We had a chat with Bridget Gustafson and Mackenzie Feldman who founded the Herbicide Free Cal campaign at their school, University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). This has since grown into a nationwide campaign, Herbicide-Free Campus (HFC), which aims to eliminate the use of toxic herbicides on U.S.A school grounds and advocate for the transition to organic land care. We are happy to share the inspiring way this came to be.

One morning in the spring of 2017 when Mackenzie and Bridget were at UC Berkeley Beach Volleyball practice, the coach told the team not to run after the ball if it rolled off the court. This was because the surroundings of the court had been sprayed with synthetic herbicides, something that really bothered Mackenzie and Bridget throughout the practice.

Unfortunately, that was not the first time the team had to play “carefully” to avoid the ball coming into contact with the sprayed surroundings, but it was the first time Mackenzie and Bridget did something about it.

Mackenzie and Bridget © Herbicide-Free Campus

At UC Berkeley, Bridget studied Molecular Environmental Biology and minored in Forestry and Natural Resource Management while Mackenzie studied Society and Environment and Food Systems. With these studies, they had learned a lot about how synthetic herbicides damage the soil, ecosystems and our health. However, in 2017 at that beach volleyball practice, they were confronted with how our health and social lives can also be directly affected by the presence of such herbicides in our daily lives.

Mackenzie and Bridget approached the Athletic Grounds Manager and found out he was using Ranger Pro whose active ingredient was glyphosate to spray the weeds. 

They asked the Grounds Manager if it was okay to get rid of the weeds organically by picking them, which he agreed to. The team started weeding by hand before practice.

The beach volleyball team after picking weeds around the court © Herbicide-Free Campus

Wanting to educate students and extend this call to eliminate herbicide-use beyond the beach volleyball court to the entire campus, Mackenzie and Bridget founded Herbicide Free Cal. This was a campaign to bring an end to synthetic herbicide use on UC Berkeley’s school grounds. 

Through the campaign, information was made accessible. Professional horticulturists were brought in to train the groundskeepers on organic land management, such as applying compost tea, aeration and overseeding. 

HFC staff and students weeding (L-R: Nyah, Mackenzie and Mia) © Herbicide-Free Campus

It’s easy to feel defeated by all of the damage that is being done to the environment. However, this campaign gives students the opportunity to come into their power and fight for a non-toxic world in a hands-on way. The ripple effects of training young leaders who then go out into the world and make change is immeasurable.

Mackenzie Feldman shares.

Mackenzie sharing about the team’s journey in getting rid of herbicides © Brower Youth Awards

It was during this campaign time when Mackenzie got interested in the Dewayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto Company case. This lawsuit was against Monsanto’s Ranger Pro weed killer and glyphosate (the active ingredient in it) which Lee sprayed during his previous work as a groundskeeper. He believed that the herbicide was the reason he developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a form of cancer).

“Coming from Hawaii, which is ground zero for industrial agriculture and GMO testing, a lot of activists in Hawaii were following the case and were also inspired by Lee standing up against Monsanto. I attended some of the trial sessions and was inspired as well as angered by the lengths that such companies would go to make money over a person’s life. I wrote Lee a note (which his lawyer passed to him during the trial) sharing about our work and he emailed me asking how to be part of it. He has since then been our advisor and continues to inspire us all to never back down.”, Mackenzie Feldman recounts.

Mackenzie and Dewayne “Lee” Johnson sharing a message for the #IGrowYourFood action day © Herbicide-Free Campus

Lee’s story, including the whole experience of the trial culminating in Lee joining as an advisor inspired Mackenzie and Bridget to expand the campaign to other UC campuses. Together with students from five other UC campuses, they had 5,000 people reach out to the UC President and they also delivered a petition calling for a commitment to transition to organic by 2025. Over 14,000 people signed this petition. 

The combined efforts of the team and students resulted in a glyphosate ban on all 10 University of California campuses. Although the student activists welcomed this success, the team is still committed to ensuring that all synthetic herbicides are eliminated from the campuses.

Mackenzie with Lee celebrating a victory © Herbicide-Free Campus [1]

This encounter inspired the team to expand their work and campaign beyond UC Berkeley which translated into the nationwide campaign, Herbicide-Free Campus (HFC). They currently have 25 fellows in 15 universities and 3 high schools who are leading their individual institutions on the path to having organically managed spaces. 

These fellows are students who apply to to take the campaign to their institutions. They are given training on how to advocate, host events, recruit students and on the alternatives to spraying herbicides. Monthly meetings and trainings are also offered by HFC national staff, for example, how to write an op-ed, use social media, pass a student resolution in the government and educational training on the history of pesticides, environmental racism and pesticides, pollinator health, organic land management, etc.

Students weeding at the UC Berkeley campus © Herbicide-Free Campus

Although they have expanded to 15 universities in just 2 years, HFC still faces a huge challenge in changing mindsets. Many people are not aware of the effects of synthetic herbicides and are resistant to even listening in the beginning. There is no method of message dissemination that fits all, so the team is always adapting different solutions and approaches to use. 

They approach the groundskeepers in a respectful way and refrain from assigning blame. They instead offer their help in weeding and a conversation is initiated from there.

HFC staff and Student Fellows on their monthly national call © Herbicide-Free Campus

It takes a couple of people who want to make change to do something. Bridget and Mackenzie started on this journey in 2017, with a goal to eliminate herbicides from all campuses in the U.S.A. Today, more people have joined in this movement and they are more determined than ever to keep working towards this goal.

We find comfort in the fact that we are not alone in this fight and the organic movement has our back every step we take.

Mackenzie Feldman

[1] HFC worked with the Protect Our Keiki Coalition to bring Lee Johnson to Hawaii to speak, and they got all herbicides banned from every public school in the state of Hawaii.

Click here to read Lee's story
Learn more about the work Herbicide-Free Campus does