Why I Care About Earth Day: Youth Development and the Environment

Each Earth Day I try to spend some time reflecting on how I’m living my life, and how it’s impacting the environment. I won’t bore you with the details of this year’s accounting, but I will admit that I need to make some changes. I could do a much better job of treading lightly on the planet.

My journey to environmental awareness was pretty direct. I grew up in Seattle, one of the most environmentally correct cities in the country. I assumed that everyone recycled and learned about the rain forest in second grade. I loved animals, and worried a lot about extinction. My environmental conscience was black and white: pollution bad, conservation good.

My freshman year in high school I attended a retreat at Camp Orkila for alumnae of the girls’ leadership camp I’d attended as a seventh grader (now Girls LEAD). It’s hard not to be moved by the beauty of the San Juan Islands (even in February), so when Dawn Wentworth, one of my past camp counselors, mentioned that she was running the Earth Service Corps program at the Metrocenter YMCA, I joined the club at my school the following week.

I learned so many things in Earth Service Corps: how to lead meeting, how to plan a service project, how to plan a summit, how to recruit new members (hint: snacks.) I also learned some lessons by screwing up: I learned how to be an inclusive leader by alienating another leader in the club. While I wish I’d never made that mistake, asking my friend why she’d stopped participating, realizing what I’d done, asking for forgiveness, and changing the way I led was one of the more important learning experiences of my high school career.

I also learned which environmental issues I personally wanted to impact. Trail work is a blast, but the issues that drew my attention were issues of environmental justice. I began to ask myself who was shouldering the burden when I flipped on the lights, or threw away a paper cup. Conservation and pollution were still important to me, but the disproportionate distribution of costs (mostly born by poor communities of color) became the primary issue in my mind.

Perhaps the most valuable lessons I learned in Earth Service Corps I learned from youth leaders at other schools. I grew up in a wealthy neighborhood in North Seattle, and most of the kids in my advanced placement classes were from similar backgrounds. As part of the Youth Advisory Council, I met with youth from schools all over the district, and it opened my eyes. There was so much more to the city than the sliver I knew well.

Interacting with youth I would not have met otherwise made me realize why we need youth development programs: with schools and neighborhoods increasingly segregated, youth development programs can still bridge class, race, and neighborhood divides. Building connections among youth is critical to building community, and creating innovative, effective solutions to environmental challenges.

When I graduated from high school ten years ago, the Earth Service Corps club at my school had grown from 4 students to over twenty. My co-leaders and I made green cords for graduating Earth Service Corps members to wear with our robes. I still have my green cord, and it reminds me of how I want to impact the earth. I still have a lot of work to do, but thanks to Earth Service Corps, I have the tools to make a difference.

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