Unlikely team drives Berkeley’s first-of-its-kind climate literacy resolution

A teenager, a retired teacher, a Berkeley parent, and a School Board member banded together to make BUSD one of the first school districts in the country to commit to climate education.

Climate literacy advocates Ella Suring, Laura Babitt, Martha Cain, and Sarah Ranney pose for a photo at James Kenney Park in Northwest Berkeley on November 11, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Climate literacy advocates Ella Suring, Laura Babitt, Martha Cain, and Sarah Ranney pose for a photo at James Kenney Park in Northwest Berkeley on November 11, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Last year, a scrupulous teenager, a 67-year-old teacher-turned activist, a School Board member, and a resourceful Berkeley parent formed an unlikely alliance.

For the most part, the members of the group, which spans three generations, had not known each other. But they were united around a common cause: climate education.

Working over the course of eight months, they would get the Berkeley school board to pass the nation’s first climate literacy resolution with funding attached. A handful of school boards in Portland, Oregon, Oakland, and Fremont had committed to teaching eco-literacy, but had not devoted any money to write curriculum or help teachers implement it.

The local effort started in March when Sarah Ranney, a Berkeley mom and a senior director at a marketing firm, was introduced to Ella Suring, now a junior at Berkeley High. The pair met on Zoom. At first, Ranney, whose own children are in elementary school, didn’t quite know what to make of the teenager, who seemed wise beyond her years. “I was like, ‘Hello, high school student.’ I didn’t have friends that were high school students,” Ranney said.

Suring, 16, asked Ranney to explain how she had helped get Oakland and Fremont’s resolutions passed in February 2019 and May 2021. Ranney laid out everything they would need to, anticipating that Suring would be discouraged by all the work ahead. Instead, Suring was ready to start moving forward in Berkeley.

“Let’s get this done,” Suring told Ranney.

“I was like, ‘Hello, high school student.’ I didn’t have friends that were high school students.” — Sarah Ranney

The next eight months passed in a flurry of introductions, Zoom meetings and several hundred emails. The pair pitched the idea to School Board Director Laura Babitt, who introduced them to Martha Cain, a former Berkeley school teacher who has become something of a climate activist in her retirement.

By November, the four-woman team, who met in person for the first time this week, had corralled enough support for the resolution to pass it unanimously, with $65,000 devoted to the cause.

“The lives of our students and of future generations depend on our willingness tonight to prepare them for their future and equip emerging leaders with the tools to change this world,” Suring said during public comment at the Nov. 4 school board meeting before the vote.

Under the resolution, Berkeley Unified will develop and implement a framework for teaching human-induced climate change, including its causes and solutions, and who will feel its effects the hardest. The money will be used to pay teachers as part of a climate literacy working group to develop curriculum and model lessons by June 2023. The goal is for all students to graduate from BUSD with an understanding of the forces shaping our planet and the tools to do something about it.

Sarah Ranney

Sarah Ranney talks with the women behind BUSD’s climate literacy resolution at James Kenney Park, where she and Ella Suring first met Laura Babitt. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Ranney was born in 1979, the first year that scientists introduced climate change as a serious threat at the first world climate conference.

“I’ve grown up during the course of climate change. That’s been a growing awareness, but we just haven’t moved quickly enough,” Ranney said.

She studied environmental science as an undergraduate student, but took a job in marketing after graduation. The threat of climate continued to loom over her, crystallizing after she gave birth to her two kids, Jackson and Sammy. What kind of world am I leaving for them? Ranney thought.

She started volunteering with the Sierra Club in 2016, a year later becoming chair of the climate literacy committee, which Ranney described as “the most knowledgeable gathering of individuals on climate, education, and professional development.” After helping get school districts in Oakland and Fremont to pass their resolutions, Ranney set her sights on Berkeley, the city she and her family called home.

Ranney already had an answer for her role in combating climate change: reach the young people. “These coming generations are going to have to be much more resilient, unfortunately, but also decisive about how they make decisions in the world they want to live in,” she said.

Then Ranney met Suring.

Ella Suring

Ella Suring, a high school climate activist, describes herself as “an advocate for the future of our planet.” Credit: Kelly Sullivan

In her first Zoom meeting with Ranney, Suring saw an opportunity to address what she and her peers were missing: collective education and guidance in light of climate disaster.

“We all feel very scared about our future,” Suring said, but “everyone is sort of facing that individually.”

Suring, who stopped eating meat when she was 4 years old, describes herself as having “an innate sense of needing to do something good for the planet.” She started reading about the environment as a middle schooler and was soon writing essays and giving speeches. By the time the pandemic hit, Suring was overwhelmed with a sense of urgency to do more. She started interning at Women’s Earth Alliance and crafting a program for environment activism and self-care for the SF Bay Sierra Club.

Suring left the meeting with a plan. She would be responsible for student outreach. There were a number of environmental groups at Berkeley High, all working separately. She would meet with all of them and unite them around this resolution. She would survey students at other schools, asking them what they most needed to help them address climate change, using their input to draft the resolution with Ranney.

Once the initial heavy lifting was done and the pair had a draft resolution on the table, Suring and Ranney agreed to meet with a school board director. The next available office hours were held by Laura Babitt.

Laura Babitt

School board director Laura Babitt introduced the climate literacy resolution to the Berkeley school board. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

On May 23, Suring and Ranney met Babitt at James Kenney Park in Northwest Berkeley. Babitt had spent the year fielding comments from parents about school reopening, but the duo wanted to talk about something else: how Berkeley Unified was teaching students about climate change.

Babitt knew about the school district’s efforts to be sustainable. There was the 2018 Sustainability Plan, an ambitious and wide-ranging plan that aims for BUSD to be carbon-neutral by 2050, to be non-polluting whenever feasible, and to reduce water usage by 15% by 2030, among other goals. There is a Zero Waste Club at Berkeley High, a green team, and teachers across the district educating their students about the risks to the planet.

But, Suring and Ranney told her, there was no cohesive framework for incorporating climate change into the curriculum. What students did learn was being taught on an ad-hoc basis. They wanted teachers in multiple subjects to include climate content and to have guidance on how to do it.

When the sky turned orange last September, it was left to teachers “to explain to their students — who might be in kindergarten — how to understand the world that they’re sitting in that day. And right now, there is no support for that,” Ranney said.

Babitt knew climate change was a pressing issue and had promoted the Green New Deal at her campaign rallies, but she was no expert. What she did know how to do, though, was how get things done in Berkeley schools.

From the outset, Babitt didn’t want to pass a symbolic resolution. That wouldn’t be difficult, she thought, but it wouldn’t bring about the change this mom and high school student were looking for.

“I just didn’t really want to have another resolution on paper with no teeth behind it and no life behind it. If it was going to be that, we might as well not do it,” Babitt said. That meant getting key administrators on board with financial backing for the project.

As she started drafting emails to administrators in her mind, Babitt gave the duo a recommendation: Talk to Martha Cain.

Martha Cain

Martha Cain, a retired teacher from Longfellow Middle School, is part of a climate activist group called 1,000 Grandmothers for Future Generations. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Cain had met Babitt while working as a teacher at Longfellow Middle School. Babitt’s daughter had attended Longfellow, and the school was central to Babitt’s advocacy efforts, which began a decade before joining the school board. Together, Cain and Babitt had pushed for more resources to be devoted to the middle school. When Babitt introduced her to Suring and Ranney via email, Cain made up her mind to join the team of women right away.

“I knew from there I had this dream team,” Babitt said. “It’s kind of like having the perfect parent, teacher, student and administrator combination, where we’re all working all angles together for a common goal.”

Cain got her feet wet as a climate activist later in life, though she had a history of activism as a war tax resister. As a teacher, she started taking on projects, like recycling and composting, through the Longfellow Change the World Club and the school’s Green Team.

After she retired, she started to feel a growing necessity to do something about climate change. Reflecting on the world she was leaving behind for future generations, Cain joined an East Bay group called 1,000 Grandmothers for Future Generations and started to participate in climate actions. Later, she co-created a video called Grandmothers 4 a Green New Deal that caught national attention.

“The message that environmentalism must go well beyond its traditional concerns and grapple with racial and economic inequality seems to be sinking in!” Bill McKibben wrote in The New Yorker earlier this year, referring to the Grandmothers group.

Cain had talked to Babitt about the Green New Deal, and anyone else who would listen. Now, Cain jumped on the opportunity to bring climate education to Berkeley students: As a longtime educator, the idea made sense to her. “Kids are really resilient and they learn quickly,” she said. “We have a chance if we start there.” She described herself as the group’s well-connected secretary, drafting emails and coming up with new district leaders to contact.

A resolution passes

Climate literacy advocates Sarah Ranney, Martha Cain, Ella Suring, and Laura Babitt talk at the location where they first met about the group's work, on the playground at James Kenney Park in Northwest Berkeley, on November 11, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Climate literacy advocates Sarah Ranney, Martha Cain, Ella Suring, and Laura Babitt first met in person this Thursday, Nov. 11, on the playground at James Kenney Park in Northwest Berkeley. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

On the night the school board was scheduled to vote on the resolution, students came out for public comment in droves.

“Climate change is changing and destroying ours and animals’ habitats and hurting and even killing them,” said Ranney’s oldest son, Jackson. “I hope that my words mean something to you. We all need to do our part. Please vote yes.”

Sam Domingo, a seventh grader, said his experience visiting his home in the Philippines showed him the real impacts of pollution and climate change. “If we are educated, and if we work together as one, we can definitely make great steps in achieving a better future for all,” Domingo said.

Shanza Syed, a 10th grader, told the school board to “imagine the solutions” children could come up with if every child had access to climate education. “We are the generation inheriting this issue, which is why we need to be taught about it. Only when we understand this problem can we make strides in solving and hoping to solve this issue before it’s too late.”

Another student, sixth grader Zella Orr, said that despite having great teachers, she hasn’t “learned much about climate change in school. That has not been a part of curriculum, but it should be in all grades.”

Teachers chimed in, too, urging the board to fully fund the resolution and provide the resources teachers need to get lessons off the ground. Already, the resolution had been endorsed by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and a letter of support, written by BHS teacher Aryn Faur, had been signed by over 70 teachers.

The resolution, backed by a Change.org petition with over 600 signatures, had the support of district leaders. Moved by Ranney’s public comment at an August school board meeting, Superintendent Brent Stephens reached out to Ranney and Suring, connecting them with Associate Superintendent Rubén Aurelio and a number of other administrators who jumped on board.

Based on feedback Babitt had received from school board director Ana Vasudeo at the last meeting, the resolution had been amended to include transportation, the No. 1 source of emissions in Berkeley. The amendment ensured that students would be educated on how they could personally reduce emissions by choosing to carpool, walk, or bike to school, such as through Alameda County’s Safe Routes to School Program. It also garnered support from Walk Bike Berkeley, a local advocacy group that promotes safe and sustainable transit. Its members turned out for public comment and wrote a letter in favor of the resolution.

In the end, it came down to money. To get the eco-literacy framework up and keep it running, the resolution initially promised to devote $65,000 to the first phase, $112,200 for implementation, and an annual sum of $44,400 to keep it going. While all the school board directors supported the spirit of the resolution, not all were convinced that it was wise to commit ongoing funds with budget cuts looming.

“The thing that makes me particularly nervous … is just given the cuts that we know we’re going to have to make and that I know that more things coming down the pike that we’re going to want to fund,” said School Board President Ty Alper, adding that he thinks climate literacy should be a top priority.

Babitt pushed back. Ongoing funds mean “we’re setting it up so that the teachers know and the community knows that we are serious about integrating this into our curriculum,” Babitt said.

Ultimately, the school board passed the resolution with only an initial $65,000 for a working group of teachers who will lay the groundwork for teachers to integrate climate literacy into the curriculum, though board members insisted the district should commit to seeking outside funding to implement it.

The team of women aren’t discouraged at all: They’re thrilled to see this kind of commitment from the school board and confident that they’ll find grant money to train teachers to implement eco-literacy into their curriculum.

After the resolution passed, the women called one another to celebrate, dancing together over FaceTime.

“It’s a trailblazer,” Ranney said of the resolution. “It becomes the new bar for any other districts having this conversation and it shows that it’s possible to do it in a really deliberate way and to put your put your district funds where your values are.”

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.