High schools invite themselves to Earth Day

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This document is the information packet sent by the Bryce Hamilton, the high school coordinator for Environmental Teach-In, Inc., to any schools that contacted their office looking for information on how to get involved in Earth Day.

At first, Gaylord Nelson had not conceived of a role for elementary and high schools in his national teach-in on the environment. The teach-in model of activism had come out of colleges, with the first held in 1965 at the University of Michigan. Anti-war protest at colleges were the most energetic and visible, and Nelson hoped to replicate that fervor in Earth Day's message to apathetic legislators in Washington. So toward that end, he called from the Senate floor on October 8, 1969 for "every university campus across the Nation" to participate.

But younger students and schoolteachers saw no reason they should be excluded. They wrote to Nelson's office, requested more information, and announced their intention to participate. Nelson told the San Antonio Light that those schools added to the hundreds of calls he was already getting from "labor unions and community leaders and conservation and wildlife groups."

But by November 11, when Nelson set the date for the national teach-in, he had a broader vision of to whom Earth Day would belong. The San Mateo Times relayed the hope of Nelson and Teach-In co-chairman Rep. Pete McCloskey that the event "will deeply involve communities, environmentally-concerned organizations, and high school and grade school levels as well as college students."

To help coordinate this expanding roster of participants, the non-profit Environmental Teach-In, Inc., set up by Nelson established a high school liaison. Bryce Hamilton attended the University of Iowa in the 1960s and served in the Peace Corps, all the while becoming more concerned about the problems of pollution and overpopulation. He was living in Washington, D.C., when he read about Nelson's plan. Hamilton immediately contacted the senator and volunteered his services. He was especially interested in working with high school students. He told the Des Moines Register his previous non-profit work had convinced him "how interested they are."

Hamilton's grassroots vision mirrored Nelson's. He explained to the Register, "We don't try to set any policies here [at Environmental Teach-In, Inc.]. We want people to determine what the pollution and other environmental problems are in their own area, and then do something about them."

The surge of high school interest in Earth Day was staggering. At the end of January 1970, the first full month of work for the Washington staff at Environmental Teach-In, Inc., Hamilton had heard from 300 high schools. By mid-February, that number was 1,200. And by the last week of March Hamilton was projecting the involvement of more than 10,000 elementary and high schools.

The National Education Association, which had been doing its own advocacy of school involvement in the teach-in, made a similarly lofty projection. The coordinator of their new Project Man's Environment initiative told the press in early April, "It would not surprise us if something happened in almost every one of the approximately 18,000 school systems in the United States."