From Americorp Volunteer to Environmental Educator and College Hill Learning Garden Manager

Danny Palmer is the SFPUC’s College Hill Learning Garden Manager and Environmental Educator. An Oregon native, Palmer attended college in Tacoma, Washington, where she graduated with a degree in environmental studies, global studies, and philosophy. Throughout her professional experience managing gardens and educating students, Palmer moved around geographically, working in places such as Hawaii, Central Pennsylvania, extremely rural tribal communities in the coast of Washington, and has now been living in San Francisco since 2015.

For her colleagues and students, what is so inspiring about Palmer is her purpose behind environmental education. She tries not to educate by telling her students what they should be doing, but rather guiding them to incorporate eco-friendly strategies into their everyday lives. Moreover, it is important for her to teach through the lens of intersectionality, in order to promote awareness of the greater system that impacts people as a collective and on the natural world. Palmer believes that educating and changing the habits of young students interacting with their environment and familiarizing them with the principles and practices around environmental literacy is the ultimate way to create change.

Palmer’s journey in San Francisco began when she worked for two years at Americorps as a garden instructor at Miraloma Elementary School. During her second year working there, she took a class at Garden for the Environment, a public garden that hosts adult workshops and school programs in the Sunset neighborhood. Blair Randall, the SFPUC’s Community Benefits Arts and Education Program Manager and Palmer’s current supervisor, was the executive director for Garden for the Environment at the time. Randall told Palmer that Education Outside, a non-profit organization that connects urban students with nature, received a grant from College Hill Learning Garden. The news interested her, and so she applied to Education Outside after her Americorps service was completed and accepted the offer.

A schedule from a field trip before the pandemic.
Danny Palmer (center in yellow) asking students questions geared toward personal stewardship in San Francisco.

Palmer’s role as an Education Outside staff member was to manage the College Hill Learning Garden for two years. Unfortunately, the non-profit educational site closed in June 2019. Luckily, an SFPUC position was created to manage the College Hill Learning Garden and this is how Palmer’s current position came into fruition last year. Since then, she has spent eleven months working at the Learning Garden with the SFPUC, and three total years at the Learning Garden.

Everyday at the Garden is very different for Palmer and her assistant, Metzali Andrade. Before the pandemic, their Mondays included outlining garden tasks and agendas for the week. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, the two hosted field trips. In the mornings of those field trip days, they started by prepping lessons and ensuring that the garden was safe and accessible. When the students arrived, the field trip began with introductions and a question of the day geared towards personal stewardship in the City. Questions included “what is the watershed?” and “how can we keep them healthy and clean?”

Students from a San Francisco-based school on a field trip at the Learning Garden.

Throughout the day, the students participated in hands-on activities, including small-group projects, and rotated through stations, participating in activities that involve the compost bin, vegetable garden, and habitat building. Finally, the field trip ended with students answering the question of the day, emphasizing how they can create and maintain habits to create a positive environmental impact in San Francisco. Palmer and Andrade then cleaned up, prepared for the next day, and completed any remaining garden maintenance. Fridays consisted of cleaning up the garden or hosting professional development training for garden educators with the environmental non-profit organization, Strategic Energy Innovations.

Now that the shelter-in-place order is in effect, Palmer and Andrade have been able to visit the garden once a week for cleaning and maintenance purposes. When they do not visit the garden, they have been shifting their focus towards what kinds of virtual engagement opportunities they can create for the future. They hope to create virtual field trips and transform activities in the garden into a written or video format to share with families and teachers. This curriculum is focused on stewardship, where students have the opportunity to build a foundation and reinforce everyday practices not just at the garden, but also at home. In addition, Palmer and Andrade are trying to reactivate their social media presence on Instagram (@LearningGardenSF).

Students from a San Francisco-based school on a field trip at the Learning Garden.

It is clear that Palmer has been an inspiration to hundreds of students in San Francisco and across the country, however she said it has not been a solo journey and credited the SFPUC as a whole for giving back to the community.

“Thank you for putting so much heart and energy into creating a program and the resources behind the environmental education that is necessary in San Francisco,” said Palmer. “The SFPUC is committed to the work that it does, not just in environmental education, but also in community engagement, workforce development, and firm partnerships. The College Hill Learning Garden just so happens to be one very beautiful, tangible part of the evidence of that love for this work.”

Danny Palmer (right) showing a student different areas of the Learning Garden.