By high school senior and dark sky advocate Jessica Elliott
When I was in the third grade, my class took a trip to a wetlands to see the way Earth is interconnected with the animals and humans around it. Ever since then, I knew I wanted to work helping wildlife. Then, in the eighth grade my mother and I visited parts of the rainforest in Peru and saw an area where the environment existed in its natural form. It was there that I first saw an unadulterated view of the night sky. One night we went out on a river away from cities and light pollution. That’s when I knew I wanted to change something about the home I was going back to. I wanted to be able to see a night sky like that from the forest in my backyard.
My junior year at Noblesville High School presented an opportunity to combine those passions of childhood. It was the first year that they offered the Innovations class. The only description I’d heard about the class was it was simply a block of time during the day when students could find what they loved and work with those passions. It was a drastic change from the traditional classes I was used to. Most classes teach you the basic skills that you can use later in life when you pursue higher education and/or get a job. Innovations class was about taking those skills and finding how to apply them to real world pursuits while still in school.
One of the hardest things about starting a project on your own is figuring out what the first steps should be. I knew that I wanted to help wildlife by reducing light pollution in my hometown of Noblesville, Indiana, but I had no idea how a 16-year-old was supposed to go about doing so. I started reading through ordinances of towns that had passed night sky friendly restrictions and emailing their city managers asking how they went about passing them. Their feedback was encouraging and with some of the advice they gave me, I started reaching out some more. Several had mentioned the International Dark-Sky Association, so one afternoon in class, I found the Twitter page of John Barentine, the IDA International Dark Sky Places program manager, and reached out.
From the very beginning John tirelessly helped guide me through the steps of reaching out to my local government officials and getting a text revision draft for the lighting portion of Noblesville’s zoning ordinance. During my entire junior year, I worked on submitting a feasible revision for a lighting ordinance. I met with Duke Energy to talk about how they decide on lighting fixtures when they’re working in the private sector. Smaller organizations like the Citizen’s Action Coalition and Carmel Green gave me advice on appealing to the community. A professor of local government at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis advised me on some of the technicalities of working with local governments. I had support from the zoning department and city council, who met with me several times to make revisions to the drafts that John had so patiently helped me with.
Ultimately, after several months of waiting (government works slowly, who knew?) the city council passed a portion of the ordinance I wanted, a very small portion. Unfortunately, politics and finance played a large role in the outcome, but mostly it was largely rooted in human nature’s aversion to change. Now, because of the ordinance, certain parking lots that are constructed in Noblesville have to use fully shielded fixtures. But this is just the beginning of my goal to change the level of light pollution in Noblesville. I’m continuing my work with Noblesville’s zoning department and city council, but I’ve also found joy in reaching out to the community to educate the younger generation on the effects of light pollution.
For several weeks, I visited elementary school classrooms, and with the help of some of the printouts from the IDA, a charming hand puppet named Professor Tortoise, and a couple children’s books, I told them about why it was they couldn’t see all of the stars from their backyards. I never expected that they would be so receptive and inquisitive about a subject that I had seen bore even the most patient of my peers.
The problem is, the average person doesn’t know how badly light pollution affects the world that they live in. Most haven’t even noticed it, but when you talk about the sea turtles and the birds and the fact that in only a couple decades we won’t be able to see the stars, they do care. They may not get goose bumps from talk of lighting fixtures or lumens, but one of the most contagious parts of human nature is passion. I’ve been overwhelmed with support for my project. One of the most surprising things I’ve learned as I continue on with this work is how easily passion spreads.
Jessie Elliott is a senior at Noblesville High School in Indiana and plans on attending Purdue University to study wildlife conservation next year.