Young environmentalists look at power and privilege


by Ellen Tveit, 8/18/08 • Young people take the spotlight in an August 11 Newsweek article about community-based work to improve the environment (Into the wilds of Oakland, Calif.; Young pollution sleuths and community activists fight for cleaner air).

By the People is a weblog on civic engagement produced by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs of the University of Minnesota.

After walking with classmates around his neighborhood in West Oakland, Calif., with an assignment to really look at and smell what was around him, high school student Juan Hernandez said to himself “I’m living in this place that has some of the worst pollution in all of Oakland, and I gotta do something about it.” (See our blog post on “Taking inventory of the community before doing public work”)

This image is from the Newsweek article. Juan Hernandez is second from left.

Erica Fernandez, from Oxnard, Calif., was 12 years old when she first started working to prevent a natural gas processing facility from being built in her community. She organized many people, including students, and eventually testified in front of the state commissions which had power to approve or deny the project (they denied it). Her dad’s severe asthma was what kept her motivated (her self-interest).

“Young people are reframing what it means to be a modern environmentalist,” going beyond conservation, says the director of a San Francisco environmental organization. “Urban areas are just as relevant to the environmental movement, and a lot of young people have been on the forefront of that change, looking at issues of power and privilege.” (See our post “Hip hop film gets Public Achievement teams thinking and talking about race, social class and power”.)

Those issues of power and privilege are at the heart of what Juan Hernandez’s teacher hopes to do. “Kids of color living in poverty feel less connected to the system and don’t tend to engage as readily with civics,” says Ina Bendich. “My ultimate goal is to show kids that government really is for everyone and that their concerns are as important as any other citizen.”

Another important lesson: feeling powerful and engaged as a citizen contributes to individual and community health.