Local 'Zero Waste' teacher and champion Sunny Galbraith gets North Bay Spirit Award

Admirers say Sunny Galbraith has a gift for marshaling volunteers with an approach that is patient and inclusive.|

The North Bay Spirit award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to


When Sunny Galbraith dropped her cellphone into a toilet she didn't do what most people do - console herself by turning the accident into an opportunity for an upgrade. Instead, the Sebastopol teacher and environmental activist looked for a refurbished phone to replace it.

“She had a Blackberry until a year ago,” said her friend and fellow activist Abigail Zoger in describing Galbraith's dedication to minimalist consumption, even on a micro level. “Living in a modern society it's hard to not leave a footprint. But Sunny is a person who tries to walk her talk.”

Galbraith, 45, tries to leave as small a print as possible. She rides an electric bike to work, brings her own plate to events, washes plastic bags to line dry for re-use. She doesn't even own a dryer.

It's all in service to her pet cause - reducing the amount of waste in the world.

A science and math teacher at Orchard View School in Sebastopol, Galbraith founded and oversees a student-run compost and recycling program on campus and at the neighboring Apple Blossom School. Over the past 13 years, the effort has diverted more than 90,000 pounds of organic and recyclable material from the landfill while instilling in children an ethos for the environment. The compost that comes from their worm bins is sold for $5 a bag.

When there's a community event, she's one of the “greeners.” From The Sebastopol Farmer's Market to the Peacetown summer concert series, Galbraith is there with a “Zero Waste” crew of youthful volunteers to make sure that everything is recycled, composted and cleaned for re-use rather sent off to the landfill. Often that means collaborating with Mary Munat and her Green Mary Team.

At the Sebastopol Fire Department's annual pancake breakfast earlier this month, that meant hand-washing 900 plates, cups and forks. A day later, Galbraith washed the tablecloths herself. Even while talking about the massive task, she laughs, something she manages to do almost reflexively.

That authenticity, along with an infectious optimism and a belief that small acts collectively can make a big difference, has made her an inspiring and effective leader in the North Bay environmental movement, particularly when it comes to promoting the zero waste movement that aims to transform our throw-away society.

Galbraith is this month's recipient of the North Bay Spirit Award. A joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, it honors everyday heroes for grassroots community service that goes above and beyond normal volunteering. The award puts a spotlight on people who come up with creative solutions to community problems and go all-in for a cause with a leadership style that inspires others to step up.

Admirers say Galbraith has a special gift for marshaling volunteers with an approach that is patient, nonjudgmental and inclusive. She meets people where they are and scopes out their strengths, making it easy and fun to participate.

“She emanates brightness like her name,” said Kyla Ehrenreich, who nominated her for the award. “She's positive and inspiring, friendly and motivating.”

Not pushy

Henry Mikus, engineering manager for the city of Sebastopol, serves with Galbraith on the city's Zero Waste Subcommittee and said she is persuasive without being pushy, which warms people to her message.

“She has a dynamic personality and she doesn't let things get in her way. She perseveres. She's not obnoxious,” he said. “She tells you what she thinks but she's got this nice ready smile that kind of disarms people.”

Galbraith, who sits on multiple task forces and boards dealing with waste reduction and diversion, earlier this year was instrumental in persuading the city of Sebastopol to become the first city in the county to pass a Zero Waste resolution. The measure is now making the rounds among other cities in the county, with the goal of reducing the amount of waste each person produces per day - now at 4.6 pounds - by 10% a year and ultimately, to divert all waste from landfills by 2030.

Galbraith also was a major force behind a companion ordinance in Sebastopol put forth by Zero Waste Sonoma that bans the sale or use of disposable dinnerware, clamshell containers and cheap ice chests made of nonbiodegradable polystyrene foam. It goes into effect next month. Galbraith chairs the Zero Waste North Bay Task Force, where environmentalists and government officials join those in the recycling, waste hauling and composting industries with a shared passion for reducing the amount of refuse that goes into landfills.

Galbraith said Sebastopol nurse Kenna Lee, a climate change activist who founded the local chapter of 350.org, proved to be one of her most significant mentors, demonstrating how to turn anxiety into positive action.

“She helped articulate that there are different ways of being an activist,” Galbraith said. “I had a one-dimensional view that an activist was always out in the street marching and fighting. I'm really a very cooperative person by nature. When I realized that there were many ways of being an activist that didn't involve combative techniques, it opened up a lot of possibilities. That is the flavor of my activism. Working cooperatively with people, which I feel is authentic and affirming for me.”

Other change agents

She is also inspired by other change agents like Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, Ida B. Wells and other leaders in the civil rights and women's movements, many of whom didn't live to see the fruits of the labor but whose efforts laid the foundation for change. She uses their example to help instill hope in her students, like the young woman who came to her in tears a few weeks ago, despairing the state of the planet and the failure by so many people to listen to scientific alarms.

“There's a lot of defeat and any environmental victory isn't a victory forever,” she said. “You have to keep defending it.”

Galbraith oversees the studies of about 20 high school students at Orchard View, an independent study K-12 charter school, where she also advises the The Green Team and a similar club at Analy High School. Students get credit for getting involved with climate change and Galbraith makes it easy, frequently posting “Environmental Action Opportunities.” They can be small things like participating in National Voter Registration Day or helping with a beach clean-up.

Or it could be a larger project, like the Climate Action Night she helped dreamed up and put on last spring with Zoger at Santa Rosa Junior College. She dubbed it a “science fair for climate legislation” that drew students and teachers from various schools around the county.

Students were matched with a faculty member who helped them prepare informational three-fold posters detailing various legislative bills dealing with the environment and climate change. There also was a table where participants could sign post cards of support to send to lawmakers. Galbraith and Zoger later coached students to make appointments with local representatives to lobby for the legislation, and accompanied them to the meetings.

It was a brilliant, hands-on lesson in civic involvement that they will do again next year, Zoger said.

Galbraith is imparting to young people the important lesson she learned: Fear is defused when you can take action.

“Part of the difficulty for all of us is just how scary it is, the thought of climate change and the future,” she said. “By taking action, I don't experience that fear so much viscerally. I feel empowered. And when there is a whole community aspect created and you know that all these people at all these schools and all these organizations came together, you don't feel like one voice lost in the dark and nobody cares. Which is how it felt before I really got active.”

Attended protests

Galbraith said she has always had an environmental conscience. But as a young person, even growing up in ultraliberal Berkeley - her dad was a psychiatrist, her mother a homemaker and artist - she didn't always know how to take action effectively. She was a member of an environmental club in high school but members eventually “drifted away because it didn't feel like we were doing anything. We weren't.”

At UC San Diego, where she majored in environmental biology, she joined a co-op and attended protests of various kinds. It still didn't feel very effective. After doing a field internship collecting bird data in Costa Rica she decided she needed a career with more human interaction. She studied and taught Qui Gong, which she still practices.

“It really does inform my energetic interaction with people,” she said of the Chinese discipline of gentle movement and breathing control. “I really learned some valuable things and I use it as a meditative practice,” she said.

She flirted with the idea of becoming an acupuncturist but figured she was too scientifically hardwired to completely embrace it. She also tutored in math and science. But she really became turned on to teaching after she and her husband Wyndham Galbraith, who teaches math at Sonoma State, moved to Sebastopol when their daughter Pearl, now 20 and a student at Cal Poly, was a baby. She began observing classes at Analy High and decided teaching would allow her to work and raise children (son Leo is a student at Analy).

After getting her teaching credential from SSU she worked for a time in Roseland before accepting a job with Twin Hills. Galbraith at first didn't recognize it as a calling.

“I had invested in this idea that my career had to have all my passions in it. It had to have aspects of everything I care about. After my daughter was born I had to let go of that,” said Galbraith, now a 17-year classroom veteran. “That freed me. Teaching is something I think is important but it doesn't have to have all parts of my life in it. And ironically, it's been the most fulfilling thing.”

It's also something she excels at. In 2015 Galbraith was named the West Sonoma County Teacher of the Year by the Sebastopol Rotary.

“We can all think back on instructors and professors we had, but there are only a handful who speak to us in a special way and we remember decades later,” said Sebastopol Councilman Patrick Slayter. “Sunny is one of those teachers that kids connect with. It would be difficult for me to imagine any of Sunny's students ever forgetting her.”

She also leads by example, diving in not just with encouragement but working side by side with students. While she didn't officially sanction it or promote it, she arranged ahead of time to take the time off to join students who skipped school to join the Climate Strike rally in September. She collaborated with students to create a banner and large phoenix puppet to symbolize rising to address the climate crisis.

“She's been very motivational for getting me involved. I can actually see what composting is doing for our environment, what recycling is doing for our environment and just in general how it's all making the environment cleaner and healthier,' said Leann Harrison, 15. A 10th grader at Orchard View, she helps out with the composting program at Apple Blossom, and joins other activities Galbraith includes on her “Upcoming Environmental Action Opportunities” list.

Easy to participate

Galbraith, she said, makes it easy to participate by pointing out a variety of opportunities that students can pick from, so they can select both what interests them and what works into their busy schedules.

“She has really good information which helps me understand it more. And it's stuff that I can easily be involved with that I don't have to think very much about. It's like, ‘Oh we're having this event. Can you come?' It all works for my schedule,” Harrison said.

Galbraith approaches the cause from both the scientific side and the human side. Troubled that the health and welfare of clean-up workers might be overlooked during the tragic firestorms of two years ago, she helped co-found what became The Alliance for a Just, Equitable and Sustainable Recovery, that brought together environmental, labor and social justice groups in common cause.

She organized phone banks and wrote scripts to help other volunteers apply political pressure.

“She helped create a narrative for people who were really concerned, to say how they were thinking about it,” said Mara Ventura, executive director of the North Bay Jobs for Justice and a co-founder of the alliance. “It was a stressful time but she was able to mobilize tons of environmentalists to speak up for workers. The environmentalist movement was not doing this on their own. Not because they didn't care. But it's not necessarily natural. She was breaking into groups that labor had not typically engaged with.”

Galbraith practices conservation religiously at home, buying in bulk, getting by with one car for the family, using a single-burner induction stove and capturing shower water to flush the toilet.

“We don't heat our house very much. We really bundle up in the winter,” she said.

Taking action helps her maintain her own spirits, which she admits sometimes hit the skids. And attitude, she says, is what keeps people engaged.

“When there are mishaps I never get angry or frustrated with people. Anyone who is volunteering is doing it for the right reasons,” said the woman whose given name is Sunshine. “I always assume the best intentions. The root of a lot of our environmental problems is not having enough trust in each other. We want people to associate this work with feeling good and being a part of a community.”

The North Bay Spirit award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to


Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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