By Amy Westervelt | April 1, 2015 | Lifestyle
Ciara Byrne and Kim Macquarrie are planting the seeds of conservation by funding dozens of Clark County school gardens through Green Our Planet.
Raising eco-awareness through their films wasn’t enough for Kim MacQuarrie and Ciara Byrne; they needed to take action at the grass roots.
At the Las Vegas schools that Kim MacQuarrie attended while growing up in the city, agriculture wasn’t exactly part of the curriculum. He and his partner, Ciara Byrne, originally from Dublin, Ireland, have spent the last two years trying to change that, although neither set out to be an evangelist for school gardens.
MacQuarrie and Byrne had successful careers shooting documentary films, often about the natural world—he as director (with four Emmys to his credit) and she as producer—but their shared passion for conservation frequently had them talking about how they could effect environmental change more directly. “We’ve always sort of known that film could help with conservation in general, with raising awareness and inspiring people,” Byrne says, “but we wanted to find a way to empower people to do something, too.”
In 2010, she picked up a book that MacQuarrie had been recommending for years, The Sixth Extinction, by the eminent paleoanthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey. “Ciara read it and said, ‘Wow, we’ve got to contact this guy,’” MacQuarrie recalls. “She found his e-mail, sent him a note, and within 24 hours we had talked to him and decided to go to Kenya to meet him.”
Leakey is also an ardent conservationist. As an official with the Kenyan government in 1989, he cracked down on the illegal ivory trade by creating armed antipoaching units in the country’s national parks, ending the killing of elephants there. He also cofounded WildlifeDirect, an organization that works with wildlife-focused nonprofits across Africa to protect the continent’s species. During one of his conversations with MacQuarrie and Byrne, Leakey expressed his frustration at how difficult it was to raise the $25,000 to $30,000 a year that most of the nonprofits needed to continue doing their work.
“That was something we’d been thinking about, too,” says Byrne. “How do you empower people to give fairly small amounts of money that make a big difference?”
After the pair returned from Kenya, MacQuarrie set off on a trek through the Andes (documented in his forthcoming book Adventures in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries), while Byrne stayed in Las Vegas, where she spent time with various people involved in the Downtown Project. “I was so inspired by how many projects Kickstarter had helped to get off the ground,” she says. “So when I went to meet Kim in Argentina, I said, ‘Why don’t we do a sort of green Kickstarter?’”
The two knew nothing about creating websites, but they knew people who did, including their friend Jeff Newburn, a software engineer at Zappos. He offered to build them a site, and by March 2013, MacQuarrie and Byrne had launched Green Our Planet. Although their aim was to eventually provide an international platform to crowdfund all manner of eco-minded projects (and anyone can now use the site to do just that), the pair wanted to start locally.
“Then Bryan [Vellinga] at Garden Farms came to us and said, ‘Hey, I heard you have this green crowdfunding platform and you’re looking for projects, and I have school principals who want gardens but have no money,’” Byrne says.
So they went to the Shirley and Bill Wallin Elementary School in Henderson with Vellinga and made a short film about the benefits a garden can provide. School gardens have been linked to improved behavior and test scores and offer an excellent way to teach subjects like science and nutrition, all while giving students access to natural light and daily exercise. Within five weeks, they had raised $7,500, and Vellinga got to work on building the first of their gardens.
“Then our fifth garden, at Myrtle Tate Elementary School, raised no money at all and we didn’t know why,” Byrne says. “The principal explained that more than 80 percent of her students were low income and that their parents probably didn’t have computers. Kim and I thought, That’s not fair. These kids deserve a garden just as much.”
They discovered that more than 60 percent of schools in the Clark County School District, including Myrtle Tate, are designated Title I—institutions with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students—and decided they needed to find financial sponsors for those schools. For Myrtle Tate, they enlisted NV Energy. Since then, Green Our Planet has helped 57 schools in and around Las Vegas raise money for gardens (with eight more fundraising campaigns currently under way). Their dozens of corporate partners now include Whole Foods Market, Lowe’s, Cosmopolitan, Wynn Resorts, and Honda. Chefs from Vegas resorts work with the students to help them put their harvests to good use, and Byrne and MacQuarrie have worked with teachers to draft state-approved curricula that include experiential science and running a farmers market.
Although they didn’t set out to bring school gardens to the area, MacQuarrie describes their efforts using the same term that Las Vegas’s Mayor Carolyn Goodman often employs in discussing the achievements of Downtown Project: “collective impact.”
“We are the accidental collective-impact proponents,” he says. “We decided we wanted to have a platform, so then we had to find a Web person, and then we realized you can’t just build a garden, you need curricula, so we found those guys. Then we needed chefs and found them. And then Switch gave us office space. So before you know it, we’ve harnessed all these different resources that always existed in Vegas and channeled them toward a collective impact on this issue. We’re not creating these resources, but when you start connecting them, suddenly there’s this miraculous result.”
photography by jeff gale