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Saving the Planet, One Student at a Time

Teenagers, an urban farm and no cell phones.

No, it’s not a dream. It was the actual scene on a recent Friday afternoon, when a group of 8th–graders from Harshman Magnet Middle School took a trip to the farm at Paramount School of Excellence.


They were so into the chickens, goats and bees that texting, selfies, Instagram and Snapchat took a backseat to farm life.


“I was just watching how engaged they were,” said Madeline Rozelle, who teaches art at Harshman. “I was joking about this with them, but no one was on their cell phone, not even to take pictures. They were so excited. They even spent 20 minutes talking about and looking at beehives that didn’t have bees in them.”


In the middle of that scene was Jim Poyser, executive director of Earth Charter Indiana, a grassroots organization that focuses on climate change and social inequality. He’s been teaching Harshman students about sustainability since the fall of 2015.


“I’ve just never seen them so attentive,” said Poyser, about the trip to the farm. “They really impressed the outdoor educator (at Paramount) and asked really intelligent questions. Their love for animals is just off the charts.”


Harshman isn’t the only Indianapolis Public Schools location where Poyser is spreading his messages of green living, sustainability and climate change.


He has worked with students at Sidener Academy for High Ability Students, IPS/ Butler University Laboratory School 60, Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48, Shortridge High School, Cold Spring School, as well as the Center for Inquiry School 2 and School 27, among others.


And he’s spreading his message by any means necessary. Poyser has taken groups of IPS students on bus rides using IndyGo; led them on tours of local urban farms; tested their knowledge on climate change in a game show he created called the “Ain’t Too Late Show”; and showcased some of their 3D bees in an exhibit at the Indianapolis Artsgarden. That was just his April schedule.


However, imparting his knowledge and the facts about climate change and sustainability causes both joy and some angst for Poyser.


The angst comes from the Earth he knows they are going to inherit, which includes extreme climate changes (“our weather is now on steroids”), the warming of the ocean, which results in the bleaching of coral reefs; the melting of the ice caps, which is raising sea levels. The list goes on.


The joy comes from knowing that youths can make a difference. “People often say to me, ‘It’s so great that you’re planting seeds.’ And I say, ‘You know what, we don’t have time for seeds. We need to get moving on this now,’” said Poyser. “And who better than the people whose future depends on it? We need the kids to remind us that they’re the bottom line.”


Ultimately, he wants to make them “alert to what I’m saying and make them aware that (making the Earth better) really depends on what they do now.” And to equip them with the hands-on knowledge to reach their end goal.


Rozelle can see the difference in her students.


“In the beginning, I don’t think they really had a whole lot of knowledge of the environment and their impact on it … where our food comes from and how the choices of the human race are affecting the planet,” said Rozelle, who started the sustainability intensive with Poyser at Harshman.


Now, she said, they are also interested in the policy side of sustainability. They’re exploring the role of students and what they can do to make a difference.


“For the kids, it’s about learning how to be self-sufficient. Taking or owning your own transportation, bicycle and bus (principally); being able to grow your own food, being able to use your end products responsibly and being able to generate your own electricity,” said Poyser, who practices what he preaches.


Poyser rides his bike year-round to cut down on carbon emissions. He has reduced his intake of meat by 60–65 percent (“I certainly have altered the kinds of meat that I eat. Animal agriculture is a very destructive part of our human behavior.”). He buys local and uses a co-mingling recycling unit, which only requires him to put out trash once a month at home.


Although he has always been concerned about the plant and living green, he hasn’t always made a living doing it. A former journalist, Poyser actually credits Center for Inquiry School 2 as the reason he’s with Earth Charter Indiana and making a living helping students throughout the state and others learn how to take care of the Earth.


“(CFI 2) sort of led to my transition from being managing editor at Nuvo (an alternative weekly publication) and having a career in journalism to actually leaving that position so that I could work with kids fulltime,” he said.


Back in spring 2013, while still with Nuvo, Poyser led a talk on climate change to students at CFI 2 and was amazed at how much they already knew.


“The kids already knew what was going on … from the Greenhouse Effect to carbon emissions and its warming the planet. In fact, they were already doing things like planning for a green roof, gardening and composting,” said Poyser. “They were doing so many things that I literally walked out of there with one of those epiphanies that you wish for in your life – the one where you know what you want to do with your life from that day forward. I knew when I walked out of CFI, what I wanted to do.”


In the fall of 2013, Poyser became executive director of Earth Charter Indiana.


“So, I have a lot to thank IPS for – for providing amazing instruction, inspiration and mentorship to these kids because it gave me the courage to leave a great job and a pretty set career to sort of step off a cliff into the world of climate change solutions,” he said.