The InSite: You began your career as an environmental activist at a fairly young age. What sparked you?
Danny: Ironically, I was born on Earth Day. So I noticed every year on my birthday, (media pays a lot of attention to Earth Day), horrific environmental degradation stories - the ozone layer, the rain forest, or the world's coming to an end... So, the media had a huge influence on me to get involved. I decided on my 12th birthday to form an environmental group with my friends instead of having a birthday party.
TI: How did your friends like that idea?
Danny: Environmental issues seem to be the most passionate topics for young people. So at first half of the kids at the party took it well and the other half did it because, well, they got to keep their gift!
TI: What part of the country did you grow up in?
Danny: Redding, Pennsylvania.
TI: Is that a rural area?
Danny: The best way I have always described it is that every year the school district takes a day off so the kids can go hunting. So... it's rural! [Laughing]
TI: So you grew up with a love of the land because it was in your backyard.
Danny: Yeah, and all the images in [newspapers] and on TV sort of scared me.
TI: Tell me more about the group you formed.
Danny: Danny: It was first called "Kids for a Clean Environment" and was changed almost instantly to "Earth 2000" to symbolize that we were going to save the planet by the year 2000. We had about $23 and some cents. It was a junior high organization with about 20 members. I think the only formal thing we did was have a president, a vice-president, a secretary. And meetings were required, but also optional at the same time! [Laughing]. The first project was recycling.
...we were going to save the planet by the year 2000.We had about $23 and some cents."
TI: What were your goals for that project?
Danny: I think what really helped this organization was my naive approach to everything and our idealism. I remember flipping through one of my mother's gardening catalogs and saw these recycling containers. Because the curbside recycling program around the nation was just growing at that time and I thought this was a perfect way [to start]. It's hands on, it's action. I wrote a letter to the company's president asking him if he'd donate some recycling bins to our group. We weren't a non-profit group or anything. I didn't know that's what most companies require [for donations] but, to my surprise, a couple of weeks later, when I came home [from school] there were these huge boxes! The company had donated them! "A" because I think they weren't selling well in the the catalog and "B" it looked [to them] like a genuinely interesting project led by young people. So [the president of the company] was really for it.
TI: And what did you do with these donated recycling containers?
Danny: I thought we were going to set them up at the junior high school and have all the kids bring their recyclables and once a week drive them off... [but] the principal said "No!" "Who's going to man it?" I said, "Fine." And I approached supermarkets to keep the bins next to their soda machines, so people could drink their sodas and drop off the cans. And the first year it was a success. But then things changed, project-wise
TI: You moved on to bigger things??
Danny: The next project became the "360 moment" as I like to say. The Hidden Pond Project happened in 1990. I lived in a fairly wooded area and near my home was this pristine, beautiful area, that had a development sign up on it. And it was going to become a development area for million dollar homes, so people could get away from the city and live in the countryside. But in the process I knew [the area] was going to be destroyed. That was the moment I scrapped the recycling program, called a meeting and declared that this should be our next project. First everyone supported it, but then as my enthusiasm and the "real" me came through and I was getting lawyers involved and the media; that's when parents and teachers withdrew their students from the organization and subsequently forced me to create the organization outside of the school and look for outside membership, support, finances and everything.
TI: [Laughing] You were just getting too militant, Danny!
Danny: [Laughing] It wasn't militant! I think it was more action oriented!
TI: This sounds very cool, so how many members were you left with?
Danny: When we first started the [Hidden Pond] project... me and someone else. [Laughing] At the end of the project, after all the press... hundreds of members
TI: That's wonderful. And were you able to thwart the development project?
Danny: I pursued everything blind. I didn't understand the process...that for every action you need a whole campaign; which is good, because I learned so much. I knew, that to preserve an area for environmental reasons is very tough to do. There have been very few cases that have actually won that way. [But], when I was walking around the 66 acres I was trying to save, I tripped over some artifacts! A shard of pottery that was in the ground. My clumsiness had uncovered a rare 19th century, historical archeological site, that curators and archeologists in Pennsylvania salivated over when the press hit it!
The developers were furious...
Danny: The developers were furious, but because I tripped I was able to find different legal actions with the help of some pro bono attorneys, who volunteered to help me put an injunction on the property for a couple of months until the area could be excavated properly. That gave me a little time.
TI: And after they excavated, did they proceed with the development?
Danny: After months and months of intense campaign work [on our part], they [went ahead] and developed the area to some extent. Because there was state-wide press attention given to the area, and because I was so young, people felt sympathetic and were very supportive of the campaign. Potential buyers completely rejected the area to the extent that the corporation lost money on the area and had to file for bankruptcy, forcing them, basically, to never develop again!
TI: Did they build any homes in that area?
Danny: Two homes out of [a proposed] twenty homes. So 70% [of the area] was saved.
TI: That's quite an accomplishment. Where did Earth 2000 go from there?
Danny: We did lots of little state-wide educational campaigns. The next big one was when I was 15. I remember in 7th grade I didn't enjoy dissecting frogs, but I had a teacher who was very strong in his position that every student was going to dissect animals! So I was forced to dissect animals and I was very offended. I was really repulsed by the process. Even though I was a vegetarian the teacher didn't think I had a right to refuse. So I decided, a couple of years later, to ask the school board to adopt a resolution, which I had written with some help [from a group in Washington, D.C.] to give students the right to refuse animal dissections in the school district. I did my homework this time and I surprised the board members with this resolution! But after my presentation and after receiving hundreds of signatures from students who wanted this resolution, [the board] considered me the "night's entertainment" and they didn't pass the resolution. They didn't even vote on it! [Then] I used my media skills to sort of get back!
So, I was forced to dissect animals...
TI: Good for you!
Danny: The next morning the newspapers and local television ran stories and editorials sympathetic to me. To the point where a state legislator and another lobbying organization in Pennsylvania decided to draft a bill to get students in the entire state the option to refuse [dissecting animals] for any reason!
TI: And did the bill pass?
Danny: [The state legislator] told me that it was very unlikely, since this was a state that allowed students take a day off to go hunting and it was not the kind of state to have this kind of law. I told him not to worry about it, that I would use my PR [public relations] skills.
TI: What did you do??
Danny: I picked up newspapers, got the phone number and called and met with a lot of columnists and editorial boards about the issue. Unfortunately, I did get press coverage, but it was all negative. My first exposure to harsh press coverage. An ironic twist, it worked for me because legislators [were being asked] "Why is a teenager defending himself in newspapers when he doesn't want to cut up a frog and getting such harsh press coverage?" It worked so well that with the first introduction of the bill it passed and became law within a year!
TI: Great! I know that other states have such laws too.
Danny: California was the first. Pennsylvania was the second. There about seven other states now. So it was very effective and I was glad to see that go through.
TI: And how did the administration of your school react to all of this?
Danny: The teachers were very unsupportive of what I was doing and had seen me as "the enemy." My friends would tell me that a lot of teachers took class time to air complaints about me and encourage students to rebel against me. It came to a point where the principal met with a group of students and formed an organization to sort of "counter attack" everything I was doing. And he funded it! It was very bizarre. When I go to high schools around the country I never see anything like that!
TI: You probably felt persecuted, on some level, by the faculty of your school.
Danny: For being different too! For actually winning something against a teacher by outsmarting him, almost. In general, when students don't get their way they [have] a tantrum or do some rebellious action, and instead all I did was some interviews, meet with some legislators and lobbyists and draft a state-wide bill! [Laughing] It's about being innovative and savvy, that's the key.
TI: What happens next in this story?
Danny: Our organization grew, because of all the coverage. And this is when I learned to start printing a PO Box address at the end of all the articles. We gained thousands of inquiries and hundreds of paid members. A Board of Directors was formed and a year later all the official boring red-tape paper with the IRS was completed. I was the Executive Director and all those fancy titles.
TI: Did you even have time to do homework at this point?
Danny: One night during the dissection campaign, I had to decide whether to work on a civics project or work on my actual legislative project. It's something I don't recommend for students, but for me, I decided to pursue the "outside world" as my education. I was learning much more about legislative process and government by doing this hands on, than anything in the classroom. So I failed civics. From an A to an F. My first F! But got my law passed!
TI: So you dropped out of school?
Danny: I graduated... second to last [in my class]. Just to get a diploma. It's a risk I took and I think it paid off. But I do not, at all, recommend this. It's not a smart thing to do. It's a high risk factor. 99% failure rate. 1% you'll succeed. Obviously to consider this, a student needs something to be working towards. You don't just say, "Hey, you know, I think I'll just drop out of school and go out there and find something meaningful..." It comes to you. You don't go to it.
TI: What did you work on after your Anti-Dissection Law campaign?
Danny: When I was 16 we launched a worldwide campaign to protect the pilot whales in the Faeroe Islands (a tiny colony off the coast of Denmark). It's got one of the highest standards of living in the world. Their biggest export product is seafood and when they were a nomadic tribe they killed pilot whales for survival. They keep this tradition, even today [though they don't need to anymore]. [The TV newsmagazine] 20/20 presented a [negative] view of American environmentalists interfering with the traditions of other countries. [They were] killing pilot whales using their speed boats using satellite equipment in the oceans to track them! It was barbaric. I was so repulsed by the footage I saw on the show that I decided I had to speak up
TI: And how did you make your voice heard this time?
Danny: I grabbed a couple of kids, about 30 of them. We chartered a bus to Washington D.C. and I did my research. Got the permits from the Parks Department. We had a demonstration at the Danish Embassy urging them to stop giving economic subsidies to Faeroe Islands. Demonstrations happen all the time in the Washington area, media doesn't cover them. But what the media came out for was when they found out that the State Department had sent investigators to investigate me as a "potential international threat" between the countries of Denmark and the US! For the State Department, so savvy and informed, they had no idea how old I was! They were shocked to find a teenager running this whole little protest. So news bureaus rushed out from all over the world and covered the story and had a field day with it.
[They were] killing pilot whales using their speed boats using satellite equipment in the oceans to track them! It was barbaric.
TI: And the result?
Danny: A UK [United Kingdom] organization read some [news] clips and decided to launch a boycott of Faeroe Island seafood, where about 90% of it actually goes to market. That campaign is still continuing but it just goes to show that a group of 30 kids can get their voices heard around the world.
TI: What was the economic impact of that boycott?.
Danny: It hurt them pretty bad. When some of the biggest supermarket chains in England refused to carry Faeroe seafood. But they refused to give up the hunting there! It's perseverance. Whoever is going to hold out longest, I think. Then I graduated from high school. I was the CEO [Chief Executive Officer] of the organization now which now had 15,000 members. We were getting close to a 6 figure budget
TI: Where did you get the money to run the organization?
Danny: That's where my business side came through. I developed new, direct-mail techniques. I did market research and studies that most non-profit groups don't do. For example, I would track weather systems around the country during the winter time and try to get a direct mail letter sent to people the day before snow [was forecast]. So if a 10 inch snow storm hits on Wednesday, I want them to get the letter on Tuesday, so when they're trapped in their homes Wednesday, they have time to read everything in they've got because they're bored out of their minds! I just did my homework and we were netting about 23% returns on direct mail [donation requests] where a normal [non-profit] organization gets a 1% return. My philosophy is: "The maximum amount [of money] raised in the minimum amount of time." Recently I raised $30,000 for Angel Network... building 205 Habitat for Humanity Homes around the country and asking corporations to sponsor each home. They asked me, as an individual, to sponsor a home in Baltimore for $30,000. And they asked me to raise the money using the ideas in Chapter 3 of my book. ("Generation React: Activism for Beginners"). So I did it in 30 days, $30,000 and spent less than 30 hours on the whole project.
TI: Nice job! You really do know how to get results! Now when you first started this, eight years ago, you said you wanted to "Save the Earth" by the year 2000. The year 2000 is almost here, there's still so much work to do.
Danny: Earth 2000 is becoming the Earth 2000 Foundation, which is essentially a "star search" for the next generation of young environmental activists. We're looking for the best and the brightest. Individuals who are innovative, creative, enthusiastic and idealistic. Who have a passion and an innovative spirit... to preserve the environment and/or help animals. As a child, money was always the biggest issue for me. It was never finding volunteers, or the enthusiasm or the work. It was always: "I need $100! How am I going to get $100?" So we're going to give $500 to 2000 innovative projects and see how they do with it. I honestly believe that of 2000, ten or twenty will be the next big movers and shakers, social leaders of our country. I think it's an investment that's going to pay off.
TI: Have you started this Foundation yet?
Danny: I think it would be great to launch it on Earth Day 1998!
TI: How would you sum up what you've learned in the past 8 years about striking out on your own?
Danny: I've learned that adversity isn't a bad thing. It can be a good thing if you learn from it. If you keep making the same mistakes, then you've got a problem!
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