Young Activists Clean Up Their Urban Environment

When Juan Hernandez moved to West Oakland from Bakersfield, Calif., one year ago, his asthma flared up. He used his inhaler more and more often and, eventually, had to give up his favorite sport: running. "I was huffing and puffing, but I thought, It's my own personal problem," says Hernandez, 17. Then, while working on a school assignment, he discovered otherwise. His environmental-law teacher sent Hernandez and his classmates on a "toxic tour" of their neighborhood: they walked around and wrote down what they saw, what they smelled and how they felt. This particular section of West Oakland, which lies in the shadow of a tangled web of four freeways and the Port of Oakland, has the second highest rate of asthma in the city. As Hernandez strode a few blocks from school, he passed a scrap-metal recycling plant and aluminum smelter that "smelled nasty," he says. It was an "aha" moment: "I said to myself, 'I'm living in this place that has some of the worst pollution in all of Oakland, and I gotta do something about it'."

He did. With support from the state and two environmental nonprofits, the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment and Global Community Monitor, Hernandez and his classmates tested the air outside their school and found elevated levels of heavy metals, including lead and nickel. In May, the students held a news conference outside their school to announce their findings. The event drew news coverage and grabbed the attention of neighbors, city-council members, and even the scrap plant, which has since cleaned up metal debris from the area.

Hernandez's program is one of a growing number that are helping turn young people from underprivileged neighborhoods into pollution sleuths and community activists. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, estimates that there are more than 1,500 such groups, up from only a handful 20 years ago. Some are initiated by young people, some by teachers or area residents and others by civic or environmental nonprofits. They're fueled by growing awareness of the environment's impact on health as well as by the expansion of the green movement beyond traditional issues like conservation. "Young people are reframing what it means to be a modern environmentalist," says Sharon Smith, program director of the New Leaders Initiative at San Francisco's Earth Island Institute. "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."

Many of the groups target air pollution, which disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods. A study that Bullard coauthored last year found that neighborhoods that host hazardous-waste facilities have a far higher minority population and poverty rate than neighborhoods that don't. A 2005 analysis by the Associated Press of EPA figures found that black Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger. Many of these same communities also have higher rates of asthma, for which pollution is a trigger. Dr. Jay Portnoy, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, says automobile exhaust and petrochemicals interact with sunlight to form ozone, which is among the worst of the lung irritants that trigger asthma, though any kind of particulate matter will affect asthma sufferers more severely.

As interest in youth activism and environmental justice has grown, so has funding for the programs. The Ford Foundation, the Earth Island Institute and the Surdna Foundation are among the groups that have stepped up support for these efforts. "It reflects an overall shift in interest toward global warming and environmental causes," says Jee Kim, a program officer at Surdna. The Earth Island Institute launched its Brower Youth Awards, for leaders ages 13 to 22, in 2000 and has been awarding more grants to young people involved in environmental justice.

One of last year's recipients was 18-year-old Erica Fernandez from Oxnard, Calif. When she was 12, she attended a local beach clean-up day where someone told her about a proposed liquefied-natural-gas facility to be built off the coast of her community. Her father, a retired fieldworker, has such bad asthma that he keeps an oxygen tank at home to help him breathe. "That's what motivated me," she says. Fernandez organized 3,000 people, including 300 students, to protest against the facility at a rally. In April 2007, she passionately testified in front of the California State Lands Commission and the California Coastal Commission, which both then voted against the project.

Along with better funding have come more sophisticated goals—and bigger victories. Marisol Becerra, 19, started fighting against coal-fired plants in southwest Chicago five years ago. First, she helped a local organization map and inventory the atmospheric toxins of 150 blocks in her Mexican-American community. She found that more than 60,000 kids who lived in a two-mile radius of the Fisk and Crawford coal power plants breathe air that violates EPA standards. With funding from several nonprofits she launched Youth Activists Organizing as Today's Leaders and made an interactive online map with a dozen youth-created videos and descriptions of toxic sites. In 2006, the DePaul University sophomore helped win a major concession when the Illinois governor approved the strictest mercury rule in the nation, set to take effect in 2012.

In southeast San Francisco, Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), which works with young people on environmental issues, lobbied to close one of California's oldest and dirtiest power plants in 2006 and helped turn a brownfield near the plant into a vibrant wetland, Heron's Head Park. Later this year, LEJ will open an EcoCenter, a solar-powered environmental education facility, in the park. "Twenty-five years ago there were very few funders who would give money to young people to do something like that," says Bullard of Clark Atlanta University.

But the movements are about more than ratcheting up political victories. Ina Bendich, Hernandez's teacher and director of the law academy at Excel High School, says she wants to help her students feel more empowered. "Kids of color living in poverty feel less connected to the system and don't tend to engage as readily with civics," she says. "My ultimate goal is to show kids that government really is for everyone and that their concerns are as important as any other citizen, but that they must be the squeaky wheel if their condition has any hope of changing." Lesson learned.

Join the Discussion