In a March op-ed for the Burlington Free Press, Schweitzer Fellow and Vermont Law School student Allison Silverman explored the connections between her Schweitzer service project and environmental health. “My project has allowed me to build on my ongoing conviction to build community and a better environment through energy efficiency,” she wrote.
Now, on the eve of Earth Day, we chat with Silverman about her work to make affordable and low-income housing in South Royalton, Vermont more energy efficient. “It tends to be low-income individuals and communities who are hit first and hardest,” says Silverman, who is spearheading an Energy Efficiency Day of Action this Saturday, “but climate change is affecting everyone.”
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
Ever since graduating college, I have gravitated towards issues related to how energy and the environment impact people’s health and well-being. I first worked on using solar energy as a catalyst to create a secondary school and to build community in a rural community in Panama where there was no electricity. I next found myself promoting alternatives to a destructive massive hydroelectric scheme proposed in Chilean Patagonia.
Now, living in Vermont, I recognized an opportunity to use the promotion of energy efficiency as a means to build community and reduce the Vermont Law School (VLS) community’s carbon footprint. After all, it seemed like a perfect place to implement such a project, considering that VLS has been named the #1 environmental law school in the country.
When I moved to South Royalton, Vermont last year, I searched for a single bedroom apartment that was within walking distance from town, and had reasonable rent. I found a nice place—but I noticed that despite the windows being small to save energy, the lights throughout the apartment were inefficient incandescent bulbs. One of the first things I did was exchange all of the lightbulbs for compact flourescent lightbulbs (CFLs), which use 75 to 80 percent less electricity and last 10 to 13 times longer. With permission from the homeowner, I was also able to seal up the tiny windows in the winter to prevent the cold air from entering and warm air from leaving. The entire process probably took me an hour and cost me under $50.
Although many students care about the environment here, I wondered how many of us had spoken with our homeowners and taken the time out of our busy law school lives to also make these changes. If so, were others as fortunate as I in having a lessor who was amenable to the idea of making my apartment more energy efficient as long as I did the work myself? If not, what was the biggest barrier and how could this boulder be eliminated? How could I encourage both tenants and homeowners to make the housing stock for Vermont Law School students more energy efficient?
I recognized that, just like distance from school and affordability, energy efficiency could one day be a criterion for students choosing their apartments. In order to make this a reality, however, I would need to build awareness of the importance of energy efficiency among tenants and homeowners. I would need to make information and tools available and build relationships with local community organizaitons with expertise in this field. I would also need to relate energy efficiency to economic savings and other benefits, such as health and other environmental rewards.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
I hope to provide information on energy efficiency—its importance, and concrete short and long-term acts that tenants and homeowners can take—to improve the local housing stock around VLS and to build community relations.
The VLS community is relatively small, but it has a large presence in South Royalton, the town it calls home. As a person who was raised to believe that small, individual acts can make a large difference, I believed that by building awareness among students and local homeowners, the Vermont Law School and South Royalton community could create a stronger relations, building community and making our carbon footprint smaller through making the housing stock more energy efficient.
I also wanted to lay the groundwork for replicating and expanding my project, using it as a model to promote energy efficiency and to build relationships between homeowners and tenants. Throughout my project, I have collaborated with various student groups, staff, and faculty at VLS to encourage this effort. I have also been developing a set of materials that explain how and why to increase energy efficiency, catering to communities who have a large university presence.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
All too often, environmental issues are not seen as impacting our health; the link between climate change, our energy use, and our health appears too tenuous. However, the global demand for energy is rising and will only continue to do so, raising concerns regarding equity and justice.
Relying on fossil fuels for our energy sources causes serious, yet unnecessary environmental and health hazards. Especially when there are ways to reform our energy use and our impact on the environment, it seems ludicrous to avoid taking such opportunities and protecting the planet and everyone’s health. It tends to be low-income individuals and communities who are hit first and hardest, but climate change is affecting everyone.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
Throughout my Schweitzer Fellowship year, I have been inspired to meet so many people and to learn of so many organizations already working on the issues about which I’m so passionate. For example, as I have developed and implemented my project with my community partner, Tim Perrin from Efficiency Vermont (EVT), I have found that EVT shares similar objectives and has worked on similar projects. Their experiences have provided me with lessons and strategies about how best to execute my project—and they are interested in further developing some aspects of my project in the context of their own work. Instead of reinventing the wheel, collaborating with my partner organization has allowed me to take my project to the next level and do more than I thought that I could.
Also, I thoroughly enjoyed working on our VLS Schweitzer public outreach project. [In addition to their individual or paired Schweitzer projects, Fellows carry out group public outreach activities over the course of their Fellowship year.] This year, we collaborated with COVER Home Repair to weatherize low-income houses in South Royalton and the greater Upper Valley. We had a great turnout from VLS students, faculty and staff for both weekends. Preparing 10 homes for the cold Vermont winter, I felt confident that everyone—homeowners and volunteers—benefited from the experience.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and, ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?
It has been an honor to join a community of individuals dedicated to serving their communities despite other obligations such as graduate school. It has been especially gratifying to collaborate with the other Schweitzer Fellows at Vermont Law School and Becky Torrey, the New Hampshire-Vermont Schweitzer Fellows Program Director. I have relied on them to help brainstorm strategies for dealing with unforeseen boulders and for taking advantage of unexpected opportunities.
Finally, learning about Albert Schweitzer’s life and the other Schweitzer Fellows’ work has inspired and motivated me to be creative, tireless, and positive throughout not just my Schweitzer project, but also everything and anything that I take on in my studies and career of service.
Allison Silverman is a Schweitzer Fellow in Vermont. Click here to read more about the New Hampshire-Vermont Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Silverman it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Silverman’s efforts to promote energy efficiency and build healthier communities, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.