UMass Amherst Student-Led Permaculture Committee Reaches Finals in White House ‘Campus Champions of Change Challenge’

AMHERST, Mass. - Members of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s student-led Permaculture Committee were thrilled this week to receive a call from the White House announcing that their campus permaculture garden projects have won them a place among the top 15 finalists for the White House’s "Campus Champions of Change Challenge."

Now, they’re frantically enlisting parents, friends and other boosters to vote online before the midnight Saturday, March 3 deadline, after which winners will be declared. The top five vote-getting teams will be invited to the White House on March 15, and will be featured by mtvU and MTV Act, hosting an episode of mtvU’s "The Dean’s List." The contest started last fall with thousands of entries and months of review.

Over the past two years, the UMass Amherst Permaculture Initiative engaged more than 1,000 student, faculty, staff and community volunteers to transform a quarter-acre of grass lawn near the Franklin Dining Commons into a diverse, edible, low-maintenance garden that supplies fruit, nuts, vegetables, greens and flowers to the Dining Commons. This year they started a second permaculture garden near Berkshire Dining Commons.

UMass Amherst staffer Ryan Harb, chief sustainability coordinator for Auxiliary Services and Enterprises and certified permaculture garden designer, took the White House call this week, learning that the 14-member committee and garden he helped to found as a student had reached the challenge’s final round. "I could hardly believe my ears," he recalls. "It was pretty hard to get to sleep that night."

The call was followed by an e-mail from the White House Office of Public Engagement: "Congratulations on being selected as a finalist in the first-ever White House Campus Champions of Change Challenge. We loved reading about the inspirational work you have done in your communities and even more so hearing how your projects can be implemented nationwide. It just proves that young people are making a huge impact across the country and stepping up at time when we need it the most."

As Harb explains, permaculture gardening is an ecological design for sustainable communities that gets people working together to care for the planet. It is considered to be the most sustainable form of gardening and farming, and UMass Amherst is currently the only public university in the country implementing new permaculture gardens directly on campus each year and using the food in its dining commons.

Student facilitator for the UMass Amherst Permaculture Committee, senior Meg Little of Agawam says, "After we applied last November I felt really optimistic that we had a good chance, because our project is really exciting and inspiring, as so many people tell me. Not many campuses are taking the steps we’re taking or going as far as we are. I think people look to our project with a lot of hope and they want to follow in our footsteps."

She adds, "Permaculture resonates because our generation has seen the downside of our society, the individualism. Permaculture is the opposite of that. People are yearning for connection and community. Our garden represents symbiosis. The plants work with each other for health; it’s a model for how people can work together that way."

Harb credits campus sustainability leaders Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Services and Enterprises, a booster of the Permaculture Initiative, plus Ezra Small, campus sustainability manager and hard-working members of the Environmental Performance Advisory Committee, as well as administrators from Chancellor Robert Holub on down who support green campus activities at UMass Amherst.

To vote for the UMass Amherst team, go to: