Georgia teen brings eco-message to Rochester

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This article was originally published on Earth Day, April 21, 2014, in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle by Steve Orr.

For most school kids, the word “assembly” has a well-worn synonym: “Boredom.”

But when students at Rochester’s School Without Walls file into their school’s community room Wednesday morning for an assembly, things likely will be different.

For the speaker there and at four other local schools over the next three days will be a fellow teenager — a peer who is an environmental activist and the founder of a grant-making green nonprofit organization who has won national awards for his growing list of accomplishments.

Charles Orgbon III of Dacula, Ga., who is 18 years old, travels frequently to urge and inspire other young people to begin marking off accomplishments of their own.

“I usually talk about a range of topics such as what does it mean to be an environmentalist or what does it mean to be a community leader?” Orgbon said recently. “I think one single talk can get young people thinking about their role in the world.”

His visit here is sponsored Sierra Club’s Rochester Regional Group as part of its recognition of Earth Day Week. Earth Day itself is Tuesday.

Orgbon, a senior at Mill Creek High School about 30 miles from downtown Atlanta, began organizing litter pickups at his elementary school six years ago. That has grown into stewardship of an environmental advocacy and service group now known as Greening Forward.

The group helps young people in other communities start their own “Earth Savers Clubs,” raises money and makes cash grants to the clubs to support projects, provides young people for community service activities and educates on a slew of environmental problems.

To solve those problems, Orgbon advocates that young people seize the reins. “We empower young people to take action on the environmental issues they care about,” he said.

Orgbon, who is African-American, also speaks often of the need for more diversity in the environmental movement, and likely will do so in Rochester.

“Having more models of color does help. If communities of color only see white environmentalists, they are going to be frustrated and wonder where they fit in,” he said.

All five schools Orgbon will visit here — School Without Walls, World of Inquiry, East High and School 33 in Rochester and Hope Hall in Gates — have racially and ethnically diverse student bodies.

“If the environmental movement hopes to make a meaningful difference in the world, we are going to have to find every reason to be more inclusive. That means recognizing that there are different interests and different needs for the communities we hope to serve,” he said. “For example, we can’t go into communities talking about saving polar bears if we are not ready to talk about what does it mean to reduce crime or to talk about food deserts as well.”

Local Sierra Club official Margie Campaigne, who is helping chaperone Orgbon while he’s here, first encountered him on the Internet a while back and helped edit a document he’d written.

“As the years went by, I was more and more impressed with his accomplishments,” she said. “At an executive committee meeting a few months ago when we were putting suggestions on the table for our annual forum, I mentioned Charles.

“One of our board members did a search on his name from her phone, and announced all the impressive links that came up. We ultimately decided that we’d … have him visit to inspire students specifically right in their schools,” she said. “We are definitely trying to engage younger people in Sierra.”

Orgbon’s visit to the Rochester area, which will include a sightseeing trip to Niagara Falls, marks the first time he’s traveled beyond the southeastern United States to spread his message.

When he first organized fellow students in his own community, they began recycling, built a rain garden and got the school to include an environmental education segment.

Then the all-volunteer organization, of which Orgbon is chief executive, broadened its mission to encourage other young people to do the same. Today, it supports 2,000 young people in 15 different Earth Savers clubs, said Orgbon, who answered questions via email.

The group has given $53,000 in grants to help with projects such as tree-planting, rain barrel installation and recycling.

Greening Forward is in turn supported by sponsors such as Lush Cosmetics and Wells Fargo, Orgbon said. A green-minded California company, PACT, currently is offering organic clothing for sale on the group’s website, with all proceeds going to the nonprofit.

The website contains lengthy educational discussions of topics such as climate change, habitat conservation and waste reduction.

“We’ve become addicted to single-use plastics. We use things like bags and bottles that stay on our planet forever,” Orgbon said. “Everyone can bring their own reusable bags, refuse plastic straw and lids, buy in bulk and have their own reusable bottles. When others ask ‘Why aren’t you using a straw?’ be sure to inform them why you are making that decision.”

Judging by numerous videos available online, Orgbon is a smooth and accomplished public speaker. And he also has been honored numerous times; Among other honors, he was named a Jefferson Awards Globechanger in 2012 and given a 365Black Award by McDonald’s Corp. in 2013.

Orgbon plans to attend the University of Georgia in the fall to study environmental economics and management. Asked if he expected to be involved in environmentalism in 10 years, he politely declined to answer.

It may be that he prefers to focus on the here and now.

“Modern-day heroes are people who do what they can with what they have,” Orgbon said in a TEDx talk last year that can be viewed on YouTube. “If we really want to solve these global complex issues and have anything to believe in, we cannot wait to empower young people to become modern-day heroes.”

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