Saving the world (one street at a time)
A determined volunteer organization shows how the fight against climate change starts on your own doorstep.
As the saying goes: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
When the Accelerate Neighborhood Climate Action program first appeared in Denver seven years ago, nobody noticed. But they had a big idea: to empower local households to reduce their carbon footprint and to help build healthier neighborhoods.
As a totally volunteer-run enterprise, the founders realized they would need some outside support. They soon partnered with Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, which was eager to get involved.
“Teaching about various sustainability challenges and solutions — whether international, local or even household — is a major focus of our courses,” said Richard Wagner, Ph.D., professor of Meteorology. “And so, volunteering for the program seemed a perfect fit for our students.”
The idea took. Helped by an enthusiastic cadre of students, the ANCA program quickly spread its positive influence across Denver, then this year expanded to Boulder and Redlands, California.
It has also found friends in high places. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio recently promoted the program to his 55.1 million Instagram followers and urged them to check it out, bringing a huge profile boost.
All of which raises the question: How did ANCA become so successful so quickly?
“For one thing, the core leadership group has broad experience and is pretty well-connected, and that counts,” explained Wagner, who is a founding member of ANCA. “Plus, new people are always coming in to help build on that sense of momentum.”
But the real secret to the program’s success has been identifying small projects run by committed neighborhood leaders with hyperlocal priorities, then helping them realize their potential.
“At ANCA forums, neighborhood groups we’ve worked with previously tell us that they’re now thriving on their own,” Wagner said. “And that’s the basic idea: inspiring people to become self-sufficient success stories.”
MSU Denver students, primarily from Geography, Environmental Science and wag courses, have been instrumental to the program’s success, in large part by putting in the hard work and long hours that characterize strong community involvement.
For several students, the ANCA experience has sparked an enduring commitment that has far outlasted their college careers.
Karmen Burchett, for example, first worked with ANCA in 2016 while undertaking a research project for her Geography degree, and it had an immediate effect.
“Spending time with an actual community instead of just learning in a classroom meant I got invaluable real-world experience, where I could see and measure my own impact,” she said.
Following her college project, Burchett stayed on with ANCA as an organizer and committee member for another six years, until she recently began a full-time job.
“For me, the biggest benefit came from the relationships and connections I developed along the way,” she said, “which have been not only meaningful but also helpful professionally.”
What to expect at a neighborhood climate-action forum:
Learn how to get your neighborhood involved.
Fellow student Dawnisha Penny, who studied for a Land Use Planning degree, also found a warm welcome when she first undertook a five-month internship with the ANCA volunteers in 2017.
“They were eager to embrace any new ideas and methods that might increase community involvement and help address local environmental issues,” she recalled. “I also found that being a person of color brought a dynamic that was sometimes needed and useful.”
Five years on, Penny remains a committed ANCA volunteer and today runs the program’s social-media presence. What led to her making such an enduring commitment?
“I live here, and my family has deep roots in Colorado,” she said. “But I also want the broader community to be aware of local activities and understand how climate change impacts them personally.”
As the recent expansion vaults ANCA to a new level, Wagner is still excited about the potential of such a productive partnership for MSU Denver students.
“That’s the part I really like,” he said. “Through volunteering with the ANCA program, our students don’t only provide great support; they also get invaluable experience. With ANCA, they can learn the kind of organizational, networking and management skills that will help set them up for promising future careers.”
Penny agreed that the program has been a game-changer for her learning and personal growth. “It has made me really look at what I am doing around climate change,” she said. “I have a much deeper understanding of regional and local climate issues.”
Burchett also stressed that the ANCA experience taught her a lot about how to best implement her professional skills. “But personally,” she recalled, “it also gave me a great sense of worth.”
“Seeing the fruits of my labor made me feel like I was making a difference and genuinely contributing to society on a deeper level,” she said. “And that’s always special.”