Sure, everybody talks about reducing greenhouse gases and saving energy and all that environmental stuff now, but it wasn’t that way a few years back.
And that really bothered Allison Rogers, who spent a good part of her undergraduate years at Harvard University persuading her classmates to turn off the lights and recycle more.
So in 2006, Rogers put on a formal gown, grabbed a bikini, practiced her classical piano, drafted a platform about the dangers of global warming and entered the Miss Rhode Island pageant.
Which, by the way, she won.
“I didn’t feel like the media was giving [climate change] attention, or enough attention,” said Rogers, who now works for the Green the Capitol Initiative office. “It’s a broad topic, and I really wanted to get the word out about what the solutions are to global warming.”
The first Miss America contestant to have a personal theme that focused on climate change issues, Rogers, 26, is program manager of the House greening office, where her job entails making sure the new project becomes a permanent part of life on Capitol Hill.
While installing energy-efficient lighting and getting compostable cups in the cafeteria is an important part of the initiative, changing peoples’ attitudes perhaps is the biggest battle facing the greening team.
And who better to take on that effort than a former beauty queen?
“She has fantastic abilities to mobilize people and get them engaged,” said Leith Sharp, director of Harvard’s Green Campus Initiative, “and get them to be enthusiastic about participating in sustainability.”
It is clear from a few minutes of chatting with Rogers that she isn’t the stereotypical pageant girl, more concerned with her looks than the news of the day.
She can discuss an array of greening issues, from compact florescent light bulbs to carbon credits to how maintaining the proper air pressure in truck tires saves on gas.
And she’ll stick up for what she believes. Rogers quickly defended Green the Capitol when asked about recent criticism that the initiative — and in particular its $89,000 purchase of carbon offset credits — is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“I see that really as one of the myths,” Rogers said, explaining that the credits are needed for the House to meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral.
“This office is really looking at every opportunity,” Rogers added. “Especially the opportunities that will also save money.”
Rogers described her job as supporting the House’s overall sustainability. She works with the chamber’s office coordinators — who each oversee 30 or more House offices — on developing green business practices.
Rogers also is helping with plans to track the 133 recommendations included in the Green the Capitol report, which was presented by Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard in June 2007.
The Road to Miss Rhode Island
Rogers didn’t always have ambitions to be a beauty queen. Growing up in Providence, she played baseball alongside her twin brother, Brian, instead of practicing her pageant wave.
But she always has been aware of the environment. Her parents, who both worked for the Postal Service, made a point of saving money by turning off unused lights, and the family frequently spent time outdoors, Rogers said.
It was at Harvard that Rogers really discovered her passion for greening. She hung around campus after her 2004 graduation, working for the university’s Green Campus Initiative, where she helped organize greening efforts in the campus residence halls.
Sharp noted that during her time as a team leader, Rogers had to convince roughly 6,000 undergraduate students that green issues were worth addressing. The result: Those dorms saw a 10 percent reduction in electricity use and a 40 percent increase in recycling efforts, Sharp said.
About a year before graduating, Rogers first thought about entering the Miss Rhode Island competition when longtime friend (and fellow Harvard student) Laurie Gray won the pageant.
“She did track, was pre-med, not someone typically involved with pageants,” Rogers recalled. “That’s when the seed was planted.”
Rogers didn’t jump into the pageant world right away, taking time to think about whether the traditional pageant stereotypes could overshadow her greening message.
“I really do consider myself a feminist, and had questions about how I felt,” she said.
Rogers ultimately entered the contest in 2005, and placed as the third runner-up. She re-entered in 2006, and, as fate would have it, became Miss Rhode Island on Earth Day.
“It was sort of perfect timing,” she said. “The stars were aligned.”
A lot had changed between 2005 and 2006, Rogers recalled — most notably, former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” had been released. Rogers even got involved in that effort: She was among the first 50 people to be trained by Gore in Nashville, Tenn., on how to make presentations about global warming.
In the months leading up to the Miss America competition, Rogers visited businesses and walked in parades, spreading her message along the way. Benita Arroyo, executive director of the Miss Rhode Island pageant, noted that Rogers even talked to schoolchildren about greening.
“How just by changing a light bulb, they could be involved,” Arroyo recalled.
Miss America and Beyond
Rogers traveled to Las Vegas for the Miss America pageant in January 2007, joining 51 others in their quest for the ultimate pageant title. There, she spent several days in front of the celebrity judges — MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews among them — being interviewed, showing off her swimsuit and evening gown and showcasing her talent: classical piano.
“You just have no idea what to expect,” Rogers recalled. “You do a lot of preparation — I did a lot of mock interviews.”
Rogers didn’t place in the top 10. But she did win the pageant’s “Quality of Life” award for her greening platform, entitled “Go Green! Global Warming Awareness.”
“I thought that was really a sign that Miss America, as an organization, was really ready to address this,” Rogers said.
Rogers’ reign ended in June 2007; she arrived on Capitol Hill in the fall. Every weekend, she commutes to Harvard to finish a master’s of education degree she fashioned: sustainability education and organizational leadership.
And she remains hopeful that during her time as Miss Rhode Island, she helped spread the word about the need, and benefits, of conservation.
“This is not about being an environmentalist,” she said. “This is about being smart.”