DG MARTIN COLUMN: Women helping turn Rotary green

If you still think Rotary clubs are havens for established white businessmen, meet Liz Henke of the East Chapel Hill Rotary Club.

D.G. Martin

Liz is a member of the club’s Green Team. She and the team were featured in the September issue of Rotary Magazine, which is sent to 1.4 million Rotarians across the world. An article titled “America’s solar energy divide: Rotary and Habitat team up to bring rooftop solar to low-income homeowners” describes how several Rotary clubs are partnering with Habitat for Humanity to lower the cost of electricity for low-income families.

The club’s Green Team first attracted Henke to Rotary. The club’s website explains, the Green Team, was organized in 2019 by East Chapel Hill Rotarian Alan Young, joined by Omar Zinn, Greg Bradbury, and Don Heineman. They were “committed to environmental stewardship, both globally and locally, through local projects, education, and by encouraging Rotarians everywhere to do the same.”

The team was concerned about climate change. But, at first, some club members thought that the Green Team’s interest in climate change would be “too political.”

That worry evaporated when Rotary International’s magazine in April 2019 devoted an issue to the topic, including a statement from its then president, Barry Rassin: “We’re people who care about our world. We want our world to be a better place, and it’s not just about the six specific areas of focus. It’s broader than that. We have to look at the world as a whole and how we can make it a better place. If we’re losing countries due to sea level changes, if stronger storms are disrupting water supplies or destroying people’s livelihoods, that’s more people who are going to be disadvantaged. So, caring about the environment goes toward our ultimate mission, and we should give it the importance it deserves. As a humanitarian organization, we’re obligated to talk about it. We need to have the conversation.”

Part of the conversation led the Green Team to an interest in working with Habitat for Humanity of Orange County on a nearby project, Weavers Grove in Chapel Hill, to investigate the possibility of installing solar panels on some of the homes.

Led by Henke, the team found that by taking advantage of help from suppliers and contractors, a demonstration project of one solar installation could go forward if the Green Team could raise $6,000. The team raised the money among themselves.

The September Rotary Magazine explained what happened next:

“ ‘There’s such a thing as energy poverty,’ explains Liz Henke, of the Rotary Club of East Chapel Hill, North Carolina. ‘The energy bill is such a high percentage of disposable income for low-income people. If you can help decrease that power bill, you can help interrupt that cycle of poverty. It means families can afford shoes, buy better quality food, and all that goes back into the economy.’ ”

The article continues, “Since 2020, Henke’s club has helped the local Habitat affiliate raise more than $330,000 for solar panels. She recruited a student intern who helped solicit the donation of 100 solar panels from Strata Clean Energy in Durham, North Carolina.”

To help share Rotary’s and Habitat’s experience at Weavers Grove, Henke and the Green Team helped develop a guidebook to assist Rotary Clubs and local Habitat organizations make solar a reality for low-income homeowners.

And Henke is just one example of how women are making Rotary even better. Jennifer Player, CEO of Orange County Habitat, is also a member of East Chapel Hill Rotary.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”