Gallatin senior Eric Fuchs-Stengel grew up playing video games and working at a Dunkin Donuts in the suburbs of New Jersey’s Bergen County, so-called “Chris Christie Country.” After high school, he figured he’d join the military. Something else happened along the way. He had started spending more time outdoors. While hiking in the mountains of the Ramapough Reservation, Eric caught a glimpse of the suburban sprawl far below. “The human species is so much smaller on a global scale,” he realized. This realization not only gave him a new perspective; it gave him an alternative calling.
“How can I get more people to experience the environment?” Eric wondered. “How do I get people to value nature the way I now do?” His suburban roots were crucial. “New Jersey has made a world of difference,” says Eric. New Jersey’s environmental problems became Eric’s solution. For one thing, there were gaps in local services and leadership. He made the most of the opportunity.
In 2008, when he was a sixteen-year-old junior in high school, Eric founded the Mahwah Environmental Volunteers Organization (MEVO). But there were also gaps in understanding. What does it even mean to be “green”? As Eric points out, for example, there can be a “small net benefit” to “beautification” projects. “Planting non-native flowers is just aesthetic,” Eric says. But as Eric is the first to admit, many of these misunderstandings were also his own.
Indeed, the first wave of MEVO spent most of its time just picking up litter and recycling. “But environmentalism is so much more than just picking up trash; it’s global warming, economics, social justice,” Eric says. “Trash is a product of social-cultural inequality. In 2008, I never would have understood that.” And that’s where his Gallatin education comes in.
“Gallatin has made a dramatic difference,” Eric says, praising professors like Mitchell Joachim, a leader in eco-design, and Amalia Cordova, a theorist and practioner of indigenous film culture. Moreover, the individualized structure of Gallatin made it possible for Eric to grow with MEVO rather than leave it behind. “Gallatin has really supported my career,” Eric says. “It gave me control over my degree,” especially in the form of internship hours and through the Horn Fund for Environmental Research.
“Now my values are totally different,” Eric says. “But core values take so long to put into practice.” Eric cautions, then, against the impatience which might otherwise slow down necessarily gradual processes. Indeed, Eric puts process first. This is not just at the level of his own education. MEVO’s latest project is a working farm in New Jersey. Organic produce is just the beginning. The farm will also host workshops for the young, the disabled and the mentally ill. As Eric says, “it’s a base, a tangible location” where people can be “empowered to practice and embody environmentalism.”
Eric himself feels empowered by his recent distinction as New Jersey’s Environmentalist of the Year. “I’m able to speak at Rotary Clubs and at the Chamber of Commerce,” Eric says. “I have a voice.” For Eric, having a voice is not the same as having a pulpit or holding office. “I want to break down political boundaries and bring environmentalism to a human, de-polarized level,” Eric says. “People at NYU can afford a university education. It’s our duty to take environmentalism on ourselves. I realized in college that I’m extremely privileged. If anything resonates in my story, it’s that I realized I could make a better future.”
Eric encourages interested readers to get in touch him at firstname.lastname@example.org if they want to donate, advise, or volunteer.