Rochelle Davis

Founder and President Emeritus

About Rochelle

Hometown: Chicago

Education: BA, American Studies and Economics, Macalester College

Hobbies: Yoga, tennis, cooking and biking. I also read a lot, and I love masterpiece theater. I just finished watching 68 episodes of the British television drama Upstairs, Downstairs.

Who are you?

As the founder and executive director of Health Schools Campaign, I get up every morning and think about how I can rally support to carry out our vision. I’m constantly thinking of how and where we can make a difference, whether that means lending our voice to the national policy dialogue or working with teachers here in Chicago. Then, I focus on sharing that vision with people who can shape the changes our schools need, including parents, policy-makers, school leaders, and other organizations.

What I’ve found is that people really appreciate that we have effective on-the-ground programs, but that we’re also focused on changing national policy. We’re grounded in our experience here in Chicago and at the same time, we know that transforming systems at the national level is essential to the type of sustainable change our schools need. We’re able to engage children, schools and families with tangible grassroots programs, and then take the lessons learned to a national audience of community leaders and policy makers. That makes us experts, not because we have doctorates and masters degrees, but because we did something and it worked—or didn’t work—and we can share that with other communities.

Another part of having a national impact means bringing together partners who otherwise might not come to the table to work together. For example, we can sit down with grassroots environmental advocates, school facilities staff and cleaning product manufacturers to talk about practical green cleaning policies. Our ability to bring these coalitions together is pretty unique, and has helped us be effective in making change both locally and nationally.

What makes your job great?

I get to see first-hand that we’re making a difference every time I talk with one of the mothers in our Parents United for Healthy Schools coalition or hear from a policy-maker that she took action based on our resources. We get a lot done with the resources we have.

And I’m amazed at how we’ve been able to help change the conversation about school health, both nationally and here in Chicago. The public dialogue about these issues is totally different today than it was when we started out. Chicago recently became the first school district of its size to serve chicken raised without antibiotics as part of the school lunch program. Five years ago, that didn’t seem possible.

We recommended that Chicago Public Schools include health and wellness as an indicator on the school report card. In 2011, they did it. Our voice may have been among a ground swell of other voices, but sometimes that’s what you need to make changes. Now, we’re part of a group working on including a health and wellness indicator on the state school report card, and advocating to make this part of education policy at a national level.

When did you come to HSC?

This may sound odd, but I really don’t know exactly when HSC officially began. The organization developed organically, as the natural result of people coming together to address children’s health, education and our environment.

Before this, I had founded another organization called Generation Green. We worked on children’s environmental health issues like toxins in plastic teething toys, arsenic-treated play equipment and pesticide use. It started as a small organization of mostly women. Then, it grew to a national membership of 20,000 people. As my two children got older and more independent, I decided to become more active in these issues throughout the city. In 1998, we held a forum to see what health issues were most important to people across the city.

About 200 people from 75 organizations showed up, and there was a lot of interest around schools and their capacity to support health and wellness. We started working on pesticide use in schools, and how this affected kids’ health and learning. We were already working on asthma and as we talked with more people, we heard a great deal of interest in addressing school food and childhood obesity. From the beginning, we’ve been very concerned with health disparities and especially how these disparities affect children.

In 2002, we merged Generation Green with a partnering organization in California to focus on school health. That’s how HSC started. Over the years, we have evolved to make sure our initiatives mirror national needs. We’ve grown from focusing primarily on environmental school health to also addressing childhood obesity, chronic illnesses, and the ways that health shapes learning.

No matter what issue we’re addressing, our approach is the same: we believe the people affected most—teachers, parents, students, community members—must have a voice in decisions that affect the school environment.

Why did you join HSC?

As the founder, I sometimes feel like people expect me have a dramatic story about how my kid was sprayed with pesticides and then I went on a crusade. But for me, this was not a reaction to a single experience but rather an extension of my career that has focused on social justice, health and environmental issues. This is the natural progression of my life’s work that started 20 years prior.

I’ve had a strong interest in environmental health for a long time. I came of age during the 70s when the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement were still going strong, and the environmental justice movement was gaining momentum. In college, I was diagnosed with endometriosis, which was then nicknamed “the working woman’s disease” because they believed it was a function of delaying childbirth. The doctor actually told me that I needed to get pregnant right away. I was 18. That was absurd, and I didn’t accept that answer. I followed research over the next decade about the cause of the condition and how environmental exposures can impact reproductive health. As the environmental justice movement grew, I became more interested in the interface between the environment and my own health. Ten years later, my husband I had children with no problem.

Of course, I do have one pesticide exposure story. My son says it was one of the most embarrassing moments of his life. I was dropping him off for soccer practice at his high school and there were kids running around playing football, doing other sports. And someone came out and started spraying the fields with pesticides. I calmly got out of the car and asked him, “What are you doing?” He told me he was spraying today, because yesterday it was raining. He actually said that. I asked him to stop. He didn’t. The athletic director came over, and he agreed with me. My son would say that I ran out of the car like a maniac, but I don’t think I was that crazy. Maybe I made a stink, but at least I got him to stop. Sometimes there’s a big-picture policy handle to the issues we address, and other times it’s really that simple—bringing the health impact of a decision to the attention of someone on the ground at a school. We try to provide information so more people can be that person in their school, the one who says: wait a second, we need to do this differently because kids’ health is at stake.

Where does your motivation come from?

I’m Jewish and there is a very fundamental value in our faith: tikkum olam. It’s a Hebrew commandment to repair the world, fix the world, heal the world. I take that very personally. There are a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on our success. We’ve created an effective organization that can make a difference and will continue to make a difference. I’m motivated by the opportunity we have to make a difference for kids today and to transform our system for future generations.