Thursday, September 10, 2009

green for college park unites the environment and the pocketbook (updated)

Too often, college students eager to make change are farsighted, seeking to cure cancer, solve hunger and end war all before spring semester. But a group of activists at the University of Maryland are working to make an impact right in their own backyard with Green for College Park, a campaign from the group Clean Energy for UMD seeking to create economic growth in the city while making it more environmentally-friendly. If successful, they hope to take it across Prince George's County.

Last school year, campaign manager Matt Dernoga wrote a series of columns for the Diamondback, the University of Maryland's independent student newspaper, stressing the importance of "green jobs" in economically-depressed communities like College Park. The positive response the senior government and politics major received inspired him to run with the idea. "I had people e-mailing me after that, saying 'if you ever want to do something like that, give me a call," says Dernoga. "we realized that with the elections coming up, this was a great opportunity to bring this issue center stage."

A member of Clean Energy for UMD, Dernoga helped develop the platform, outlining a plan for College Park to reduce energy use while emphasizing ways it can save both the city and local residents money. Proposals lean heavily on financial incentives, including transit subsidies, tax breaks for "green" businesses, and giving low-interest loans for residents seeking to make energy-saving improvements to their homes. That's already happening in Annapolis, where the city partnered with a local bank to lend the money. "A lot of these ideas we're taking have been done in other cities or counties," explains Dernoga, making them easier to implement.

The group's aware of the disconnect between the environmental community and the black community, especially in a majority-black jurisdiction like Prince George's County. "There is not enough of a grassroots movement whether it be by our elected leaders or activists in the county," Dernoga says. "For so long, the environmental movement has been designed to appeal to whites. Preserving species, things that are kind of far off and abstract. How do you get the message across that it's not just good for the environment but good for the pocketbook?"

Beautiful Foursquare On Calvert Road
Green for College Park's platform includes providing low-interest loans for residents making "green" improvements to their homes.

Town-gown relations in College Park have been rough in the past, often exacerbated by student groups' refusal to reach out to those off campus. "We're not ignorant of the fact there's been a lot of tension in the past," Dernoga says. "We've tried to do some things differently. We're not going to stay in a bubble and reach out only to students on campus."

Getting permanent residents involved is key to the project's success. "At the end of the day a lot of students have an investment in College Park because they're gonna be here for a while and they want to leave it better than they found it," says Dernoga, but they may not stay longer than four years. "That's why we're reaching out to the College Park community. That will help sustain this because they'll be looking for help on the issues after the students who started them are gone."

"Some of these ideas are so practical, you don't need a grass-roots campaign to make them happen," he adds.

Green for College Park plans to interview all of the candidates running for College Park City Council this fall, but will wait until closer to the election in November before deciding whether to endorse a candidate. If they do choose to back anyone, it won't necessarily be their fellow Terps who've decided to run. "A lot of the organization on this is student-based, but we're not going to favor student candidates for city council," says Dernoga.

If the initiative is successful, Green for College Park hopes to take their ideas countywide in the 2010 elections. "I've heard a lot of environmental enthusiasts [in Prince George's] saying 'we could go in a new direction' towards sustainability," says Dernoga. "There's a great deal of talk and chatter about how the county wants to jump on the bandwagon, but it's more about the publicity."

What would Green for College Park like to see happen in Prince George's? "How far we take them is dependent on the success of our campaign" in College Park, says Dernoga. "Creates some momentum in this part of the county and pull other municipalities in, saying 'this is something a small town can do.'" Already in Edmonston, near the District line, the main street is being rebuilt to include pervious pavers, new landscaping, and other environmentally-friendly features.

The campaign kicks off with a rally later this week in the Stamp Student Union. "We're expecting the room to be pretty crowded," says Dernoga. An interest meeting on the first day of classes brought thirty-five people, and the group plans to reach out to student groups across campus, including the university's vaunted Greek system. "We can't do worse than what's been done before," Dernoga says, noting the difficulties previous campaigns have endured. "We think people like issues that center around the environment, around saving energy, around lowering their bills."

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