Going Green: How Local Environmental Hero, Judi Shills, Came to Found the Organization Turning Green

Judi Shills

April 22, 2021 marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement, Earth Day, which provided a voice for the emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet 51 years ago. Now in 2021, when our world’s youth see they can directly affect small and large scale change, they are likely to carry this strong sense of responsibility, purpose and stewardship inspired from the original Earth Day into a global framework of their fellow youth.

16 years ago, Mill Valley resident Judi Shils’ passion and life’s purpose fortuitously intersected when she brought to life an eco-conscious organization of her own, Turning Green. Judi’s original mission evolved around the concept of equipping students around the world with knowledge, resources and tools to transition their own conventional mindsets and practices to an overall environmentally conscious lifestyle. What started as inspiring local students to realize their own influence by sparking exploration, discovery and action has created a phenomenal ripple effect. Today via change-making collaboration with academic institutions, corporations, non-profits, media partners, policymakers and global leaders, Turning Green has empowered students in 50 states, 118 countries and 12,175 college campuses with over 23 million social media impressions to date.

As Turning Green’s Executive Director, Judi leads its valiant effort to encompass a wide spectrum of eco-conscious advocacy but for 25 years prior to launching Turning Green, she enjoyed a groundbreaking career in television production as an Emmy Award-winning television producer with ABC Sports, FOX and Oxygen networks.

It all started back in Philadelphia when as a junior in high school her intrigue with newscasters people that could tell stories about what was going on in our world led her to graduate early to attend Temple University so she could jumpstart her pursuit to work in television. After learning the meilleur of working in the newsroom as a college student, it was her love of watching the Olympics unify the world’s countries, despite the tensions of the Cold War at the time, that ignited her desire to pursue a career in national sports production. Her dream became a reality when she transferred to American University in Washington D.C. and began working for ABC Sports, the pinnacle of sports broadcasting then, as an early production assistant hire and one of few young women working in sports.

Later, Judi moved to Los Angeles to seize an opportunity to work with prominent directors at Columbia Pictures Television. She ended up collaborating with Bruce Jenner on the first-ever reality-based television show, 3000 MIles 21 Days,10 cents, based on three teams of two competing to travel cross-country with only a dime in their pockets, a precursor to the popular reality series, The Amazing Race. Married at the time to a high school teacher who was moving to San Francisco to teach at University High School, Judi reluctantly moved to the Bay Area and worked for the news and entertainment TV show, PM Magazine.

One day, after reading “Diet For a Poisoned Planet”, Judi ventured into Living Foods, one of the few original green stores in the Bay Area and immediately “organic-ized” her home in Sausalito. “And that was it. I knew I was never going back.” It was her realization that  “We’re bringing children into this world, and we have to do our part to make it happy and thriving” that drove her call to action. In her words, “It completely turned me inside out”. To further embed herself in this community while carrying on her passion for interviewing people, she established a children’s newspaper in Mill Valley, Pacific Sun for Kids. She also created The Diary Project to invite youth to write stories online at the onset of the internet. Meanwhile, her love and appreciation for Mill Valley, especially Tennessee Valley,  flourished. But upon learning cancer rates in Marin had risen 60% within an eight-year period, Judi knew immediately it would become her mission to raise environmental awareness throughout Marin County.

In 2002, Judi and her 13-year-old daughter, Erin Schrode, mounted a door-to-door campaign with the intention of rattling the cages of Marin’s policymakers. Their mission was to visit  50,000 Marin households with 2000 volunteers geared to educate Marin residents and gain insights as to why cancer rates had skyrocketed in Marin. Corte Madera Town Center provided Judi and her team with office space, the then publisher of the Marin IJ, Roger Grossman, who himself had 4th stage prostate cancer offered Judi his full support on the pages of the paper, while the Marin Community Foundation provided funds to propel this mass effort Search For The Cause to raise awareness and encourage research to solve the Marin cancer rate conundrum. Her first call was to the highly regarded advertising agency, Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein. Once Jeff Goodby began to spread the word of Marin’s cancer plight, Judi’s Search For The Cause continued to gain momentum. With the passing of her father, Milton Schils, from cancer, Judi poured her heart into this cause.  As the campaign grew in size and scope, ABC Nightly News covered the first day of the door-to-door campaign.  An impressive 25% of those 2000 volunteers who met up early that morning at the Marin Civic Center were enthusiastic high school students who returned from their all-day campaign with bags and bags of contributions along with completed surveys from their interviews with thousands of Marin residences.  She looked at those students that night and thought, “This is who I’m going to work with for the rest of my life.”  Therein lies the genesis of Turning Green.

Judi’s first endeavor with her partner, her 13-year-old daughter, Erin, centered on helping young people understand that many of the products they were slathering on their faces and bodies were toxic a campaign called Teens for Safe Cosmetics opposed to the use of hazardous chemicals in beauty and personal care products. At the same time, Judi’s mother, Rhea Schils, unfortunately, fell ill to leukemia. With her passing several weeks later, Judi’s quest to take care of this planet and people was supercharged. Every week she met with teen activists from Tam, Redwood and other Marin high schools around her kitchen table. In 2007, they created a line of products in partnership with Whole Foods called Teens Turning Green. Once the Head Global Buyer from Whole Foods discovered what they were doing, they joined forces with nine different companies to develop a line of products specifically targeted for teen skin with scents and textures teens approved of.  Soon, chapters for Teen For Safe Cosmetics began popping up all over the country including green spa experiences and fashion events. Yet when they realized that cosmetics limited their reach to boys and girls who didn’t use cosmetics, they pivoted to an all-encompassing eco-lifestyle premise. They changed their name to Teens Turning Green to incorporate many more varied projects.  As these teens moved on to college, still passionate about continuing their work with Judi, they, along with its growing audience of students of all ages, led to changing the name to simply, Turning Green.

Today, Turning Green boasts an impressive slate of education and advocacy initiatives with a presence at school communities throughout the world. Turning Green’s hero project, The Project Green Challenge began 10 years ago as a global opportunity during the month of October, for students to transition from conventional to eco-conscious living for 30 days. Each day has a distinctive theme with projects that involve youth from anywhere and everywhere on our planet, coming together to collectively assimilate to eco-conscious living lifestyles. A student-led college course set to launch late August is currently under development for 30 students, including 5 students and professors from each continent that will run parallel to Project Green, with an even deeper dive into the issues and research.  Judi asserted, “The dedication and passion from professors all over the world is mind-boggling.” Special Teams are composed of students from college campuses all over the world to help elevate awareness of their Project Green Challenges because when our youth participate, it sets them on an eco-conscious mindset for their lives going forward.

Conscious Kitchen, another component of Turning Green, addresses food equity, education and access by shifting the paradigm around school food service, while cultivating local, ecological food systems and building nutrition literacy into students’ meals.  Launched in 2013 at Bayside /MLK Academy in Marin City, Conscious Kitchen successfully transitioned the heat-and-serve, pre-packaged, processed food offerings to meals prepared with fresh, local, organic, seasonal, nutritious (FLOSN) ingredients with the unparalleled support of Cavallo Point Lodge’s Executive Chef, Justin Everett,  Sausalito Marin City School District and Good Earth Natural Foods. This program was later implemented at Willow Creek Academy in Sausalito, resulting in our country’s first 100% organic school district in 2015. They remain organic to this day, eight years later. During the 2018-2019 school year, Conscious Kitchen served over 1,220 chef prepared, low-waste FLOSN meals per day, all designed with student input. This resulted in the added bonus of reducing food and packaging waste by a whopping 62%! On top of that, these students also enjoy an interdisciplinary garden in which they plant, cultivate, harvest and eat what they grow, along with a nutrition and culinary curriculum highlighting food literacy and environmental education.  Unfortunately, the program ended after the year but on October 20th last year, much to Judi’s delight, the food service director from Peres reached out to inform her they were assembling 13,000 food boxes for families in that community to ease food insecurity related to the pandemic. Judi lit up as she described a one-year pilot program in 2017 at Peres School in Richmond, of the West Contra Costa School District where Conscious  Kitchen fed 550 students breakfast and lunch. Unfortunately, the program ended after the year due to difficult economic challenges in the district but on October 20th last year, much to Judi’s delight, the food service director from Peres reached out to inform her they were assembling 13,000 food boxes for families in that community to ease their food insecurity related to the pandemic. Because of everything she learned from the Conscious Kitchen pilot, the food service director reached back out to Judi to assist her in providing 10 pounds of organic produce in each box. Judi successfully helped shift the now 23,000 weekly food boxes from conventional pre-packaged food items to all organic fresh food from local organic purveyors. Typically, organic companies do not sell to institutions like schools because schools may not necessarily think they can afford it. However, with Judi’s help, the school district was able to cost-effectively purchase from local farmers, ranchers and suppliers. . Their collaboration with the school district the past four months has channeled $3.7 million into local economies by purchasing 3.1 million pounds of organic food for 7.4 million meals to nourish Bay Area families in West Contra Costa County!  As Judy emphasized, “And this is only the beginning! Conscious Kitchen creates dependable local demand and farm-to-table networks for farmers and ranchers while helping schools transition to healthy, fresh food which greatly benefits the students’ minds and bodies, organic lands, climate, local economies and more.

Judi also acknowledged how vital Al Baylock’s support, one of the owners of Good Earth Natural Foods, is one of the reasons Conscious Kitchen continues to thrive. He mentored Judi and remains committed to Conscious Kitchen’s platform to create collective impact in our local school communities. Throughout the pandemic, Conscious Kitchen has fed the Marin City community in partnership with World Central Kitchen for 600 meals a day for seniors, youth and other vulnerable populations in Marin all organic.

While Turning Green is student-led, Judi’s undying vision continues to spearhead this global environmental movement. While fundraising is admittedly not her forte, “not her superpower”, Judi persists every single day to educate our world’s youth, constantly encouraged by the support she receives, particularly here in Mill Valley. “In these unprecedented times, we are proud to continue to show up with and for each other and the earth. Together, we will think, research, create and connect our ideas to see how diverse individuals and collectives across the country and the world are engaging, innovating and rising to heal and sustain people and the planet. Even in the face of hardship and uncertainty, we can all take action.”

As Judy has taught so many, it is never too late to switch to an organic, eco-conscious lifestyle. “If we all get to make choices in life, how we use our dollars, how we impact lands and water, how we impact our resources and we look at our landscape and see what we’ve done, the degradation to every part of life, it is incumbent upon us to do the most responsible thing: to buy organic, to buy and use non-toxic products. We have to do everything we can through a lens of green”.

This article originally appeared in Milly Valley Living