Ashley McCormack Is a Light for Democratizing Environmentalism

May 26, 2010 — One problem with today's environmental movement, according to freshly minted University of Virginia graduate Ashley McCormack, is the perception that buying green products and adopting green behaviors are luxuries that only the affluent can afford. She's working to change that perception by expanding the environmental movement's impact among youth, low-income communities and the developing world.

The importance of engaging the young in environmentalism was driven home to McCormack by the contrast between the environmental attitudes of her parents and her young cousins in California who have absorbed conservation and environmentalism lessons in the schools. Her cousins, acutely aware of conservation and energy use issues, reprimand anyone who leaves the lights on in unused rooms or tears off more than a single paper towel to mop up a spill, she said.

By contrast, after much coaxing, her parents now recycle and have replaced their incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. But that's about the extent of their green behavior, McCormack said.

"It's more powerful to teach kids early about green issues," she said. "It's important to get kids excited and give them something they can impact, which empowers them."

McCormack's master's thesis project for U.Va.'s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy built upon a 2009 summer internship with the Portable Light Project, a Boston-based, non-profit initiative that works to provide the world's poor access to mobile clean energy and light generated by fabrics embedded with solar energy panels.

Each Portable Light Project bag, blanket or piece of clothing includes a swatch of fabric that incorporates photovoltaic cells and solid-state lighting (usually light-emitting diodes or LEDs), and a rechargeable battery similar to a cell-phone battery. The special fabric can be adapted around the world and customized with traditional weaving and sewing practices.

Building on her summer with PLP, McCormack worked with California-based non-profit Paso Pacifico to use PLP bags in Nicaragua to support the protection of endangered sea turtles and to advance young women as environmental leaders.

PLP has partnered with messenger-bag maker Timbuk2 to create the FLAP (Flexible Light And Power) messenger bag, with a detachable flap that contains the solar panel, an LED light and a mini USB port for charging cell phones and other mobile devices. (McCormack carried a FLAP bag everyday as her main school bag at U.Va.)

McCormack helped design and develop a Nicaraguan-made version of the FLAP bag specially equipped with a red LED light, to help Paso Pacifico's community rangers – many of them women – patrol sea turtle nesting grounds, deterring poachers who would otherwise devastate imperiled species such as the Hawksbill turtle.

In addition to illuminating the darkness with a red light that doesn't disturb the turtles' instinctive navigation by the stars, the bags also charge cell phones, allowing those on patrol to communicate with each other and local authorities.

The Paso Pacifico community rangers are also trained to lead ecologically sensitive tours of the sea turtle nesting areas, supporting local eco-tourism. Many of the rangers live in areas with no electricity, so the bags also help illuminate the schoolwork of young women and men.

McCormack's thesis project brought together her PLP experience; a concern with Nicaraguan youth, kindled on two Alternative Spring Break visits there with the Nicaraguan Orphanage Fund, where she saw families living in the Managua city dump and in a squalid refugee camp for people displaced by Hurricane Mitch; and a love of sea turtles she gained during a semester abroad in Australia through Universitas21, when she studied marine life in the Great Barrier Reef and had a "breathtaking, amazing" experience snorkeling alongside sea turtles.

"Ashley is using the policy analysis and leadership skills she gained at Batten not just to better understand the world, but to change it." said Eric Patashnik, a professor of politics and public policy and associate dean of the Batten School.

McCormack's thesis project combined her longstanding interests in environmental issues and community service.

As an Echols Scholar, she earned her bachelor's degree last year with high distinction, majoring in psychology and minoring in environmental science.

For her psychology Distinguished Majors Program thesis, she designed an implicit attitudes test of recycling attitudes. She found that recycling attitudes follow the well-studied pattern of racial implicit attitudes – people try to align themselves with the perceived attitudes of others they wish to get along with. So, people are more likely to recycle when a peer expresses that recycling is important.

She won a scholarship to attend the 2009 Aspen Institute Environment Forum on "Powering the Planet: Energy for the Long Run" with leading environmental experts.

As a research assistant to Paul Martin, a professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs and director of professional development for the Batten School, she helped launch a pilot initiative last fall to put Batten students to work on public-policy related issues in the local community.

Building on a U.Va. class project, McCormack and fellow 2010 graduate Rebekah Berlin started a business producing handmade, environmentally friendly greeting cards featuring corn-based paper, soy ink and a little environmental message on the back of each card.

As a director of Madison House's Cavs in the Classroom program, McCormack managed about 200 U.Va. students tutoring students in local elementary schools.

In addition to serving as treasurer of the Batten School Council, she organized a fundraiser that raised over $6,000 to benefit the family of Haiti earthquake victim and Batten student Stephanie Jean-Charles.

"Ashley McCormack combines the public service orientation, intellectual creativity, and entrepreneurial spark that is at the heart of the Batten School student leadership culture," Patashnik said.

This fall McCormack will move to San Francisco to work with one of the area's numerous programs and organizations that engage youth in environmental issues. 

— By Brevy Cannon