The Clock Is Ticking: Youth and Environmental Activism


Grind for the Green
San Francisco, Calif.

by Rebekah Taft, 17, Y-Press

Rachelle Ruiz, 18, did not know she was applying for a job when she applied for a scholarship with the nonprofit Alliance for Climate Education earlier this year. Now she’s youth director for Grind for the Green, a yearlong mix of concerts, workshops and beat battles that combine hip-hop music and environmental justice.

The purpose of Grind for the Green is to bring youth of color from the margins to the epicenter of the environmental movement through events that combine hip-hop, education and life skills. The high point is a solar-powered summer music festival, which is produced by and for youth throughout the San Francisco Bay area.

Ruiz credits the youth focus for the success of the Grind, now in its third year. “One of the main things is that youth projects, they are what youth want to do. And when adults take on a project, it might be like ‘Oh that’s kind of interesting, but I’m not too sure,’” she says.
How would you describe your work with Grind for the Green?

I love the work that we do. I think it’s really empowering. I mean, there are not many organizations out there that you could say get youth involved, especially youth of color, through the tools of hip-hop.

How has social networking been used by your group?
It’s actually very interesting. We just started yesterday working on what we hope will be a four-part video for Grind for the Green, kind of like a miniseries.  And so that and Facebook and YouTube especially and Myspace and Twitter and Flicker will hopefully continue to push Grind for the Green and raise awareness.

Over the past decade, have you seen a rise in youth activism in the environmental area?

I definitely think so, certainly because the environmental movement, the green movement, has gotten bigger. You know, you can buy the green bags and your bag says, “I’m green” or whatever.  So it’s kind of that whole trend along with it, and I think that’s the reason that has pushed youth to at least think about it.  But I think there’s also a stronger pull on the local level with youth.


Urban Roots
East Austin, Texas

by Joi Officer, 15, Y-Press

At Urban Roots in East Austin, working on an organic farm helps youth sustain a healthy environment and their neighbors. In the process, they learn leadership and other life skills and get the satisfaction of benefiting their community.

According to Vivian Alston, 17, a day at Urban Roots starts out with a group warm-up then a trip to the farm, where they divide into three groups for three different tasks. For example, one group might be harvesting a crop, one might be washing down plants, and one might be planting seeds. Later they have lunch and then have a workshop on an agricultural topic, like learning about a certain plant, or a practical one, like money management.

Vivian and Steve Young, 18, have been with the program for more than a year, while Demontre Urdy, 14, Jessica Montoya-Olivares, 15, and Marisela Lopez, 16, are relative newcomers. Though part of their harvest is sold and part is donated to a food pantry, all agree that they receive as much as they give. “I didn’t have a clue about any environmental stuff beforehand, and I have learned a lot in the program,” said Vivian.

How would describe Urban Roots?

Jessica: The main idea of Urban Roots is to cultivate young leaders, to cultivate young teenagers to learn more about agriculture. 

Has there been any change in environmental awareness?

Vivian: I think all the youth of this program are more environmentally aware [just by] being around people who really care about the environment and who are trying to make the world a better place. We can see, from working on the farm, that no one really appreciates farmers and that it is important for farmers to be appreciated because they grow everybody’s food.

Have you made any mistakes?

Steve: It was hot and we were planting carrots, but we planted the wrong ones. We had to pick up all the carrot seeds, [which] were real small. I felt so bad. I still think about that until this day.

What advice would you give to Americans?

Marisela: Use smart ways and not hurt the planet. Like when farming vegetables and fruits, they should not use any chemical pesticides. Even though it could be kind of hard sometimes, it's better for the people and their health. 


West Oakland Urban Students Uprising against Pollution

Oakland, California

by Laura Cockman, 17

Students from Ina Bendich’s class at EXCEL High School in Oakland had little idea how much they would be impacted when their teacher handed them a list of pollution laws and took them for a walk down the street from their school. Jamelah Isaac, 16, was part of the second class to walk by Custom Alloy and Scrap Sales (CASS), notice the smells coming from the building, and take action to stop the pollution.

The students used pie plates and test tubes to collect dust samples from around the school and their houses and send the samples to a laboratory for testing. The results showed that the air contained dangerous amounts of lead and other metals. Wanting to make a change, the students wrote reports describing their results and contacted news outlets to get the word out about the pollution.

Two years later, the students are still attending neighborhood meetings, conducting surveys and taking air samples in order to bring about a cleaner environment in their community.

What do you consider to be your group’s biggest success?

By like telling all the neighbors that live around the factory what’s going on, now they want to get something done. So they’re complaining a lot, and now the CASS Company is trying to move their company.

What’s the best response to your work?

There are so many. … Adults have been saying “Good job.” And if it wasn’t for us, nobody would still have a clue what’s going on.

What advice would you give to other kids who want to get involved with the environment?

When they do something like this, they have to really be into it. They have to make sure they have all their facts straight, because they don’t want to be in the middle of something and have someone be like, “No, that’s false information.” What else? Let the community know what you’re trying to do. Have support.

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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator