Speak UP Green UP

Speak Up Green Up eliminates pesticides in communities by convincing schools and parks to use natural alternatives.

Photo of Mary Catherine Hanafee LaPlante
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Website or social media url(s) (optional):

https://www.speakupgreenup.org/ Instagram:@speakupgreenup

Date You Started Your Project Started


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Established (successfully passed early phases, have a plan for the future)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Worldwide, 200,000 people die from toxic exposure to pesticides each year. Pesticide use has been linked to severe diseases such as Leukemia, Parkinson's disease, and Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Despite this, pesticides are indiscriminately used in parks and public spaces around the world. This issue is especially vital for children, as their bodies and brains are still growing and thus more susceptible to the chemicals found in pesticides.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

One way I am eliminating pesticides/herbicides from public spaces is by implementing sample plots at a local park in my community using a natural pesticide alternative called Fiesta. This iron-based product is safe, odorless, and the most effective natural pesticide alternative on the market. In partnership with my local school and park district, these sample plots will gather scientific proof that natural options are just as effective in maintaining grass as pesticides. As soon as this proof is collected, both my local school and park district will stop using all harmful pesticides and transition to Fiesta. In addition, I have enlisted the help of a certified local naturalist to speak to students and administrators at my school about the health hazards of pesticides. By recruiting a knowledgeable person to talk about these issues to the public, I am ensuring that school/park districts feel public pressure to stop using harmful pesticides.

3. Using STEM as a force of good: Please specify how are you using STEM to solve for an environmental challenge you are passionate about.

I believe that STEM is an extremely effective tool to convince people of the dangers of pesticides, especially because many renowned organizations (National Cancer Institute, Lymphoma Foundation) have discovered the negative impacts of these chemicals. In 8th grade, I was determined to do my own research on the effects of pesticides on my local river. I recruited 15 of my classmates and borrowed official Environmental Protection Agency water-testing equipment to test the water quality of my local river. We found that Dissolved Oxygen (DO) levels were deficient, and harmful microorganisms were abundant in the water. The turbidity was also low, with murky water and high levels of suspended sediment. After my team and I built a riparian buffer zone (a barrier of plants that stops pesticides/herbicides from entering the river), we retested the water. DO levels dramatically increased, there was a decrease in microorganism activity, turbidity was higher, and there were lower levels of suspended sediment. I was able to use science and data to prove that pesticides/herbicides greatly harm aquatic health, which partly led me to create this organization.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

On one sunny Saturday morning in July, I was playing a softball game in my local park. While playing shortstop, I started to smell chemicals wafting through the air. When I looked over to an adjacent field, I saw that groundskeepers were spraying excessive amounts of pesticides on the fields. As I scanned the stands, I noticed that there were young children running around and dogs sniffing in every corner of the park. I hypothesized that these chemicals must be negatively affecting the bodies of the children and animals who were playing nearby. After the game, I went home to do extensive research into the harmful effects of pesticides on human, animal, and aquatic health. I was appalled by my findings, which led me to start Speak Up Green Up to ensure that harmful pesticides are not used around people or animals in my community.

5. Video (Keep it simple, a video made on a hand-held phone is great): Please upload a 1-minute video to YouTube that answers the following “I am stepping up to be a Changemaker because...”

6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

I spoke to experts at the EPA to learn more about the issue and received a grant from the HERlead fellowship program to implement sample plots with my school and park district. I created a website and Instagram page to maintain an online following, and have been profiled by my local newspaper and a youth-led international news organization for my work. I presented my project to over 3000 people at an environmental fair that teaches the public about the importance of living sustainably.

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

My organization is unique because scientists within the US Environmental Protection Agency have helped me carefully develop the sample plots in my community. I am also mentored by Chip Osbourne, the founder of Osborne Organics and the country's leading expert on pesticide alternatives. Local legislators know me personally because of my extensive experience with climate activism and have stated that they would support legislation to regulate the use of pesticides in IL. My organization has strong ties to the community and is therefore extremely effective at enacting change.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made?

The sample plots that my organization has implemented will benefit hundreds of thousands of people who frequent local parks. Imagine this: You are a new parent moving to the suburbs with your young children. When you go to the local park to watch your kids play and introduce yourself to other parents, you see that there is a sign explaining that the park is PESTICIDE FREE. You feel at ease because you know from various informational sessions held in your community that your children are safe from the harmful chemicals that used to plague these parks. You feel confident that your children are playing in a healthy environment. I want to make the situation above a reality for people in my community. The sample plots are the first step in enacting widespread change, and I have already spoken to 3000 people about the dangers of pesticides through the Go Green Wilmette Environmental Fair.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

I want to ensure that all 8 schools in my school district and my surrounding park districts go pesticide-free. I will achieve this by using my sample plot to show that my turf management method is more effective, economical, and safe than pesticides. After achieving this, I will meet with my local congressman, Mark Walker, about presenting legislation to ban the use of pesticides in the Illinois Senate. As a board member of an influential Illinois Political Action Committee, I have extensive connections to Illinois legislators who will sponsor this legislation. Conveniently, California has written legislation to ban the use of pesticide/herbicides from the state, which means that Illinois merely has to adapt it for general proceedings.

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

Speak Up Green Up is a partner of the IL Youth Climate Movement, which is the most prominent youth climate organization in Illinois. Through this partnership, I have access to thousands of young climate activists across the state of whom I have encouraged to convince their communities to go pesticide-free. I also currently have 20 student members of Speak Up Green Up, all of whom were not involved in the youth climate movement before they joined my organization.

11. Please share ideas of how you can partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

I want to partner with other young changemakers to create chapters of Speak Up Green Up across the country. By encouraging other changemakers to take initiative for the environment, I can also ensure that communities, schools, and park districts across the United States and the world are encouraged to go pesticide-free.

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

When I explain the various diseases and conditions that can arise from extended pesticide exposure to potential stakeholders, they are often taken aback. In my opinion, once people are aware of the extensive dangers that pesticides present to themselves and their families, they are immediately excited and invested in my project. Therefore, facts are my most valuable weapon when pitching my project.

13. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations between $100-$1k
  • Donations between $1k-$5k

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Social media
  • Recommended by others

Evaluation results

6 evaluations so far

1. Overall evaluation

Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

Probably - 50%

Maybe - 0%

Probably not - 16.7%

No - 0%

2. CONNECTION to Environmental Sustainability

5 - Absolutely! It is totally clear that the solution is contributing directly to environmental sustainability and/or addressing climate change - 50%

4 — Yes, it establishes a connection to environment/ climate change but could be stronger - 16.7%

3 — Somewhat, the entry speaks to this environmental sustainability, but the direct impact is not well established - 33.3%

2 — Not really, the connection to environment/ climate is very weak - 0%

1 — No. The entry does not have a reference the solution’s impact on environment and/or climate change - 0%

No Answer or No Connection - 0%

3. Is this entry CREATIVE?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

4 - Yes, I think so - 50%

3 - Maybe - 16.7%

2 - Probably not. - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

4. Does this entry demonstrate a COMMITMENT to changemaking?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

4 - Yes, I think so - 100%

3 - Maybe - 33.3%

2 - Probably not - 33.3%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

5. Does this entry value CHANGEMAKING through collaboration with other stakeholders in its approach?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 16.7%

4 - Yes, I think so - 50%

3 - Maybe - 33.3%

2 - Probably not - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

6. Is this entry VIABLE financially and operationally?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 20%

4- Yes, I think so - 40%

3- Maybe - 20%

2- Probably not - 20%

1- No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

7. FEEDBACK: What are the strengths of this project?

CONNECTION: You have a great understanding and personal connection to the problem - 50%

CREATIVITY: You have researched existing solutions, and have developed unique, thoughtful new solutions to aid environmental sustainability/combat climate change - 100%

COMMITMENT: You have a thoughtful plan for growing your business, and your founding team has a strong combination of leadership and knowledge-based skills - 50%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: You value thinking around how to activate other changemakers and empower them to care about your cause. You also have a clearly defined plan on how to collaborate across multiple stakeholders - 75%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: You use specific numbers and evidence to describe what your project has achieved so far (or plan to achieve in the future) and you have a plan for measuring impact - 0%

VIABLITY: You have given a great deal of thought to not just the idea itself but how to make it work from a financial perspective in the present and future - 0%

Other option - 0%

8. FEEDBACK: What are some areas for improvement for this project?

CONNECTION: Why you care about the environment/ climate was unclear – It would be great to elaborate on what this solution means to you, personally and how it affects you and/or your community. - 0%

CREATIVITY: Be more specific in your description of the research you have done into the past solutions to this problem and focus on how your solution is unique and innovative - 0%

COMMITMENT: Your plan for growing the organization can benefit from more specifics. How can you round out the various skills of your current leadership team to make the project a long-term success? - 66.7%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: Try to provide more insights into how you are activating changemakers and empowering them to innovate through your product or programming. How will they care about environment/climate if they currently do not? Think about how to create value for all stakeholders, not just immediate beneficiaries - 100%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: Provide specific instances of your social impact and how you plan to measure impact – it may be helpful to describe the beneficiaries, products and programming, and provide evidence of (or plan for) how to measure impact - 100%

VIABILITY: Make sure you have provided descriptive information about your financial sustainability plan. Where do the funds come from now and do you have a concrete plan for future sustainability? - 66.7%

Nothing – I thought everything was great! - 0%

Other option - 0%


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Photo of parul sharma

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