Droughts, heat waves, wildfires, tropical storms and hurricanes, rising oceans and shrinking Arctic ice caps. These climate change catastrophes continue to devastate communities. Their effects are inescapable.
O’Dowd has been at the forefront of environmental activism since the sixties, when we introduced our first Environmental Studies course. In 1970, students founded the first Ecology Club, and hosted O’Dowd’s very first Earth Day celebration. The school’s deep commitment to our Charism value of kinship with creation ultimately led the development of both our 4-acre Living Lab and LEED Platinum Certified Center for Environmental Studies, which work in tandem to offer students a pioneering education in ecology, environmental science, and environmental justice. Today O’Dowd holds the distinct accolade of being the first Catholic school to earn the highest-level honor – “Green Achiever” – from the California Department of Education. And now we are taking our leadership further.
“Because of O’Dowd’s innovative approach to environmental education, we’ve been asked to lead the California Catholic Conference’s Committee on Environmental Stewardship,” reports Michael Downs, O’Dowd’s Director of Kinship and Justice, who is serving as co-chair of the Committee. “O’Dowd and five other Green Ribbon schools are charged with taking our exemplary environmental teaching models and using them to expand environmental literacy across the state, in both Catholic and public schools.”
Downs has been pivotal in building O’Dowd’s celebrated Kinship with Creation curriculum since he joined the school in 2016. “Our environmental education program is informed by Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si,” explains Downs. “He calls us, very clearly, to care for our common home. It’s our responsibility, our mandate, to take action against climate change.”
When 9th graders begin their education at O’Dowd, our Charism value of kinship with creation is woven through the math, science, religion, and service learning courses. It grows from there. Students plant seedlings in our Living Lab, then partner with Oakland Unified School District and CalFresh to give take-home gardening kits to low-income families. Students harvest fruits, herbs and vegetables, and fresh laid eggs from our Living Lab to be used in the school’s cafeteria meals. “We send students to Appalachia to learn about the effects of the coal industry,” Downs describes. “And then we sent students to Washington D.C. to advocate for environmental justice.” The point is to create a holistic, integrated education model where students learn in the classroom and take action in the world. “That’s how we’re going to make an impact,” Downs asserts “Our vision with the California Catholic Conference is to educate all California students in an integrated approach that protects nature, combats poverty, and restores dignity to marginalized communities.”
Downs is also a member of the Vatican’s Laudato Si Action Platform Working Committee on Educational Institutions, which aims to design environmental sustainability curriculum for elementary, middle, and high school students. He contributes to the National Catholic Reporter and the National Catholic Education Association on issues of environmental education, too.
“I fully took Laudato Si to heart,” Downs proclaims. “There was a vocational upwelling when I read it. It was one of the few moments in my life when I truly knew what I was called to do – to work at the intersection of earth and spirit, to stop injustice.”
Today, Downs sees school campuses as laboratories for climate resiliency. “We need a radical mindset shift,” he declares. “The model we’ve developed at O’Dowd, it has the power to scale, it has the power to inspire. We’re creating hope, and that has a ripple effect. We can affect people’s hearts and minds, and ultimately protect our common home.”