A Conversation on Handprinting and Social Equity

This article first appeared in Trim Tab. 

This is the story of potential. It’s about social equity and environmental healing, it’s about collaboration, and most of all, it’s about a transformational moment. You will hear three different sides of the story,  each with a particular yet universal experience.  Our cast of characters includes Dr. Chuck Herring, a nationally acclaimed educator and author;  Jenna Cramer, VP of Transformation & Community at the Green Building Alliance, and Greg Norris, International Living Future Institute’s Chief Scientist. The setting finds us in a School Sustainability Culture Program workshop, surrounded by a group of dedicated teachers.  Step into their conversation, and into the outward reflection on inward contemplation.

“People are part of the environment, not just caretakers, and we are at the core of our environmental troubles.  Environment then, is also about human and civil rights, economic equity, gender equality, and from the standpoint of a pilgrim on the road, environment is about how we treat each other when we meet each other.”

—Dr. John Francis, Planet Walker


This October marked the halfway point for a group of educators and administrators engaged in a two-year journey through the School Sustainability Culture Program to explore creating a culture of sustainability in their schools that promotes student and teacher wellbeing, minimal impact on the environment, and inspirational learning opportunities.  The Culture Program takes a place- and values-based approach in helping schools discover their vision and purpose as it relates to sustainability, and how this work can be integral to creating thriving students, teachers, places of learning, and communities.  The schools strive to enhance their understanding of and connection to sustainability beyond a typical recycling program or school garden, and focus on values such as wellbeing, happiness, beauty, equity, compassion, love, and how these show up in our relationships to ourselves, each other, and the earth.  Through this learning community, the participants have expanded their mindsets and commitment to the holistic meaning of sustainability, especially when it comes to social justice, human health and wellbeing.

We use the Living Future Challenge framework as one lens to understand sustainability from a place- and values-based perspective.  When I first learned about the concept of handprinting I fell in love with the idea and approach not only in practice but also as a philosophy. I instantly connected this work to that of educators, who naturally are working each and every day to have a positive impact on the world by educating and growing our youth.  I also imagined that our educators would grasp this concept and progress it in a way that invites innovation, creativity, and inspiration to their sustainability work in the classroom, throughout schools, and in the larger community.  The beautiful thing about educators and schools is that they represent the greatest potential to have many ripple effects through the nature of their work – educating students, inspiring teachers, engaging families, and connecting with the larger community.

The workshop held this past October focused on the handprinting concept with hopes that the framework would inspire educators to not only think about benchmarking their actions and practices that reduce environmental and health impacts, but also imagine new possibilities for their current and future work to have positive environmental and social impacts and realize the ripple effects.


The session I led was about footprints and handprints—how we can reduce our harmful footprints (carbon footprints, water footprints, even child labor footprints) since we can never truly bring them to zero. Handprints, which have previously been near-invisible in most assessments about sustainability, are positive intentional changes on those same impact categories from carbon footprints that we bring in the world. Handprints have the possibility to ripple outward with no limit. While footprints are the burdens of our presence, handprints are the fruits; thus if we shrink our footprints while growing our handprints, we can become net positive—giving more than we take and healing more than we harm.

The group’s open community spirit is probably why, after I had expressed the basics about both footprints and handprints, I chose to pause at a point where I haven’t before, and ask: did anyone have any questions or observations about what we’ve covered up to this point?  Immediately a participant, Rick, spoke up as follows. “I felt uncomfortable and taken back by the idea that we are a burden just by being here—a burden to our communities and planet.  But, then it came back around full circle when you mentioned the positive side and our impacts through handprints.”

This seemed to be a powerfully self-reflective admission: “I was rejecting the idea that I’m harmful, until you also showed me that I can be helpful, too.”  I thanked Rick for opening all our eyes to this natural human tendency. And I connected back to Rick’s self-reflection while sharing evidence that traditional “crisis and blame” environmental education can leave its students less likely to adopt environmentally helpful behaviors.  It seems that focusing on the harm we are unintentionally causing disempowers us and leads us to create a mental distance, even to objectify the life that our footprints are harming. Then Chuck raised his hand.


Prior to being exposed to the Green Building Alliance workshop, I only gave the concept of carbon footprints a cursory thought.  And to be frank, I was totally unfamiliar with the concept of handprints and how they are tangible actions that can be intentionally taken to positively offset the negative impact of our ecological footprints. However, that all changed when I began to listen to Greg share the narrative about his work.  I involuntarily began to place myself in every scenario/story he told.

Thus, when Greg shared how researchers data concluded that the more people found out about the ecological problems caused by each of our carbon footprints, the less they cared about them, it was eye-opening.

“When people feel as though they are harming something/someone through no fault of their own, they tend to de-humanize the action so that it doesn’t exist or so they can deny its existence in their own minds.”  In that instant, those remarks led me on a train of thought that gave me clarity vis-à-vis how, otherwise good people, could justify or ignore things like climate change and social justice.

Concurrently, I had another stream of consciousness that branched off into how the aforementioned statement could explain how people of the past could buy into the atrocities of slavery, the genocide of the Native Americans, and the abuse of the Chinese railroad workers.  Even today, I believe the sentiments of that statement allows people who aren’t negatively impacted by the legacy of marginalization and systems of oppression to believe that we are in a post-racial, post-homophobic, post-sexist society.

I realized that in order to begin to build a foundation that can support the size and magnitude of the structure we wish to construct, we needed to transition our thoughts from taking sides to working collaboratively. The handprinting framework makes the most sense in order to call people “in” and begin to change the narrative.


I had not thought about the handprint model in that lens before, and Chuck’s observation was powerful—it floored me and practically brought the other workshop participants to their feet. He said “Handprints might offer me a different and more promising way to reach out and engage people on issues related to social equity.  It might go better, and go farther.”  He had transported the insights of Rick’s reactions to footprints and handprints, and of peoples’ reactions to classical environmental education, from the sphere of environmental impacts to social ones.  It made total sense to us at once, as brilliant insights sometimes do.


I realized that a living example of a social equity handprint was sitting right next to me. I looked to my left and saw my principal and friend, Tom Kaminski, sitting at the table with me. In my almost fifty years, I have spent most of my professional life being the only, or one of few, African-Americans in my professional environment.  And unfortunately, more often than not, my experiences, opinions, and ideas have been seen, in the best of times, as trivial and, in the worst of times, as a threat to the power establishment of the various organizations where I was employed.

Over the years, I have learned how to navigate the landmines of the professional world in a way that has allowed me to be successful while still protecting myself from the pitfalls of being a member of a marginalized community.

Once again, in my current position, I find myself being the only person of color in each of my school buildings.  However, unlike previous situations, from the beginning of the professional relationship, I have been made to feel valued and respected. Tom, as well as my other administrators, Laurie Gray and Tyler Geist, have taken the time to not only validate me as a person, but also to validate my experiences, opinions and ideas.  Additionally, they have provided me with opportunities to share these philosophies with my colleagues, students and the community at large.  As a result of their “handprints” on my professional life, I am even more empowered to leave “handprints” on every encounter I have with my students, with their parents, and with my colleagues.


The workshop promoted  the idea of net positivity and handprints aligned with our program’s ethos of inspiration to help us all reimagine what could be possible. This was the start of reimagining how handprints can help to inspire and catalyze positive actions and ripple effects beyond just environmental impact and to include social equity.

The workshop was a powerful experience for all of us in the room and promoted the idea of net positivity and handprints aligned with our program’s ethos of inspiration to help us all reimagine what could be possible. This was the start of reimagining how handprints can help to inspire and catalyze positive actions and ripple effects beyond just environmental impact and to include social equity.

At the beginning of the day, the participants entered a beautiful room full of inspirational quotes.  We asked every person to stand next to the quote that resonated with them most, and share why.  Chuck chose a quote by Rene Dubos, “The worst thing we can do to our children is to convince them that ugliness is normal.”  He shared how powerful this quote is to him in today’s world and as an educator.  He wants his students to remember three things: don’t let anyone steal your joy; try to see the beauty in everything; and remember that even though there are many different perspectives, our similarities are of much more magnitude than our differences.  Greg chose a quote by Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.”  He shared a core belief that at any given moment, everyone is always doing the best they are able in that moment.  If we choose to accept this idea, it brings complete compassion and humility towards ourselves and others.

The workshop really did come full circle for me.  Through my own experience and reflections, and hearing feedback from others in the cohort, I am excited and inspired about how the philosophy and framework of handprinting can be transformational in our work to create a better world for everyone.  I look forward to the collaborative journey ahead in showing – and asking — our children what a beautiful world might look like that includes beauty in our conversations, relationships, physical spaces, and natural places. And ultimately, how we might work together to learn more, listen better, and help each other aspire to be and do better.

Where do we go from here?

The workshop represented the beginning of a foundation for something greater to come.  One idea that resonated with many was that reducing our own footprints is a perfect place to start, but a tragic place to stop. The next step should be handprint creation.  We want to continue the conversation about handprinting and social justice, because it is begging for exploration.  Some questions we hope to consider include:

  • In the transition to positivity, how might we pursue the positive side of social justice?
  • How might we grow the conversation of social justice, without changing the topic, to transition from a blame dialogue to one of appreciation, affirmation, validation, and respect?
  • How might we help ourselves and others discover and unleash something inside us that wants to contribute to bettering the world?

We look forward to exploring these ideas more deeply through a community with the desire to enhance the handprint framework to fully integrate social justice.

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