Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-WI, was outraged when he toured the major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in August 1969. Nelson also went away that day impressed with the many people who rallied to clean up the mess.

Witnessing the miles and miles of beaches covered with tar spurred him to launch the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. He thought the best strategy to make a difference for the environment would be to conduct education programs for students, beginning with college students.

Nelson and his staff identified the week of April 19-25 as the ideal time for college schedules and the possibility of good spring weather. Calculating that more students were on campus on Wednesdays made Wednesday, April 22, the first Earth Day.

They believed Earth Day would work better as a grassroots movement. So, they raised funds to set up an office staffed by college students, with a law student, Denis Hayes, serving as the national coordinator. Coincidently, April 22 is also the birthday of the first environmentalist, Saint Francis of Assisi.

An astonishing success, the first Earth Day in 1970 was celebrated by some 20 million Americans on 2,000 college campuses, at 10,000 primary and secondary schools, and in hundreds of communities.

More than 50 years later, Earth Day’s commemoration attracts hundreds of millions of people in countries all over the world. Years after his death, Nelson remains an icon of the environmental movement.

Community Environmental Council Marks 50th Anniversary

Fifty years ago, Santa Barbara’s Community Environmental Council (CEC) gathered like-minded citizens who wanted to have a rapid impact on protecting the environment, and began taking bold action every day toward environmental solutions.

Today it has grown from its fledgling state to encompass a budget of $2.5 million. CEC is in growth mode as it implements a five-year strategic plan that increases their programmatic reach throughout the Central Coast.

CEC’s staff of 20, plus 500 volunteers, are committed to helping our community lead the way in reversing the threat of the climate crisis.

CEC originally hosted the Earth Day celebration at the SBCC campus. Outgrowing that space, it moved to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden, then located to Alameda Park in 2009.

A year later, CEC changed Earth Day from a one-day event to a two-day event, averaging 30,000 attendees.

From students to average citizens to top level governmental agencies around the world, people are talking about the negative impacts of climate change, the importance of biodiversity and the elimination of greenhouse gasses.

The U.S. Congress is considering 50 bills to improve our environment — everything from reducing pollution of the ocean, to clean water, to zero-emission refrigerator trucks.

Worldwide, people have reason to look forward to an improved environment, thanks to the early efforts of Nelson and Santa Barbara’s CEC.

Sigrid Wright, CEO of CEC, said, “CEC incubated Explore Ecology (then known as Art From Scrap) as a CEC program, and then spun it out as its own nonprofit in the early 2000s.”

Explore Ecology is an environmental education and arts nonprofit in Santa Barbara. They work with some 30,000 children a year, inspiring them to engage with the natural world, think critically and experience the value of environmental stewardship.

Programs include the Art From Scrap Creative ReUse Store and Gallery, Environmental Education, Watershed Resource Center and School Gardens.

You Can Participate in Earth Day activities

This year, like last year, Earth Day will be a virtual event due to the challenges of the pandemic. Last year some 40,000 viewers enjoyed the featured speakers, music and conversations. Even more people are expected to join in for this year’s celebration.

The theme for this year’s festival is Climate Leadership. Deborah Williams is an Environmental Studies lecturer at UCSB and member of CEC’s Partnership Council. She created the Earth Day Every Day campaign, a personal action initiative that is featured as part of this year’s festival.

The campaign runs April 1 through 21, culminating in CEC’s Virtual Santa Barbara Earth Day Festival on ​Thursday-Saturday, April 22-24. Everyone is invited to take meaningful, personal actions to help the environment.

“Together we can help our communities reduce climate impact and, at the same time, create healthy habit changes for ourselves,” Williams said. Just tune into the free festival event at

This year’s theme is Climate Leadership, and each day will focus on a different area: April 22 is youth leadership, April 23 is business leadership, and April 24 focuses on community.

People of all ages can take the pledge at Participants can share pictures of the actions they are taking on Instagram and Facebook and include #SBEarthDay #EarthDayEveryDay to earn a chance to win prizes.

Winners will be announced during CEC’s Virtual Santa Barbara Earth Day Festival. The free festival is available to view at

“We remain committed to the idea that even though we can’t gather in person, we can come together with amazing artists, youth activists and esteemed environmentalists to take collective action and lessen our impact on the Earth,” said Kathi King, Santa Barbara Earth Day Festival director.

“We are proud to celebrate climate leadership in a year when we are seeing the return of strong federal leadership,” she said. “This inspires us to work even harder toward rapid, equitable solutions to the climate crisis.”

Climate Leaders Step Up to Do Critical Work to Combat Climate Crisis

Over the three days, CEC will also outline and dive deeper into ambitious plans for how our community can meet the urgency of the climate crisis and go all in together on halting the impacts of climate change — rapidly and equitably — through three major efforts:

» Reverse: Push for ambitious, equitable zero emissions and zero waste goals for the energy, transportation, food and agriculture sectors.
» Repair: Tap into the power of nature to draw down excess carbon from the atmosphere and repair the disrupted carbon cycle.
» Protect: Safeguard the health of our general public and vulnerable populations from the impacts of climate change already underway.

Your financial gifts will be wisely spent on CEC’s essential work in our community.

Your support will help CEC continue to foster community resilience, bringing together diverse stakeholders from across the Central Coast region to ensure everyone is heard, cared for, and prepared to weather the literal and figurative storms ahead. If we can do this, it will be our region’s superpower.

Recognized as a 2020 California Nonprofit of the Year, CEC holds the highest ratings from the two largest independent nonprofit watchdogs: Guidestar and Charity Navigator. See the Impact Report to learn how CEC leads the Central Coast to advance rapid and equitable solutions to the climate crisis.

Wright, leaves us all with an inspirational challenge: “Let’s build a groundswell of community action that will reverse, repair, and protect against the impacts of climate change — and put California on track for an equitable, climate-safe future by 2035.”

— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137 or The opinions expressed are her own.

Cynder Sinclair

Cynder Sinclair, Noozhawk Columnist

— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137 or The opinions expressed are her own.