April 20, 2017
Black and gold (and green)
In honor of Earth Day, we catch up with some of VCU’s greenest alumni
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Whether working to protect the James River, documenting wildlife and wild places around the world or transforming Richmond into a safer place for cyclists, Virginia Commonwealth University alumni are making Earth Day every day.
VCU alumnus Bruno Welsh is talking trash. Compost, to be more specific. His Toyota Prius is jammed with more 5-gallon buckets of food scraps than you would believe could fit in a tiny hybrid.
“When I was in my ‘super-senior’ year …, I was working at a restaurant,” Welsh said as he drove through Scott’s Addition. “That’s where I started doing compost for the restaurant itself and delving into other environmental issues.”
Welsh developed his process and connections to the point of founding CompostRVA in 2013. The business provides compost consulting and pickup services to local businesses and restaurants and was assisted by the nonprofit FeastRVA, which issues grants to launch small ideas with big community impact.
“It doesn’t have to be a nonprofit to make a change. It can be a business with a philanthropic side,” said Welsh. “That’s where the politics, the teaching, the stories, all that stuff from college came into play.”
Akin to canning and other traditional food skills, Welsh sees composting as a pathway to a greener Richmond and world. Clients and students arrive with all sorts of questions about the process. He particularly enjoys providing schools with compost bins.
“I’ll hear from the teachers the kids are growing worms, getting their fingers dirty and growing all these veggies. There’s that fun factor that isn’t always there [with STEM]” said Welsh. In some cases, once kids tell their parents about composting, families will reach out to Welsh and ask, “What can we do at the house?”
“For the movement to occur, people have to be educated,” Welsh said. “I’ll talk people’s ears off and get all manner of questions from all levels of experience.”
On the business side, Welsh crisscrosses Richmond alleys picking up 5-gallon bins from behind restaurants, cooking schools, grocery stories and even an ice-pop company. Smaller than the open (and smelly) trash cans traditionally used in restaurants, the buckets can be packed tight with food scraps and other organic material. He leaves as many empties as he takes.
“It’s stuff that’s going to be broken down within the year, and it will be turned into something someone will eat or to beautify the city. With the conventional trash system, they’re not getting anything back. It’s a mausoleum of their trash that’s going to be there centuries,” Welsh said.
Welsh provides metrics on how much waste is being diverted, for businesses to tout on social media. Clients can also receive finished compost for vegetable, herb or flower gardens.
Every business produces a different mix of waste, which is combined with leaf waste, soil used by mushroom growers and other items in wire bins in a side yard at RVA Createspace in the Northside.
“You want to keep the bacteria fed, oxygenated and moist for as long as possible so you can get those higher temperatures,” Welsh said. High temperatures break down meat, bones and compostable products safely.
“Sometimes there’s just a gap in the cultural mechanism of that part of gardening. It’s all these skills that have kind of been stigmatized for whatever reasons, and trying to find a way to make it simple for people to pick up again,” Welsh said.
Melissa Lesh mixes art and ecology, with her sharp eye for documentary filmmaking landing her work in National Geographic, television and online projects.
“My dad’s a professional fine artist and my mom’s a musician, so I grew up painting, sculpting — everything that was art,” Lesh said. Born in India and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, Lesh moved to Northern Virginia when she was in high school. She took a gap year, traveling and volunteering in the United States and India.
“I was living in this 300-acre private park [in India] that backed up to a national park. We were getting wild elephants, somber deer, barking deer, leopard cats, civet cats, this amazing array of wildlife,” Lesh said.
She spent her VCU summers working as a ranger or biology technician with the Fish and Wildlife service — an opportunity she found at a VCU job fair.
“I started, with these jobs, filming what we were doing. It started blending the two. I got really interested in the power of film,” Lesh said.
On campus, she sought out documentary projects. She was also a leader of student group Green Unity 4 VCU, organizing the Rams Bazaar, Earth Day celebrations, the first VCU Community Garden and other projects.
“I have so many good memories,” Lesh said.
After connecting with James River Park Manager Ralph White and Anne Wright, assistant professor of biology at VCU, Lesh filmed a series examining wildlife native to Richmond and the James River.
“In the process I was just really getting into the power of film to capture the natural world. You film a dragonfly’s eyes with a macro lens, you’re never going to be able to see that any other way. The goal is to get into the world of that creature, and inspire [viewers] to go right in their own backyard. It’s not something out of reach that you have to travel halfway around the world to find. We have amazing wildlife right here in the city,” Lesh said.
Since founding her company, Lesh has made a grant-funded trip to film crocodiles in Australia, featured on the show “Amazing Animal Selfies;” filmed video segments for a National Geographic magazine story on grass-eating baboons on the highlands of Ethiopia; and worked on production projects.
You can never be too blown away by the natural world.
“You can never be too blown away by the natural world. There’s always something that takes your breath away that you never expect,” Lesh said. “There’s a lot of hardship and a lot of tragic things going on, but there is so much beauty and so much to fight for.
“If we can bring people closer to these animals and these places, and heighten the appreciation for them, there’s a greater chance that we can protect it,” she said.
From reading Dr. Seuss’ environmental tale “The Lorax” with his mom, to his present work advocating for Richmonders to try alternative transportation, Brantley Tyndall has been keeping his footprint on Earth front of mind since he was a kid.
“As an adult I watched ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ It was around that time that I chose not to ignore my chance to make a positive impact on the ecology of our world and to study at VCU,” Tyndall said.
The Raleigh, North Carolina, native connected with mentor J. Clifford Fox, Ph.D., in the Center for Environmental Studies, even before choosing VCU.
At the university, he was a founding member of Green Unity 4 VCU, an environmental student organization. The group worked on academic and facilities issues, which led to VCU signing the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and creating the Office of Sustainability.
Tyndall joined that office as a staff member, where “it quickly became clear that I was the most bike-focused of the staff, so all alternative transportation-related work naturally came my way,” he said.
My work is to be a part of the movement to change that.
“Nonmotorized transportation is the focus of my current work, specifically advocating for improving the feasibility of biking and walking as transportation options to people who currently drive,” Tyndall said. “Our roadway system is simply not built to accommodate these modes for most people now, so my work is to be a part of the movement to change that.”
Tyndall has visited and studied the transit system in Portland, Oregon, where 26 percent of downtown trips are taken via bicycle.
“That is the result of a few decades of slow but steady development of on-street accommodations for people to bike,” he said, culminating in an environment where school kids can bike to school safely.
The Potterfield Bridge is a highlight of projects Tyndall has been involved with in the Richmond region. He advocated for the design, funding and construction of this project, whose namesake he knew personally.
“[Potterfield] was a true champion of the river, sustainability, and Richmond, and the experience crossing the river on his bridge conveys the wonder of the natural environment that we must swear to protect,” Tyndall said.
Analise Adams’ grew up a military brat and lived “a little bit of everywhere,” including several years in Belgium. After graduating from Virginia Tech in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in human development and psychology, she sought a program that would help her bridge rural and urban Virginia in sustainable ways.
“I was drawn to the focus VCU had on social justice and community development. I was focused on figuring out, ‘How do we come together to make more equitable spaces for people?’” she said.
In the School of Social Work’s administration, planning and policy practice track, she took part in internships and projects to help to answer those questions. She connected with Shalom Farms for an internship, and was excited to find a job open in 2013.
“Once the food is grown on our 15-acre organic farm, it comes into the city through partnerships and programs, and I oversee that,” said Adams. “This is a community-level issue. What can we do to promote equity across the food system?”
That food arrives through after-school programs, corner stores and other pathways. Their customized mobile market truck serves 10 to 15 communities a week.
“People get the best benefits of a farmers market where you get to touch, feel and taste local produce. It’s not confined by transportation barriers, so it increases that access,” Adams said. “We all have this right to grow up in healthy places and thrive.”
“We love VCU. We donate weekly during our season, from June to November, making sure college students have access to healthy fruits and vegetables. We’re happy to support RamPantry,” said Adams.
She embraces the work, even though, “If you know me, I’m the least likely person to work at a farm.”
“It has been fun to get some more street cred as a farmer,” said Adams.
Farmer-in-residence, Shalom Farms
B.A., Spanish and international studies, College of Humanities and Sciences, School of World Studies, 2014
Favorite green spot in Richmond: 42nd Street access, James River Park System
Arin Burke grew up on the south side of the James River, where her parents settled so they could drag their kayaks down the road and enjoy the water.
“As a little kid, my dad called me a river rat. I floated down the river hundreds of times, some of them asleep in the bottom of my dad’s canoe,” she said. “I was a tomboy, so I loved to fish and hop rocks. I remember going as a kid, and feeling like I was alone out there in the wilderness — in the middle of Richmond, ironically.”
Burke attended Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies and “was reluctant to stay in my hometown, but I wanted that urban experience in college. Which is funny, being a farmer,” she said. “Having grown up in Richmond, I knew VCU was the most diverse, creative, eclectic student body in the area.”
Burke double-majored in Spanish and international studies (social justice concentration) in the College of Humanities and Sciences’ School of World Studies. A class, taught in Spanish, on the experiences of Latin Americans in the U.S., led her to research food justice issues and the rights of migrant farm workers.
During the summers, Burke worked on farms through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms work-study program.
“I spent a summer in Mexico, and a summer in California, and I realized that, ‘Man I really like farming,’” she said. A dahlia flower farm in California “was beautiful and lovely, but also very different than growing food. When I was working in Mexico, I was growing tropical fruit — avocados, papayas and mangos.”
She returned to Richmond, working on another local farm before joining Shalom Farms last season, where she works on all aspects of farming.
“I’m very much still learning,” she said. “That’s why I decided to stay here another season. It’s a great place to learn. It’s an educational setting, that’s part of the mentality that we’re not just here to grow food, but to teach a younger generation of farmers.”
Burke helps with the mobile market’s visits to Hispanic communities in Richmond.
“I was able to help out the day when we were selling veggies in a Spanish-speaking community, which was nice because I was able to use my degree,” said Burke. “I was asking women from Guatemala one day, ‘What kind of peppers do you eat there?’ I'm writing names down and trying to look for seeds.”
Her favorite aspect of Shalom Farms?
“Probably the ability for all of us to work so hard, so long, in such tough conditions and be so happy while doing it,” said Burke. “Everyone here is always in good spirits, and I think it’s the nature — no pun intended — of what we do, just being outside all the time and doing work we’re all deeply passionate about.”
Community conservation manager, James River Association
Master of Urban and Regional Planning, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, 2012
Favorite green spot in Richmond: Jefferson Hill Park — “It overlooks Shockoe Valley and provides some of the best views of the skyline.”
As a kid, Justin Doyle explored the creeks, woods and wild spaces of Stafford County, Virginia. He also witnessed the county lands changing rapidly into big-box retailers, vinyl-clad houses and more ribbons of concrete and asphalt.
I saw the impact of those kinds of car-oriented development on the landscape and some of the unfortunate consequences.
“Being a suburb of Washington, D.C., I really observed the rapid conversion of those agricultural lands to suburban development,” Doyle said. “I saw the impact of those kinds of car-oriented development on the landscape and some of the unfortunate consequences, such as traffic congestion and sprawl.”
Today, he works for the nonprofit James River Association, which aims to preserve Richmond’s acclaimed waterway.
“We work to improve the health of the river, protect the river and help people enjoy the river,” said Doyle. “The nature of the projects I work on are conservation- and recreation-related.”
His duties can range from guided tours of the riverfront, to advocating for funding for the T. Tyler Potterfield Bridge, to running an after-work paddling program.
“We bring our canoe trailer to Great Shiplock Park and invite residents to join us on guided paddles on Richmond’s riverfront,” said Doyle. “We talk about historical resources, natural resources and the health of the James River. It’s one of many ways we’ve attempted to get people on the river in a fun and educational manner.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in geography at the University of Mary Washington in 2008 before moving to Richmond.
“That played into both my interest in international affairs from a human side of geography, and my passion for natural resources and conservation on the physical side of geography,” said Doyle.
The Master of Urban and Regional Planning in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs — and a relationship — drew him to VCU.
“It was a big move for me. Upon arrival in Richmond, I fell in love with the city and the James River and the James River Park System,” he said.
Doyle joined the Urban and Regional Planning Student Association while on campus. He worked in two departments in Henrico County before joining the James River Association in 2013. The association maintains ties with many VCU departments and student groups, including Green Unity and the Rice Rivers Center.
“With the exciting things happening on the riverfront — the Potterfield Bridge is a great example of it — people see what’s possible and they tend to become excited about the future of our public spaces on the Richmond riverfront,” he said.
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