I wish I could I say that I’ve been an environmentalist my whole life, but that’s just not true. Despite growing up watching Captain Planet after school everyday and taking conservation classes at my local library, the message that was planted in my childhood hit the pause button for about 2 decades. Through my teenage years and early 20s, the environment wasn’t a priority for me. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, it just wasn’t front of mind. I still always turned the water off when I was brushing my teeth and made sure to recycle but I was pretty oblivious beyond that point.
That all changed when I was 27 and started working with a group of neighbors to turn an abandoned lot into a community garden, a project we named Myrtle Village Green or MVG for short. As I dove into MVG, I started learning more about local farming versus industrial farming. I learned that, according to the EPA, agriculture is the biggest source of pollution of our rivers and lakes. I also learned that the majority of industrial farms grow corn and soy, which are used, largely, for livestock feed and processed foods, not to produce nutrient-rich food for consumers. All that information coupled with the fact that our neighborhood was a complete food desert full of bodegas and dollar stores with no fresh food options available, lit a fire in us to ensure that this community garden would not only be sustainable, but that it would also provide affordable food security to our community.
It took nearly a year of community brainstorming, fundraising, research and city council meetings, but we finally won approval to turn the 1.46 acre lot on Myrtle Ave and Kent Ave in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn into a volunteer-based community garden and compost center. In the garden’s eighth year, they are now producing 1.3 tons (that’s right, I said TONS) of healthy and affordable food per season for the Bed-Stuy community.
Shortly after MVG’s ribbon cutting, I left NY and moved back home to Tucson, AZ, to be closer to my family. Passionate as ever about the environment, I began working on sustainability initiatives at my new job at Hotel Congress. The owners and General Manager are huge environmental advocates and they allowed me to take my knowledge and passion to continue to expand their already abundant sustainability program. We partnered with Mrs. Green’s World to assess and identify further areas of improvement and we also became members of the Emerging 2030 District to benchmark our 100-year-old building and receive professional assessments and recommendations to reduce our carbon emissions and water usage by 50% by the year 2030. In the past decade, the Hotel Congress has reduced it’s water usage by 1.5 million gallons through Eco Blue urinals, diverted over 500 pounds of organic waste through Compost Cats, heated nearly 100% of all our hot water through solar panels (since 2013), and work every month with our Green Team (made up of Congress employees from all different departments and levels) to enact change from within the ranks of our business. Through all this hard work and collaboration, to name a few accomplishments, we have been awarded Best Earth Keeping Hotel 2 years in a row by Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association, we are Gold Level Trip Advisor GreenLeaders, and have helped launch a green hotel certification through the Arizona Department for Environmental Quality.
With all these incredibly fulfilling volunteer and professional actions towards living a more sustainable life, there is none that I am prouder of than the personal decision I made 3 years ago to become vegan. I was a meat-with-every-meal-no-way-would-I-ever-become-vegan, die hard, red-blooded carnivore. I ignored the facts that I read weekly about the livestock industry killing our environment and catered to my comfort until I couldn’t do it any longer. I couldn’t sweep aside research from the University of Chicago that stated, going vegan would reduce a person’s carbon footprint more effectively than switching from a conventional car to a hybrid car; and I couldn’t ignore that Oxford University found that vegans generate 41.7% smaller volume of greenhouses gases than meat-eaters. I was in a privileged position to make decisions about my diet in a way that I understand not everyone is able to do but, nonetheless, I am grateful for that privilege.
Throughout all these personal and professional changes I have made to live more sustainably in my own life, I completely recognize that the only way to truly change our global trajectory towards total and utter climate catastrophe is for strong and clear policy change regarding fossil fuels. We (and by “we” I mean the government and their 1% friends) need to prioritize people over profits because what’s the point of being the richest jerk on the plant if there’s no planet left because it was destroyed in a fiery, flooding, snow-pocalypse, mega-tornado, end of days hell storm that kills us all? So, what can we do (and by “we” I mean us, the 99%) to steer this change? We can divest our money from any and all fossil fuel stocks, bonds, or funds; we can work with private-public-nonprofit collaboratives like 2030 Districts to effect change in our own communities to lessen our community reliance on fossil fuels; and we can organize our community to create cooperatively owned renewable energy companies.
These problems are massive, and the outcome is dire if we don’t do everything we can to prioritize this planet. The clock is ticking but it’s not too late to take a stand for this beautiful planet and help recharge the focus and commitment from all to sustain it!
Rita Dorsey Boutwell is the Director of Operations for Hotel Congress and has been with the organization since 2013. Her passion for conscious living has helped develop the company’s Sustainability Program and Green Team. Rita is passionate about serving her community and encouraging her team to do the same. Her prior experience includes Director of Human Resources and Director of Operations roles at international beauty organizations based in New York City, where she resided for 8 years.