Choosing not to be in charge

Environmental Teach-In, inc. group as pictured in Life magazine in 1970

Photograph from Life magazine, 1970, of Environmental Teach-in, Inc.

Nelson's Senate office was overwhelmed by letters and calls about the teach-ins, so Nelson hired Denis Hayes (far left) to assemble a team in Washington to serve as a non-profit organizing and information center, Environmental Teach-In, Inc.

Hayes hired (left to right) Andrew Garling, Arturo Sandoval, Stephen Cotton, Barbara Reid, Bryce Hamilton, and Sam Love (not pictured). They worked out of an office in Dupont Circle and helped to coordinate events, connect citizens, and get groups networked. They wrote articles and newsletters, held speaking engagements, and disseminated environmental information.

Other staffers not pictured here were: Jan Schaeffer, Linda Billings, Kent Conrad, Marianna Kaufman, Vic Kley, Bill Mauk, Kent Conrad, Judy Moody, Sallie Morrell, Bert Trilling, Susan Winslow.

Earth Day may have been Gaylord Nelson's idea, but American citizens made it happen.

Energized by Nelson's proposal in the fall of 1969, people wasted no time in organizing teach-ins and events for their communities. Almost immediately after the first wire story appeared, Nelson began receiving requests for information. Week after week the numbers of letters and calls to his office increased. He was overwhelmed by the pure enthusiasm he received from elementary school students, high school teachers, churches, and community groups. Nelson quickly realized the national day of teach-ins was far beyond boundaries of college campuses. However, a bigger Earth Day meant a harder day to organize, and he knew he and his Senate staff could not do it alone.

The letters poured in. In November 1969, Nelson assembled a steering committee of prominent scientists, academics, environmentalists, and student leaders, and tapped California Republican Paul McCloskey as co-chair to signal the effort's bipartisanship. This committee acted as a clearinghouse and resource for Earth Day organizers.

Where to start? Fred Dutton, a veteran Democratic Party operative, drafted for Nelson a proposal to control the National Teach-In like a political campaign: a manager, a detailed platform and position papers, standardized teach-in curricula, carefully vetted student volunteers, fundraisers, and even a official documentary, song, poster, and button. Also proposed by Dutton was a savvy team of public relations specialists who prized media hype over the content of local teach-ins.

Nelson firmly rejected this notion that he would be in charge of the National Teach-In. A one-size-fits-all Earth Day, controlled by Washington, seemed to Nelson fundamentally opposed to his original idea: grassroots political action. Nelson took much of Dutton's advice in office organization and fundraising, but rather than proposing a collection of synchronized college teach-ins, he began encouraging all Americans to get together on Earth Day "in any way they want."

As a further sign of his willingness to cede control of his idea to citizens, Nelson established an independent non-profit office in Washington, D.C. called Environmental Teach-In, Inc. (image at right) to support citizen events and answer the avalanche of letters burying his staff. Nelson hired former Stanford student president and then-Harvard Law School student Denis Hayes. Hayes in turn hired a team of energetic activists with experience in the civil rights movement, the Chicano movement, and the Robert F. Kennedy presidential campaign.

Like the hundreds of thousands of busy organizers around the country, Environmental Teach-In, Inc. also took Nelson's idea and ran with it. They stressed that April 22 should "be more than a day of fruitless talking," and so they named their newsletter Action: April 22. The group produced resource packets, project ideas, posters, and encouraged citizens to write to their legislators about the environment.

Environmental Teach-In, Inc. published a full page advertisement in the New York Times on January 18, 1970 announcing their group and soliciting donations. In this article, they gave the National Teach-In a new name: Earth Day.

View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:

A packet of Earth Day resources prepared for high school use by Bryce Hamilton of Environmental Teach-In, Inc.

The Nelson Collection index has original newsletters, articles and other artifacts from Environmental Teach-In, Inc.