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June 20, 2010

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Going green one child at a time

TORI Zwisler has spearheaded the city's grassroots environmental movement as the founder of Shanghai Roots and Shoots, Zhang Qian reports.

There is no doubt more attention is being given to environmental problems.

People are doing everything from seeking ways to make renewable energies cost-effective and proposing bans on polluting products to planting trees or using less electricity.

All of these things are good, but Tori Zwisler, the founder and executive director of Shanghai Roots and Shoots, said changing the way people think is just as important.

For her, this process starts with children.

Educating the kids for a cleaner and better world is more effective and necessary, since they are the future decision makers who can enact real change.

Zwisler has been working with schools and children in Shanghai since 1999, when she founded the Jane Goodall Institute-Shanghai Roots and Shoots. The institute focuses on promoting environmental concern, care for animals, and care for people among the city's youth. It works with about 200 schools and more than 100 offices to carry out programs such as the Million Tree Project, Global Neighbors, Organic Garden, Eco-Audit and the No Plastic Bags Campaign.

"Our goal is to educate every kid in every school to understand the environmental challenges facing the world," said Zwisler, an American. "We also want to make them realize that they can do something about it."

All Roots and Shoots programs are carried out to provide young people with positive experiences so they will understand they are responsible for making a change and that it's not hard to change things.

Zwisler says all it takes is one step at a time. Even if they initially take only a small step, they can ultimately make the world a better place.

"Kids will realize that if they can change six people's opinion, they can change 60 people's opinion, and maybe 600 next," Zwisler said. "And if everybody is doing that, maybe the next generation can make better decisions."

Children often can be more influential than adults in changing habits. Adults are usually set in their ways, with set habits and lifestyles. But children who have their whole life in front of them have a bigger interest and bigger stake in cleaning up the world.

Zwisler also believes that the best way to change the opinions and habits of adults is through children.

She gives an example from the Roots and Shoots Eco-Audit program.

A lot of office managers in the program say they failed many times to persuade employees to stop using plastic cups, or to turn off the lights when leaving. But when student volunteers say the same thing, the employees listen and change their ways.

"It is a good thing. There are a lot of little people in the country," Zwisler said. "We hope that we can awake the passion in them, and inspire them to do the right things and make the right choices. We want them to know that there are other motivations in the world beside money. Without clean water, all that money cannot get you a drink."

Zwisler's efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last year, the Shanghai Volunteer Association named her "2009 Volunteer of the Year," which is usually given to 10 people each year. Zwisler is the first foreigner to win the award.

"I am so honored, and of course it makes you feel good to be acknowledged for what you are doing, especially in a big city with 17 million people," the 64-year-old said.

Zwisler is proud that about 130,000 people have either directly or indirectly been exposed to environmental awareness through Roots and Shoots programs with schools and companies, according to the non-profit's own statistics.

Zwisler said that running a volunteer organization was never really her idea.

Before moving to China with her husband in 1992, she worked as a quality control engineer in the United States. Her life changed when she met Dr Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist and the founder of Roots and Shoots, at a teacher's convention in Shanghai in 1998.

Goodall is known for her work in Africa to protect chimpanzees. She started the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 and Roots and Shoots in 1991.

Zwisler said she was attracted by Goodall's story and when she encouraged her to begin a Roots and Shoots organization in Shanghai, Zwisler promptly said yes.

Zwisler said it wasn't too difficult to set up the Shanghai branch since the organization already had a method to follow.

"The major pathway was set down, I can easily follow the steps," Zwisler said. "We work in after-school activity groups with kids, let them choose their own projects, help them achieve the goal, promote engagement without confrontation or political agendas."

However, 10 years ago environmental awareness was not really an issue in Shanghai. The city was in the process of developing into an international hub of commerce and trade, and its momentum did not slow down for the environment.

"Improving their lifestyle has been a 20-year focus here, and that always came first," Zwisler said. "People saw environmental problems, but it was just not what they were focusing on. And in 1999, when our organization was founded, I think China just started to think about environmental pollution."

Winning the bid for the 2008 Beijing Olympics has had a very positive effect in bringing attention to environmental protection. Apart from some construction changes, the calling for a green Olympics has also improved awareness of protecting the country's air, water and endangered species.

One of Roots and Shoots projects is the Million Tree Project. It encourages people to pay back the earth for the damage each creates by purchasing trees that are planted in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The organization hopes to plant 1 million trees in Inner Mongolia by 2014 to stop desertification. The project started in 2007 and thus far 400,000 trees have been planted.

Despite these projects, Zwisler can not help but going back to her main point of changing the way people think. She said changing people's attitude is more significant than planting 1 million trees. After all, the trees will not survive unless people take care of the environment.

Even though she has lived in Shanghai for 18 years, she still doesn't speak much Mandarin, but she hasn't let it become an obstacle in her career.

"The language of volunteerism is universal," Zwisler said. "When you are doing good things, it is pretty easy to get the message across, and get them to understand your point of view."

Some of Shanghai Roots and Shoots Programs

The Million Tree Project

You are responsible for the energy and waste choices that you make. Through this project you are offered a way to pay back the earth for the damage you create, by purchasing trees that are planted in Inner Mongolia. The goal is to plant 1 million trees by 2014.


Through this program, high school students are trained and sent to companies to perform an assessment of the office environment. Through the assessment, the students collect data to create a report on the current situation of the office environment, giving workers suggestions on how the company can work toward saving energy, being environmentally prudent and reducing costs.

Organic Garden

The project educates students about where food comes from, how challenging it is to grow vegetables in an environmentally friendly way, what constitutes organic gardening, and why it is a good choice for the environment.


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