What Goes Around Comes Around: My Environmental Journey

Written by Rachel Gates
 · July 18, 2022

I spent much of my childhood outside – hiking through Foothills Park and wading through Matadero Creek in Palo Alto, and camping in the Santa Cruz mountains. Even during school I loved any excuse to leave behind the four walls of my classrooms. To that end, my mother designed a creek monitoring curriculum for my first grade class; we measured pH and temperature as the fragrant smell of licorice wafted through the air. We observed the water striders taking advantage of surface tension and tried not to splash each other too much. By the end of elementary school I was hooked on nature and convinced I wanted to be an environmental activist.

Rachel’s fifth grade yearbook.

My first year after college was spent teaching environmental science over Zoom (thanks, COVID) to fifth graders in the Bronx. I welcomed the opportunity to inspire a younger generation like my mother and countless other adults had for me. My students learned the basics like geology and volcanology, but also the how and why of climate change. I was heartened to join the nearly 75% of educators who believe climate change and its impacts should be addressed in the classroom. I even went a step further and introduced the work of local environmental organizations to combat climate anxiety – fear or doom about the environmental crisis – that the majority of young people experience. 

Although my career as a teacher was short-lived, I’ve remained in the environmental space. I discovered a fellowship based in the Bay Area called ClimateCorps Americorps. The program places young professionals at government and academic institutions as well as nonprofits to undertake sustainability and resiliency projects. Since September, I have worked as a Communications and Operations Fellow at Acterra, a Bay Area-based nonprofit that was founded over 50 years ago in Palo Alto. We drive meaningful environmental change by creating local solutions for a healthy planet. In my new role, I stay engaged with environmental literacy through our Youth Be the Change program. I’ve also become familiar with new ways individuals can make a difference in reducing their environmental impact. 

I eliminated animal products from my diet over six years ago – the resources required in meat production are staggering. You could shower for a month with the amount of water used to make a burger! I understand, however, that cutting out meat, egg, and dairy products seems an unattainable goal for many. Luckily, our dietary choices are not all or nothing! Switching your family meals to plant-based proteins such as tofu or beans a few times a week can go a long way. As part of my work, I’ve compiled some awesome meatless recipes that you can check out. If you prefer to eat out, Happy Cow is a great resource for veg-friendly restaurants.

Plant-based Thai Tom Kha soup made with chili paste, coconut milk, tofu, and vegetables.

While on the topic of food, another way to minimize your carbon emissions is by switching to an induction cooktop. Gas stoves not only burn fossil fuels, but leak them into your home, adversely impacting air quality. In contrast, induction is safer and more energy efficient! Even better, if you’re not ready to replace your entire range, you can purchase a portable induction burner for under $100 and plug it right into any outlet. Or, you can attend one of Acterra’s plant-based cooking classes and borrow one for FREE!

We did not cause climate change overnight nor can we fix it overnight, but there are actionable steps we can take to combat it. Even if you weren’t convinced you wanted to be an environmental activist at age 10 like me, you’re never too old to change your mind. 

Rachel Gates

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