.Passing the Green Torch: Pivoting and repurposing at Bay Area Green Tours

As a fourth-grader, Bay Area Green Tours Founding Executive Director Marissa LaMagna attended a field trip to a wastewater treatment plant in New York City. She wondered, “Where does all the waste go?”

Thus began a lifetime of eco-activism, including founding Oakland-based Bay Area Green Tours in 2008. BAGT was devoted to creating interactive tours and experiences that exposed participants to the many farms, co-ops and experiments in sustainable living thriving in the greater Bay Area. LaMagna always envisioned it as “providing a bridge to solutions for more sustainable practices and new future possibilities by showcasing local green models.”

For more than 13 years, BAGT provided tours and experiences to over 8,000 adults in corporate and private groups, NGOs, governmental agencies and over 3,400 students in 23 schools, many in the East Bay. It addressed educational gaps in under-resourced areas, focusing directly on underfunded school districts. Teachers told LaMagna that they used BAGT material in exams and assignments, and that their students’ knowledge retention increased. Students said the material inspired them to choose careers in sustainability. Volunteers and interns came from diverse backgrounds, reflecting the composition of the communities served.

And then came the pandemic. The last in-person tour was March 9, 2020. LaMagna and BAGT faced an uncertain future, at a time when the climate crisis was accelerating the need for the information they were providing. Now in her 70s, LaMagna considered closing down BAGT and moving on to the next part of her life.

But new ideas for how to keep going kept arising. “Two long-term, part-time workers hung in with me,” LaMagna said. “Suddenly, as people were forced to stay home, we attracted a slew of stay-at-home professionals and students from around the world who were looking to be part of a community with a purpose and develop new skills.” At one point, BAGT had nearly 20 volunteers from Hawaii, Spain, Florida, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Texas and across the Bay Area.

“We met on Zoom and ate lunch together every Wednesday, and helped support each other through the uncertain times,” LaMagna said.

BAGT launched live streaming with some favorite stops and partners, such as Urban Ore, The Community Al​liance for Family Farmers and Soil Not Oil. This led to the formation of BAGT Lens by volunteer professional and student videographers, who videotaped some of the regenerative ranchers and farmers BAGT had worked with over the years. The videos became the “virtual tours” now available at www.bayareagreentours.org.

“As the year progressed we began to gain momentum,” LaMagna said, “and in 2021 we received a grant from StopWaste to produce the short film, Food as Medicine: Community, Health and Resilience, highlighting solutions to reduce food scarcity in Alameda County.” This film is also available for viewing on the site through the BAGT Lens tab,and on YouTube.

Yet another initiative was the Virtual Team Building project, created by volunteer experts in branding and copywriting, alongside college students. The group offered a permaculture gardening experience, a cooking class with a local farm and a session—called “Indigenous Edibles”—based on native plants found in North America before colonization.

LaMagna took September 2021 off for a road trip to Oregon and Washington, and on her return found that opportunities had arisen to sell BAGT’s Virtual Team Building. “So far we have done jobs with Amgen, Lumen and Comcast,” she said.

“We hope to develop additional programming on tiny houses, foraging, sustainably sourced flower arranging, eco-artisans, vital cycles permaculture, gardening, cocktails, food-waste recipes and cooking, cheesemaking and home brewing,” she added.

But perhaps the project nearest to the heart of the former teacher is the Farm-to-School Program, which emerged from seeing kids tag along as filming was going on in the field. “We realized we could circle back, have [the kids] lead tours, and we could use the B roll from what we already filmed,” LaMagna said. These films could be used in classrooms in conjunction with school curricula, and be provided free as an open source.

Concepts to be taught include agroecology, permaculture, biodiversity, food-waste solutions, sustainable water use and composting; how food choice impacts health, society and the environment; food justice and workers’ rights; and resolving the problems of industrial farming practices. BAGT received a seed grant from the Rose Foundation for this project, and is now actively seeking partners and funding to fully realize it.

As rewarding as all of this activity has been for LaMagna, she is once again ready to pass the BAGT torch on to a new generation of eco-activists. She speaks fondly of former volunteers and interns who moved on to careers in an emerging green economy. “It’s now my job to find other people to take on these responsibilities,” she said.

She plans to finish a book she started years ago. On her autumn road trip, she was told about many individuals doing remarkable work on and for the land, whom she didn’t have the time to visit. So, she will trade in her beloved VW bus for a renovated cargo van and plans to travel the country creating a vlog that will feature people, young and old, who share her commitment to a sustainable future.

Yet her work at BAGT is not quite over. On Dec. 6, she produced Slow Money’s Holiday Mixer & Marketplace at Oakland’s OAKSTOP, where attendees mingled with fellow food and farming entrepreneurs, investors and activists. As she told author Mary Corbin for an upcoming book, “So many gifted people have volunteered and contributed to our mission over the years that I feel compelled to hand over the organization to those who share my ultimate goal of BAGT becoming a worker-directed nonprofit.”

But the road and another life chapter are calling. Soon, Bay Area Green Tours will renew its growth with new hands on the tiller.

For more information on all BAGT programs and projects, visit www.bayaregreentours.org.

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