental justice and the Green New Deal. As the local political team co-leader, he works on local policy, grassroots campaigns, legislative bills and with political candidates, while preparing young people for climate-change strikes and direct advocacy.
“The environmental movement at its core is a working-class one,” said Mason. “Major traffic corridors spew high carbon emissions through black and brown neighborhoods. Chemical pollutants spill into the aquifers, rivers and seas, affecting tribal fishing. The people who are hit the hardest are those on a fixed income, who can’t relocate when their community floods. It becomes an issue of human rights. If we don’t figure out the relationship between the economy, pollution and climate change, it’ll lead to death, disease and an unlivable planet.”
Mason has always felt purpose toward people’s wellbeing, starting as a lifeguard and Red Cross-certified babysitter in his teens. Being a Clark College Running Start student from 2012-14, “made me the person I am today,” he said. “I had the choice and freedom to explore what made my heart beat and brain tick, so I could shape my own education.” Running Start allows high school juniors and seniors to take college courses.
After high school and one quarter at Clark studying anthropology and social science, Mason received his associate transfer degree focusing on the social sciences, before heading to Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College.
“I hit the ground running; I knew what I wanted to do with my life—to use my power and privilege to make change.”
He first got involved in activism and outreach as a student officer of Western Amnesty, Amnesty International’s local campus chapter, which he co-founded. While at Fairhaven, he served as an intern for a Bellingham environmental nonprofit, helping with a statewide clean-energy ballot initiative. He also worked as a professional organizer on the electoral campaign for former Lummi Nation Tribal Chairman Tim Ballew II, and for the youth-powered Our Climate—all while working part time pulling espresso at Starbucks.
After graduating with a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies (with a concentration in health promotion, advocacy and community engagement), Mason returned to Vancouver and worked as an engagement organizer for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters in Portland. He also volunteered with 350PDX, a local chapter of 350.org, an international climate-crisis organization. There, he was co-leader of the Black, Indigenous and People of Color Caucus, bringing struggles of Black, Indigenous and people of color to the forefront of environmental action.
Mason advises others on something he has always done: “Pick a passion and run with it,” he said. “Not everyone is going to be a climate or human-rights organizer. Some people will make art that speaks to those issues or maybe write songs about their experience with sexual assault. Regardless of what you pick, it’s important to show up as yourself. I call it ‘radical candor’ and as long as we’re all rooted in community to the people who need us, we’re doing good work.”
Claire Sykes is a Portland, Oregon-based writer whose articles appear in Philanthropy, Ruralite, Communication Arts, Chamber Music Magazine and many alumni publications including Western Washington University’s Window and Washington State Magazine, among others. Visit www.sykeswrites.com.