Young Activists Revitalize EJ Movement

On an Eco-bus tour of Detroit during the 2010 U.S. Social Forum, 17-year-old Janice Nyamakye strives to capture everything with her video camera: the tour guide’s comments, the city sights, as well as the ‘sites’—a dirty incinerator, salt mining operations, and power plants—all located in low-income communities of color. The tour informs Nyamakye’s own work in environmental remediation back home in Worcester, Massachusetts where she has been involved with Toxic Soil Busters (TSB) for the past four years.

As an organization, TSB effects improvements in the lives and environments of urban youth by employing them to first test local soil for lead levels, then remediate and redesign affected environments as needed. “We are a youth-led cooperative business,” says Nyamakye proudly. “The youth do everything.” As a videographer, she uses media to connect different EJ communities and amplify the message of youth working for environmental justice. From California to Massachusetts, groups like TSB, Grind for the Green (G4G), and Third Eye Unlimited are using new outreach methods to successfully reach a new generation of information-seeking cyberkids. And increasingly, youth interested in acting for environmental change are finding outlets through national organizations like It’s Getting Hot In Here (itsgettinghotinhere.org) and SustainUs: US Youth for Sustainable Development (sustainus.org).

The Kids are in Charge

A Gallup Poll conducted this year shows that the U.S. population’s concern for the environment has hit a 20-year low. But you wouldn’t know it from the level of interest and activity among youth-focused and youth-led environmental organizations around the country. According to WireTap Magazine, more than 600 youth-led community organizations are creating green jobs, removing toxic waste, combating corporate pollution, and getting the message out on environmental issues affecting them.

At TSB, there is minimal adult involvement as Nyamakye and 16 other youth do everything, from fundraising and accounts management, to interviewing new recruits, to creating and launching marketing materials, to providing lead testing and remediation services.
Since 2005, TSB has cleaned 36 properties using phyto-remediation, a process whereby lead-absorbing plants are grown in contaminated soil and removed after a certain period, effectively ridding the soil of its lead. In 2006, TSB was honored for its work by the city of Worcester with the mayor declaring June 20, Toxic Soil Busters Day. TSB also weighs in on other local youth organizing efforts.

“We are part of the Save our Pools Coalition, a team of people that have come together to get Worcester neighborhood pools open,” explains Nyamakye. TSB uses Facebook, YouTube, print, and television to amplify its environmental work, educate the public on youth-related issues, encourage more youth activism, and make tangible to them their power to improve their environment.

Social Media, Hip-Hop Help Rally Youth
Like TSB, Oakland-based G4G also uses a range of online and offline media to tap youth and adults. With a commitment to moving youth of color from the margins to the epicenter of the environmental movement in a culturally relevant way, G4G convenes hip hop and other musical events—entirely coordinated by youth staff—using Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and printed leaflets.

A typical G4G event may include an enticing line-up of local talent and known performers like Talib Kweli and Dead Prez with their socially conscious lyrics, alongside bike-powered machine displays, local food, aquaponics demonstrations, and information on environmental resources to address current challenges. “We put on events that aren’t billed as green and use hip-hop culture as a carrot to get a different segment of young people in the room,” says Zakiya Harris, founder and executive director of G4G. “Once there, we give them a lot of other information. So if they’re not already in the youth empowerment field, our events are one way for them to engage.”

Founded in 2007, G4G follows five strategies for developing the youth workforce on its team: reconnection to the earth, eco literacy, leadership development, new media, and cultural relevancy. It is a way to ensure that the environmental justice movement includes youth of color and is rooted in inspiring solutions.

“Though communities of color may care about the environment, they are often dealing with meeting their basic needs,” points out Harris. “Pressing issues like Oscar Grant and survival issues like food accessibility take precedence over melting ice caps. But when you talk about health using innovative ways rooted in our own indigenous legacy [and] new media, young people get it.” Ozone, the outreach director for G4G, works with four other youth members handling logistics and doing research, marketing, and outreach. Their focus is to ensure that their peers attend G4G’s solar-powered youth hip-hop festival. “Everyone is interested in a free concert in their community,” says Ozone. “And once there, they learn.”
In addition to Facebook and Twitter, G4G members rely on text messaging and blogs at their own and partner websites, such as GetFresh.net, to do outreach.

In Bits and Bytes, the Movement Grows
In a world where computers are essential tools, Internet searches outnumber library visits, and cell phones are indispensible, the youth naturally are motivated not only to integrate media-making into their work but to push the media boundaries.

Ben Gilbarg is a hip hop artist who runs Third Eye Unlimited, a youth media group in New Bedford, Massachusetts that has evolved from YouTube music video production to documentary and DVD creation. Third Eye’s mission is to teach young people to develop their own rhymes and tell their own stories. More recently, the organization has started focusing on the environment and environmental justice issues using hip hop.
In 2008, Third Eye earned its ecological media stripes with the hip hop hit “Green Anthem,” which highlights climate change and the need for green jobs. After Van Jones showcased it at the Good Jobs are Green Jobs Conference in Washington, D.C., people all over the country started using it, according to Gilbarg.

Since then, Third Eye has created a documentary on climate change and global warming—by young people, for young people. “We hit the right frequency with young people by creating something cool and savvy, something they can feel,” says Gilbarg. The documentary has been used in assembly presentations throughout southeastern Massachusetts, with up to 1,000 kids at a time. The overwhelmingly positive feedback has prompted Third Eye to produce and distribute a video for educators that includes climate change and green economy teaching tools.


In the course of amplifying environmental concerns, organizations like Third Eye are creating friendly environments where youth have outlets to record their music, organize and perform at events, and carry out environmental work.

Harnessing Youth Power for EJ
From Oakland to Detroit to Worcester, youth-led organizations are empowering the environmental justice movement. These organizations are promising in their ability to motivate audiences that the environmental movement has thus far been unable to reach. By integrating youth into campaigns as producers, creators, and changemakers instead of consumers, bystanders, and audiences, they are harnessing the power of media and the ability of younger generations to adapt quickly and utilize technological advances efficiently.

Youth like Nyamakye are at the forefront of this budding movement. Her narrative about the work done by youth in cleaning up Worcester, Massachusetts provides a stark contrast to Detroit’s overwhelming dirty facilities.“Youth can do anything,” says Nyamakye. “As long as you’re motivated, you can do anything you put your mind to.”


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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