Photograph by Chris Leaman.
Gilda Allen: Teaching schools to help save our rivers
Gilda Allen is an accidental environmentalist. She was a consumer-information specialist for DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs when the office was shut down. She moved into another part of the department that dealt with environmental issues, and her supervisor left. Allen decided she’d have to create her own assignment.
She created an Anacostia River Environmental Fair in Anacostia Park to coincide with Earth Day 1997. She hoped it would give District kids a chance to experience the Anacostia River as a vital natural resource and would educate them about how to protect it.
Vice President Al Gore came. Bill Nye the Science Guy came. President Clinton mentioned the fair in a morning press conference. Two thousand DC schoolkids showed up. Overnight, Allen became DC’s environmental educator and was asked to join the city’s watershed-protection division. The fair is still held every year on the first Friday in May.
Allen has helped 30 schools set up their own conservation sites as part of the River Smart Schools initiative. Students learn to analyze soil, put in native plants, and create rain gardens that filter pollutants before they can reach the watershed. Some schoolyard sites become habitats for birds, bees, or butterflies. “It’s not about beautifying the school,” Allen says. “It’s about using practices that help the environment.”
Allen was a city kid with a country sensibility—she grew up in Harlem but spent summers on her grandparents’ farm outside Warrenton. Sharing her love of the outdoors has had unexpected benefits. One teacher told her, “If these kids were in school, I’d have broken up ten fights by now.”