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Board's Endorsement Elevates Sustainability Goals at DA
By Dylan Howlett

It started, like all worthy causes do, with an idea: four 11th-grade boys huddled around a whiteboard in the Upper School Learning Commons, scribbling fragments and notions that would become a constellation of dreams. It was the fall of 2018, and the quartet of Durham Academy juniors — Brandon Caveney ’20, the late Jack Linger ’20, Will Nichols ’20 and Andrew Owens ’20 — had formed, in the most informal sense, Durham Academy’s inaugural Sustainability Club.

They did so at the behest of Tina Bessias ’78, an Upper School English teacher and Independent Learning coordinator. That same month, Bessias had read, with no shortage of alarm, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark report, which concluded that the warming of the Earth by 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels would portend a cascade of cataclysms from which our planet — and, quite possibly, humans — may never recover. The boys, however, saw something more hopeful. “It kind of highlighted that while there is a doomsday scenario, there absolutely is a way to make change to kind of reduce the negative impacts of climate change,” Owens said. “It’s very easy to say that we’re past the point of return — and we might be — but we’re not past the point where we can at least reduce the negative consequences.”

Five years later, on a brisk December day, Merritt Schulz ’25 also found himself in the Learning Commons. The co-chair of the DA Upper School Sustainability Committee was tucked away in the Upper School library when he saw Bessias (now serving as DA’s first-ever sustainability coordinator) and his co-chair, Zara Miller ’25, striding forth with an ebullience that only the best of news can inspire. They conferred with Schulz, who leapt to his feet. “We need to tell Ms. Caruso!” he said. They sprinted across campus to the STEM & Humanities Center, where Andrea Caruso, an Upper School science teacher and divisional sustainability leader, erupted with commensurate glee. The dreams of the dry-erase board had come true.

In December, the Durham Academy Board of Trustees voted to endorse the goals suggested by the DA Sustainability Leadership Team and the Upper School’s student Sustainability Committee, which had presented its aspirations and concrete plans to the board and DA's Administrative Team over the course of several years. The endorsement of three explicit goals — educating students in all divisions about sustainability, reducing DA’s carbon emissions by 25% within four years, and increasing biodiversity across DA’s campuses — comes 10 years shy of the school’s centennial, all the while positioning sustainability as “a top-shelf priority for the institution,” Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner said.

To support these goals, the DA Family Association committed a substantial gift to assist with rewilding and biodiversity efforts at the Upper School and Middle School. (The $100,000 gift also included funding for a climbing structure and natural features of the Lower School’s new nature-centric playground.) Ulku-Steiner shared this news with Upper Schoolers at a Jan. 5 assembly in Kirby Gym, beneath a bank of fluorescent lights that will soon be replaced with LED lighting — cheaper-to-maintain, brighter and more efficient technology — in another visible display of actionable change. Ulku-Steiner motioned toward a group of familiar faces. “I want you to recognize that it’s students who catalyzed this change,” he said, as he was joined by seven DA alumni who worked tirelessly on behalf of sustainability efforts. “These are some of the students who took unpopular stands,” Ulku-Steiner said, “who went to extra meetings, who worked on weekends, who worked on evenings.”

They would work again on this day, too. As the assembly concluded, the seven alumni and dozens of current students, faculty and staff members walked to the grassy area beneath the Elder Oak — a gargantuan, 116-foot scarlet oak tree on the corner of Pickett and Ridge roads. The tree was recently designated as a “Champion Tree,” an honor bestowed upon the largest tree within a given species in the state of North Carolina. The lawn beneath the Elder Oak — which is, as all grass lawns are, monocultures that are unable to support many beneficial species of wildlife — will soon become DA’s first “pocket prairie.” This assemblage of native plant species will offer refuge and nourishment to critically important pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds.

 

The post-assembly work-session served as an unofficial groundbreaking, or literal lawnbreaking. Bessias and Caruso laid down pieces of cardboard to cover the grass, and students shoveled mulch atop the cardboard to kill the existing sod and prevent weeds from sprouting through the soil. Committee members soon realized an unintended consequence of so much enthusiastic participation: They ran out of shovels. “We didn’t expect that many people to be out there,” Schulz said. “It was such an amazing surprise.”

It was, too, for members of the original Sustainability Club who couldn’t have fathomed a day like this when they commandeered a Learning Commons whiteboard. “I was honestly astounded,” Nichols said, laughing. Owens agreed. “This is something I never would have expected years ago,” said Owens, who was part of the first student presentation to the Board of Trustees on potential sustainability initiatives. “We were proud of what we had done, the fact that we stood up for something we believed in. But I think it’s really nice to see that there’s some tangible change.”

It was not, of course, a straight line from whiteboard to institutional backing. Sustainability at DA represents the boundless passion and resolve of students and faculty who are buoyed by the simplest of creeds: If we can do something, then we must. Here is a closer look at the board’s endorsements, and a glimpse into the indefatigable journey of those students and staff members who dared to dream.

 

The Endorsements: How the Board’s Support Will Move DA Forward

Advocates for environmental sustainability at Durham Academy have celebrated several milestones in recent years, and these efforts received a major injection of institutional support with a grant from DA’s Innovation Journey Fund (IJF) in spring 2022. With the grant, a schoolwide Sustainability Leadership Team was formed, and the school partnered with Raleigh-based firm GreenPlaces, which worked with students in the Upper School Sustainability in Action elective to analyze data on the school’s greenhouse gas emissions and to formulate a plan to lower the school’s carbon footprint. Thanks to the IFJ grant, DA was also able to partner with The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education to offer workshops and ongoing coaching to faculty, staff and students looking to infuse sustainability into curricula. And in February 2023, the Upper School Sustainability Committee hosted DA’s first-ever Sustain-In to broaden the school’s brainstorming power around sustainability. 

But DA has, by its own admission, moved more glacially than the moment requires.

"The truth is, Durham Academy was behind,” Ulku-Steiner said during his address to Upper Schoolers. “We had not acted as an institution in the ways that we should have — as ambitiously, as thoughtfully, as comprehensively. We always had a lot of good stuff happening in the realm of green action here. We’ve been recycling for 25 years. We’ve been composting for five. But never before has the school made an institutional commitment to reducing the emissions, to educating every single student and to rewilding the campus as much as we can.” 

“I think Ms. Bessias probably put it best when she said that the best thing we could do — and what we did do — was light a fire under their feet,” Owens said of the committee’s persistence across campus. “The more you push for something that you believe in, the more likely there is to be tangible change.Sometimes it takes a never-ending commitment to see the change that you want implemented.”

Change at DA has arrived. Here’s what to expect from the Board of Trustees’ endorsements and the Sustainability Leadership Team’s implementation.

1. Educate students in all four divisions about sustainability:

Sustainability education will be incorporated into all subject matter at all levels as part of a cultural, schoolwide academic commitment.

Bessias ’78: “In some ways, education is really the foundation of it all. There are those who say — and [renowned climate scientist] Katharine Hayhoe is one — that speaking about climate change and sustainability is the most powerful thing we can do. And it’s really important because it’s all too easy to do harm while you’re trying to do good. Getting rid of single-use plastic in general is a worthy goal — but if we replace them with very resource-intensive, very thick, heavy bottles with 150 times as much material in them, and we lose them after five uses, then we’ve actually done harm rather than good. We have to actually study these things. We have to train ourselves. We have to learn a lot, not just a little. And we have to get used to talking about it. That’s why education is the No. 1 goal — and it’s what we do.”

Miller ’25: “Sustainability can be incorporated into so many different things. Younger kids can find a passion in it. If we’re able to do this starting in the Preschool at DA, I think it will really merge different parts of campus and make everyone more passionate about sustaining the goals.”

Schulz ’25: “We’re only here at DA for so long. The future comes from all of the other divisions and all of the other grade levels. We need to educate them and really inspire them to take up the mantle like the [previous] leaders did for me, and create a culture where it’s fun, where there’s a purpose. That’s really the most important goal — just educating.”

 

2. Reduce carbon emissions by 25% within four years:

The original Sustainability Club deployed “Operation: Shoe Size” to ascertain DA’s emissions related to transportation, electricity, food and waste. With the support of GreenPlaces, that data — and the ideal areas for improvement — have become all the more precise.

Miller ’25: “We realized, ‘Wow, we’re releasing a lot of emissions.’ Compared to a lot of schools, we’re kind of similar. But I think as a private institution, just the amount that we’re emitting, it’s kind of scary to look at in numbers to see the impact that we’re having as a whole student body. Obviously you can’t really see emissions, but they’re there. Reducing those emissions will show to other schools, ‘We care about this. You need to, too, because we’re setting a new standard.’”

Schulz ’25: “We should be the standard. We should be the role model for other schools. With that number, that’s the easiest way to be a role model. If you’re cutting down that number, everyone can see that you’re being more sustainable. It’s a very easy way to show sustainability, and it’s also very helpful.”

Bessias ’78: “We can do it. It isn’t something abstract or indirect. If we make changes and reduce our carbon emissions, it will help in a significant way. We don’t have to persuade somebody else to do that. We can first work on ourselves. I’m fond of the Archimedes saying — people think of it as, ‘Give me a lever and I can move the world.’ But that leaves out a part. He said, ‘Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I can move the world.’ In my mind, knowledge is our lever, and personal actions are the place to stand. It gives us credibility to move the world. It gives us power when we actually take action ourselves.”

 

3. Increase biodiversity across DA’s campuses:

Of the $100,000 DA Family Association gift, $40,000 will go toward the new “pocket prairie” beneath the Elder Oak; a portion of the remaining funds will improve biodiversity at the Middle School’s Academy Road campus.

The genesis of the pocket prairie traces back to the February 2023 Sustain-In, when Sanju Patel ’23 and Frankie Stover ’24 pushed for biodiversity as a higher priority within the committee’s efforts. The eventual design of the pocket prairie will feature input from faculty and students, and it will proliferate native species; Bessias, Caruso and Ann Leininger (an Upper School parent and former DA trustee and Family Association president) learned about starting southeastern native plants from seeds through a workshop held at Duke Gardens.

Schulz ’25: “It shows that sustainability is more than just carbon. That number is amazing to cut down. However, biodiversity loss is still one of the leading problems in the world today. To show that we’re doing our part to give a home to these species in North Carolina, it really does a lot. It’ll also just be good for the mental health of our students. It’s going to be a good place for students to study. Teachers can go out there and help students learn about different species. I just think it’ll improve DA as a whole — not just for sustainability, but also for education.”

CJ Nwafor ’23: “This shows there’s actually commitment and actual, physical change that you can see — changes in your community that you can see — that actually contribute to the cause.”

Parker Silliman ’25: “Bringing kids at DA into a space where they can learn about sustainability hands-on — if they’re out there in nature, they can really enjoy it and see how important it is and how they need to save it. If they have that more emotional and physical connection to nature and the planet, they might feel like they need to help out more.”

Caruso: “I’m excited to both start a small patch of pocket prairie with my biodiversity elective this spring semester, as well as help spearhead the development of the Family Association-funded project by the Elder Oak. I think this space — to be designed for gathering and learning, wellness, and habitat — may end up being the lovely corner of campus.”

 

'It’s Not Too Late': Why Sustainability Matters

The Jan. 5 assembly and Elder Oak celebration came just a few days before researchers declared 2023 the hottest year on record, and a few days before figures showed carbon emissions dropped across the U.S. in 2023 — though not nearly enough to slow warming by the requisite amount. It was a stark reminder of why individual and institutional choices can make a difference, and why sustainability matters so much.

Bessias ’78: “I really see sustainability as an upbeat and positive thing to do. It’s about turning our backs on gloom and doom and a sense of helplessness, and working together. The collaborative aspect of it is part of the real joy. I think we’ve had momentum for a long time, but this is a big upsurge. It has the feeling that we’re all going to be working together in the DA community and all finding our way. It isn’t that everybody needs to take the same personal actions or the same professional actions. We have people who work in landscaping and work in business and work in communications and educators in all of the different disciplines of education. There is real opportunity here for all of us to work together and to bring our best selves to the endeavor — and to keep each other’s spirits up.”

Nichols ’20: “Climate change is making a huge impact on our lives already — extreme weather events, rising sea levels, reduced biodiversity, less food, water shortages. It affects people not only in our own communities or in the United States, but also in developing countries, everywhere. If you want to make a positive impact on others, I believe going into sustainability or the environment is one of the best ways to do so.”

Mukta Dharmapurikar ’22: “I think it’s going to make a huge difference. When you see your school is committed to a specific mission and has really invested in it in so many ways, it puts it at the forefront. For climate, that’s really important because it’s something that’s so ingrained in every single thing we do. Literally every single action we take has some kind of impact on our environment. I think it will really drill that lens of thinking sustainably about life and your impact on a day-to-day basis. That’s the kind of thing that gets students growing up excited about sustainability, about working on climate change. For example, if you’re seeing climate emergencies happen and you’re seeing your school take really tangible action, I think that’s really empowering. I could see it being a way to get many more students graduating from DA who are excited about climates, want to learn more about it and potentially work on solving this problem in the future.”

Owens ’20: “I think that it’s very easy to say, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ But the more people who say, ‘There is something that I can do,’ that absolutely makes a difference.”

Thomas Pollard ’24: “Since we’re the ones who are going to be feeling the impact of this, we’re also the ones making a difference.”

Ulku-Steiner: “Those are bold goals. Those are ambitious goals. And the adults in the room, the guardians of the school — the stewards, the ones to whom the school is entrusted — realized that the planet we share needs our help. Institutions have to act like individuals, like families, like governments. And if institutions don’t, we’re in trouble as a planet.”

 


'He Was the Glue': The Enduring Legacy of Jack Linger ’20

In October, before they presented to the Board of Trustees on the committee’s sustainability goals, Miller and Schulz riffled through old computer files that bore the handiwork of dedicated sustainability advocates from yesteryear: old presentations, images and data from the original foursome of Caveney, Linger, Nichols and Owens. “The reason I got into sustainability was because of those guys,” Schulz said. “They inspired me to eventually come and take up the mantle.”

At a time when sustainability was less buzzword and more curiosity, that mantle was the enthusiastic and inexhaustible charge of Linger. He did not simply aspire to sustainability: He lived it. In the summer of 2019, Linger completed a 3,500-mile, cross-country bike trip as part of an independent study project that explored how everyday Americans formed their political opinions. He wrote regular blog posts about his interviews and conversations, and he even dispensed sustainability-related advice — gleaned from a full school year with the Sustainability Club — to those he met.

Linger ’20 died unexpectedly three-and-a-half weeks after his trip ended. His trio of Sustainability Club members had watched Linger fight vociferously for their beloved cause. The work continued in his absence, but Linger wasn’t absent from the forward march of sustainability at DA. His imprint was unmistakable. 

Owens ’20: “I looked over to Will [Nichols] during the [Jan. 5] assembly, and I giggled a little bit. I think our senior year, our operation budget was something along the lines of $500 that we had won in grants. We were on a bike ride to honor Jack, and when we were in downtown Durham, we saw the Durham Department of Water Management advertising that they had this challenge where they wanted folks to show what it would be like if they lived a day without water. We all got together and made these videos, and I think we ended up sweeping first, second and third place. I’d like to think that we had the best videos. It’s very possible that we had the only videos. But we won $500 in Visa gift cards, and that was huge. It was everything that we had. We could start running events, and we could plant trees while covering some of the costs.”

Nichols ’20: “It just meant a whole lot to us because it was all inspired by Jack, and we knew Jack was looking down and had his hands in all of that.”

Owens ’20: “He was also a great recruiter. He was helpful at bringing folks in to join the committee. We wanted to see sustainability institutionalized on campus. The four of us fought tooth and nail to get the sustainability committee to be part of our student body government.”

Nichols ’20: “The cross-country bike trip just showed his dedication to the environment. That really inspired Andrew, Brandon and me, and we were really excited for what our senior years held in an environmental sense.”

Owens ’20: “Part of that [bike trip] was talking about sustainability, if not the main role. To this day, I still look back on his blog and think that if not for him, there were dozens of people who wouldn’t have changed their minds or opened up to something that they weren’t thinking about on a day-to-day basis. But after he passed, it really was an impetus to keep pushing as hard as we could. At the very least, he is the reason why we all stuck around. He was the glue that kept us pushing for change.”

Bessias ’78: “In some small part, we’re all still doing it for Jack, with him in mind.”

 


'Incredible Mentors': Bessias, Caruso Empower Changemakers

It is impossible to think of sustainability at the Upper School without thinking of Bessias and Caruso. They have been inseparable since October 2018, when Bessias read the IPCC report. She thought DA needed a student-faculty working group to probe the findings of the report and discuss potential action. But she needed help. Bessias asked Caruso, who needed all of two seconds to blurt out a cry of characteristic enthusiasm: “Sure!” And with that, the lives of so many Upper Schoolers changed forever.

Dharmapurikar ’22: “I can’t even express how powerful and incredible and gracious leaders they’ve been. As students, there are so many things that are going on in your life. Even if you do really care so much about this broader goal, it can sometimes be hard to feel empowered to take action on it, or hard to make it a priority when there are so many things going on. I would really describe it as a kind of gracious and gentle leadership style where they have this big vision, but they really put the impetus on students to talk about what they’re interested in and then see where they can go from there.” 

Ulku-Steiner: “They prefer to be in the background, but they are warriors, and they’ve been going to war for this effort for a long time.”

Nichols ’20: “I just want to make sure Ms. Bessias and Ms. Caruso get the credit they deserve. They’ve really spearheaded this effort from the start. And to see this kind of real, tangible, concrete achievement in the eyes of the Board — and this $100,000 [Family Association] donation — it’s all a step toward a more sustainable future at DA. I think the impact they’ve had has been so, so understated, but I think they’re truly leaving an impressive and important legacy not only on Durham Academy, but also on the surrounding communities and independent schools in North Carolina. Durham Academy is really in the vanguard of sustainability for private schools, and I believe this has been 100% spearheaded by Ms. Bessias and Ms. Caruso. They have empowered so many students.”

Dharmapurikar ’22: “One thing that I really love about Ms. Bessias and Ms. Caruso is that you can clearly tell they’re passionate about this issue, but they’re also even more passionate about getting students excited. They’re always encouraging you to be the one to go talk to administration, to reach out to people.”

Connor Ennis ’24: “Between Ms. Caruso and Ms. Bessias, they do a great job of putting the impetus on us to come up with ideas and to do most of the planning. They do have great ideas on their own, without a doubt. But more of the impetus is on us to come up with ideas and organize.”

Frankie Stover ’24: “They’ve created a space where I can see a future for myself in sustainability and have the opportunity to start now and not wait until I’m in college.”

Ennis ’24: “Having active faculty to support it makes a huge difference.”

Pollard ’24: “Pretty much all of the initiatives that we’ve had have been led by students. Ms. Bessias and Ms. Caruso do a spectacular job of letting things come from students and letting students lead these initiatives, which also is beneficial in the long run. As opposed to them just kind of giving us tasks that we do, it’s almost reversed. We ask them, ‘Hey, would you mind organizing a meeting?’ ‘Hey, would you mind doing this or that?’ Everything comes from the students, and they’re just facilitators who are there to help us with whatever we need. And I think that is what has really helped to build sustainability into our culture.”

Caruso: “So much of the work is student-driven. I think the faculty notice that these students are really working hard on these initiatives and really passionate about sustainability-related issues, but I don’t know that their peers recognize how hard they work on these things — for example, how many times students have given presentations to administration or to the board. Every year, the students are getting up in front of those important groups of adults with presentations and reports on our progress. I know that Tina and I are very visible in this work, but I think for the students, I really want them to recognize how much their peers, how much their friends care about these things — and not just for their own personal benefit, but also for the benefit of this whole community, the benefit of the Triangle. This is a global issue that we hope will unite us at some point.”

Owens ’20: “Both of them were just incredible mentors. I can’t see a world in which we would have gotten anything accomplished without them. This all started as a dream in the Learning Commons classroom, whiteboarding ideas. And then within a year, it was constant meetings in Ms. Caruso’s room where we were really starting to make an action plan. It is so impactful to have adults believing in you at this age. Without that, you’re just a bunch of hopeless kids. I think having a voice behind us that was willing to push for changes that we believed in was really something.”

 


Just The Beginning

It is a sentiment echoed by the head of school and faculty, alumni and students: The endorsements of the Board of Trustees are equal parts affirming and heartwarming. They are not, however, the end goal. This is merely the beginning of DA’s newest chapter in sustainability.

Owens ’20: “This is not the end all, be all. I’m sure others will say the same, that this is just a very first step. But that’s what it is: It’s a first step.”

Schulz ’25: “This just shows that change really can happen. We’ll be fighting for stuff every single year.”

Miller ’25: “If I think back to my freshman year when I first got involved in sustainability, I was new to DA freshman year, and I remember all of those meetings with Sanju [Patel], really looking up to all of these people. Knowing in three years time that we would not only be leading this but also making those changes that they all cared so much about, it makes me hopeful. If this is what we can create as juniors, what about these next kindergartners who are going to know so much about sustainability? It’s going to be exponential growth.”

Bessias ’78: “Sustainability relates to everything. It relates to wellness initiatives, too, and I think it has a lot to offer in all of these ways. In a way I think it broadens our vision of a school and what it is and is for. Schools have always been about the future. We prepare children for their future lives as adults. But this is also looking at how we, by our actions, affect that future. In the same way, diversity has always been about making our community inclusive and welcoming, and all of us learning together and expanding our mindset and understanding of what’s going on in the world — how we contribute to it in positive and negative ways, and learning to see more deeply those impacts.”

Ulku-Steiner: “This will take collective action. These goals are bold. They’re ambitious. They don’t just happen magically. ... This will take effort from all of us. It’ll be the Board continuing, faculty, alumni, parents. But ultimately, it’s you [students]. It’s your world, and you’re going to be leading it, so we’ll need everybody’s help.”

Owens ’20: “The thing that I’m proudest of is that people are starting to understand how important this is. ... I was shocked to see the Board’s change of heart, but I was really happy about it. This is something that I never would have expected years ago. We were proud of what we had done, the fact that we stood up for something we believed in. But I think it’s really nice to see that there’s some tangible change. This needs to be a renewed promise. But even then, I think seeing a very good first step is heartwarming. And I hope that continues to happen.”