People told Amal Bennett-Judge she was probably on to something when she ran unsuccessfully for Miss D.C. in December. She didn't wear brand-new evening gowns. And when it came time to strut around in a bathing suit, she wasn't exactly wearing the latest fashion.
Her suit was more than 50 years old, a vintage two-piece her mother once wore. It wasn't flashy, and it wasn't the latest couture.
But it was decidedly eco-chic.
"It's never been done," Bennett-Judge says. "They said, 'You have a big chance at winning next year. You just need to work on answering questions.'"
Bennett-Judge says she plans to continue running until she wins and makes it to the world-famous Miss USA pageant — on a green platform. It's one of several big ways the college junior is pushing green initiatives in Washington, particularly at her school, Howard University, one of the nation's top historically black colleges. Howard has also landed on college fashion top 10 lists in recent years, and Bennett-Judge hopes to use that attention to make an impact on students.
Environmentalism isn't as trendy in traditionally black schools as in many larger, state institutions, she says. Students there are often preoccupied with ongoing issues in the black community, including violence, lack of education and entrenched poverty.
"At my school, the connotation of someone who is environmentally friendly is usually associated with people who are out of touch with society," she says. "They're not really hip to how to be sustainable."
Bennett-Judge caught the environmentalism bug while interning for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., last summer. Reid's office sent interns to Senate committee meetings to write reports. One meeting Bennett-Judge attended dealt with criticism of the Environmental Protection Agency after high-ranking officials claimed the office did not properly report poor air quality in downtown New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The majority of emergency workers who helped clear debris and save victims from the World Trade Center have suffered respiratory problems doctors attribute to toxic dust in the air, according to a study released by New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center in 2006.
"I was just so shocked," Bennett-Judge says. "I always thought government protects the people."
The more time she spent at the internship, the more she read about environmental concerns, and she thought about ways to change the environment locally. Thinking begat the Get Fabulously Green campaign at Howard University this year, with a title fabulous enough to appeal to fashion-conscious Howard students, she says. Get Fabulously Green started a recycling program at the university. It has plans to replace paper-towel dispensers in the bathrooms with hand driers. It's also issuing the "Green Card," which allows students to take advantage of exclusive discounts at eco-friendly shops in Washington, Bennett-Judge says.
She says she also wants to start a lecture series that will feature prominent black Americans interested in environmental issues, including, perhaps, Russell Simmons and Keri Washington. Well-known green consultant Majora Carter has agreed to speak at the university for free, Bennett-Judge says.
She also recently attended Power Shift 2009, a large youth conference on climate change in Washington held Feb. 27-March 2. She staged a fashion show at the conference featuring vintage clothing and clothing made from sustainable fabric. She's been working with Kari Fulton, a member of Power Shift's steering committee. (Full disclosure: Fulton is also a member of the Mother Nature Network's advisory board.)
"Amal has amazing ideas. When [she first told it to me], I was like, 'Wow. Go for it, girl, go for it,'" Fulton says.
The fashion show was designed to appeal to any student, but it's uniquely Howard-inspired, says Fulton, also a graduate of the school. The university's homecoming and spring fashion shows are "legendary," she says, and integrating environmentalism with a fashion show will likely lure new acolytes to the green movement.
"Instead of us preaching to the choir, we're hoping those people outside the church will come in," she says. "I hope that it inspires other people, especially those people of color, to engage others in their community. It'll be nice to set the tone."
After all, vintage clothing has its benefits, Bennett-Judge says.
"You don't ever have to worry about someone else wearing your dress," she says. "You're always fabulous."