Investing in the Leaders of Tomorrow
In order for movements to survive and grow, new people must join and take up the cause. Environmental justice is no different. Working with and inspiring youth has long been a priority for DWEJ. The purpose of our programs is to offer young people in Detroit an opportunity to develop their leadership skills, to strengthen their sense of community ownership, and to provide them with a chance to grow their knowledge about environmental protection and green careers. In short, our goal is to help forge the environmental leaders of tomorrow.
Our First Youth Engagement Program
A prime example of our earlier programs was Youth on Patrol Against Pollution (YOPAP). The program’s main focus was preparing young people to work towards an inclusive vision of sustainability for Detroit and to ensure the future of their communities. YOPAP activities were designed to:
- Develop leadership skills in civic engagement
- Build environmental/scientific literacy
- Instill a sense of community ownership
- Inspire environmental career development
EJ Block Clubs & PhotoVoice Project
The first step to introducing key environmental justice concepts was for DWEJ to support youth participants in forming environmental justice clubs in their schools and communities. In doing so, young people could take ownership of an environmental issue, such as abandoned lots, air pollution, asthma or lead poisoning. Through our PhotoVoice project, we encouraged participants to take photos of problem areas in their neighborhoods and to write about them. These projects were meant to help build a pool of youth leadership that active works to solve persistent problems in their community.
Participants were trained to conduct “Toxic Tours” through our Community Hazards Awareness Training (CHATS) program. Young people were encouraged to put the power in their own hands to educate the public about the environmental health hazards they were facing in their communities, and to find solutions. The tours also highlighted the positive environmental strides made when residents, businesses, and decision-makers come together to bring about positive change in the community. We provided participants with a stipend to recognize the value of this work.
During the summer, the program focused on learning about the ecology of their natural environment. For example, students were placed into internships with the Belle Isle Nature Center. There they built learned and practiced skills in data collection, scientific research and team problem solving.
YOPAP also guided students through a process of identifying local brownfield sites, researching their redevelopment potential, and creating a reuse plan in collaboration with community partners. Activities included soil and water testing, Geographic Information System mapping, and intensive research and data analysis of historical documents, scientific databases, and public records.
As part of YOPAP’s advocacy component, youth participants took part in “Get out the Vote” activities, such as voter registration training. Through this effort, our youth participants learned how to develop a platform agenda for environmental justice issues and were encouraged to take a stand for their neighborhoods. In doing so, these youth groups put a new fresh face on the environmental movement
Showing Youth the Path toward Green Careers
In another program, DWEJ partnered with the Eastside Community Network to help young people not only learn about environmental issues, but also develop an interest in environmental college and career pathways. Both in the afterschool and summer components of the program, youth gained environmental literacy using a curriculum developed by Creative Change Solutions, DWEJ and the Eastside Community Network, which highlighted topics like food, land, the ozone layer, water, and waste. The partnership was meant to help develop environmental youth stewards and leaders for the sustainable revitalization of Detroit’s Lower East Side.
Giving Youth a Seat at the Table: Youth Climate Action Summits (2014-2016)
Between 2014 and 2016, we undertook another initiative to engage and inspire more young people. In a partnership with EcoWorks, we organized three Youth Climate Action Summits for local high school students. The summits focused on climate justice and climate planning, and presented students with an opportunity to learn about green careers. Our future depends on making sure young people have opportunities to learn about climate change and to explore the impacts it will have on their lives ahead.
Notably, the 2015 summit was selected as a partner of the U.S. Department of Energy, Michigan Science Center, Detroit Public Schools, Wayne RESA, The Wild Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Association of Science-Technology Centers. This summit was made extra special when DWEJ and EcoWorks sent a team to the Paris climate change conference, COP21. Even better, our team included a local student who was able to participate as a panelist during a session about youth and climate change. That is something we are immensely proud to have accomplished.