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Tori’s Roots and Shoots in Shanghai

May, 2008
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"I am very happy that I have the best job probably in the world. It is not important always to earn a lot of money. It is important to feel really good about what you do, to know you are helping people, to know you are motivating people, inspiring people to do good. The kids that I work with here are phenomenal. They are really the best and smartest kids. They are dedicated. They are involved. They are empowered."

   Looking out of the window from the 16th floor office of Shanghai Roots & Shoots at the Ocean Towers on Yan’An East Road, Tori Lynn Zwisler said there was almost nothing there when she moved to Shanghai in 1992.

  With some Chinese experience from having lived in Taiwan, it wasn’t such a radical change to move, but it was pretty harsh.

  “We had, a sort of, had a soft landing in Taiwan, moving to Shanghai in 1992 was pretty much different than it is today. It was very much of a different town than it is now. It was almost like it was a different planet,” she said.

  Tori remembered life was completely different at that time. She and her family lived in a compound in Hongqiao that was built in a brand new place where there nothing but mud. There was only one restaurant in Shanghai that you could go to as a foreigner. There were only two grocery stores in Shanghai that were sort of international-standard grocery stores.

  “It was a completely different world,” she continued. “In 1992, I was not allowed to use Renminbi. If you wanted to buy something on the street, you had to have a coupon from the government. The first McDonald’s was opened up in 1994. Think about that. There were no cars on the street, just a few taxis or bicycles and buses. Everyone wore kind of dull clothing. There were maybe two international schools…”

  There were only certain places where foreigners could live. At the same time, all the foreigners in Shanghai knew each other. It was a very tight community and it was very nice to live.

  Things have changed rapidly, radically, and the change in the city has been good. One big change in her life course was in 1998 when she met with Dr. Jane Goodall.

  “Dr. Goodall suggested that maybe I should work for her. It was very intriguing for me,” Tori recalled. Soon she switched, and started to get the Roots & Shoots program started in Shanghai.

  The director said the development of Roots & Shoots has been an education in itself.

  Shanghai Roots & Shoots started very small, with just Tori herself and one more person to help her. She had to figure out how to get the organization legally registered, how to raise money, and how to run an efficient operation all from scratch.

   “Luckily we were able to become legally registered; what’s more, we were the only foreign-affiliated, non-profit organization registered in the People’s Republic of China,” said the director with excitement. “That gives us a huge advantage in terms of administrative faith.”

  Sustainable fund raising is the only way the program exists, and it took Tori and her colleagues a long time to figure out how to do that. But now, they don’t so much look for donors any more, instead they look for partners.

  “We want a company to come to us and say: ‘We want to get involved,’ and we want to say back to them: ‘Yes, as a partnership, forever’,” she said. “We want to say: ‘It is good for you, it is good for us, and it is good for China.’ When we get those three points, we can go forward.” It’s been working very well these days.

  The director emphasized that the clear focus of what Shanghai Roots & Shoots is doing is environmental education for kids, “empowering them to make a difference to change the world.” In 1998, there were just three schools running Roots & Shoots programs in Shanghai. So far, about 170 schools in Shanghai are involved in Roots & Shoots projects or running Roots & Shoots groups on campus.

  Shanghai Roots & Shoots office gives them (the schools) a lot of things to get started, such as a very simple guide book on what Roots & Shoots is about, to look up who Dr. Jane Goodall is, or how to do community survey. If one group wants to do a project, they can find some project ideas in the book, like how to make a recycling bin or how to recycle paper.

“Even if they say they do not have a blender, come to Roots & Shoots, we give you one,” said the director. “We give them the equipment they need or some projects they are interested in.”

Once a month on Friday afternoons, a few kids from every Roots & Shoots group are invited to a big meeting either at Shanghai Roots & Shoots office or at a local school. They just network, talking about the projects they work on or what they could do for them. That gives other groups good ideas.

“We usually have a speaker there to talk about the environment to the kids,” she said. “We also tell them what’s new about our program, so they stay completely informed, get to meet each other, share ideas, and then feel good about themselves.”

  The organic gardening program of Shanghai Roots & Shoots is just running in its second semester. According to her, in the first semester two schools participated, next (second) semester they are adding 12 more schools. Everything is being done effectively and productively.

  Asked about what is the most exciting project Shanghai Roots & Shoots has done, Tori said the tree planting program in Inner Mongolia is the most exciting thing for her because it will last longer than people.

  “I will not stay in China forever, but my trees will be there. If I come back or my kids come back a few years later, they can go up and find their forest in Inner Mongolia. And they (the trees) will still be there, big, and healthy, and stopping the sand. It is very rewarding.”

  Tori’s two sons, 15 and 17 years old, are now studying at the Shanghai American School. Both of them are Roots & Shoots volunteers. One of them just went to Inner Mongolia where he planted 2,000 trees with his classmates.

  “He is very tired. It is a good experience for him,” said Tori. “We are a very green family. My husband’s company donates this office space to us. We are all supporting Roots & Shoots.”

  As an expat veteran living in Shanghai, Tori feels it is fairly easy to have a meaningful life here as a foreigner. Her suggestion is to stay focused on the family, and do things as a family, for example traveling as a family or getting involved in the Roots & Shoots activities in schools as a family.

  “But don’t think of China as a temporary place. If you live here, this is your home. And if it’s your home, you should take care of your home. You should do something meaningful… and there is a lot of ways to do it.”

  Tori’s oldest son is graduating from high school this year, and will go to an American university. Tori is very sure both her sons will end up living and working in Shanghai, as this is their “hometown”.

  “They will come back to Shanghai in the coming years. They grew up here. They speak Chinese. They have friends who are Chinese. They go to school with Chinese students. This is their home city. They are Americans, but they are ‘Shanghai Ren’.”


By Xing Yangjian

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