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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Young Urban Activists

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Cy Musiker profiles the East Bay Conservation Corps of Oakland, California, a model for President Clinton's national service plan. The corps helps young people from 12 to 24 develop a spirit of hope and community involvement through urban environmental projects. In return for their labor, corps members get educational assistance, job training and a small stipend.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Kids, of course, are our future. And many of our ecological problems threaten that future. So it's not surprising, perhaps, that when it comes to the environment, young people from all walks of life have been especially concerned and active. In fact, some observers wonder if the barrage of books and programs about the environment aimed at children is burdening them too much. We'll have more about that later on. But first . . .

In Oakland, California, young people from twelve to their early twenties are getting a unique blend of vocational education and environmental idealism, through a program called the East Bay Conservation Corps. The Corps gives older youths a chance to finish their high school degrees and start college, while working on urban environmental restoration projects. Younger kids get after-school programs, summer jobs, and a chance for some ecologically-focused fun, like the East Bay trash Olympics. From Oakland, Cy Musiker has our story.

(Sound of voices announcing beginning of event: "Shalika, get ready, get ready, get ready . . ." "Project Yes Clean Sweep relay . . .")

MUSIKER: About 60 kids, 12 to 14 years old, participated in the Trash Olympics at Oakland's Westlake Middle School. In the Clean Sweep Relay, the kids use a pushbroom to sweep an aluminum can up and down a race course.

(Voice: "On the whistle. On your marks, get set . . .tweeet." )

MUSIKER: The teenagers are all members of Project YES, Youth Engaged in Service. That's the name for the middle-school program of the East Bay Conservation Corps. The kids earn a small stipend for running recycling programs for local businesses, or designing and building a garden for science class. Just as important, says 7th-grader Rosemary Smith, they learn taking care of the environment is important , not just in places such as Yosemite Park, but right here in their neighborhoods.

SMITH: Because it's hecka dirty and stuff, and people need to clean up the earth, because that's how God wanted it to be. They're like destroying the city, gangs, shooting other people. It's crazy.
MUSIKER: Can you stop that stuff too just by cleaning up the neighborhood?
SMITH: No, but we can encourage people to help us heal the world.

(Sound of train horn)

MUSIKER: The East Bay Conservation Corps is emphatically a city organization. The younger members meet at Oakland schools, but headquarters for the 180 older members is here, hard by the freight tracks, near the freeway and the Port of Oakland. The building is a former fruit canning warehouse, transformed into a work and learning center.

(Sound of pushups counted in cadence)

MUSIKER: In a parking lot out front, these 18 to 24-year-old men and women begin each morning with a quick workout, then form crews that maintain parks and reservoirs, paint and landscape senior centers, and design and build community gardens and playgrounds. They also spend eight hours a week working with Corps instructors to complete their high school degrees or start community college. Most of these older member are Black or Latino; some are homeless or have drug problems when they enroll; few had a purpose in their life before they came here. Alain Orta is in his second year with the Corps.

ORTA: This is a big opportunity right here for us, so you can change your life here from whatever you were doing wrong out there on the streets. I mean, yeah, you know, I was gangbanging , you know, I was into all this stupid-ass shit that I didn't realize till I went to jail. I'm planning to change my life now, that's it.

MUSIKER: Corps members all dress in the same style jeans and work shirts, like US Forest Service uniforms, only in Raiders football team colors: silver and black. Most sign up for the Corps, not out of any environmental idealism, but because it's a chance to earn some money while going back to school. But Corps member Elijah Philips says he found himself recycling, researching issues like toxic waste sites in poor neighborhoods, and applying for jobs he couldn't have imagined before.

PHILIPS: I've been working here four months. I've accumulated five awards, a raise, and I currently got an interview with the California Department of Forestry. Which they'll call me in 3 weeks and I'll be really working from the Oregon border all the way to the Mexican border, in California fighting fires, hopefully.

MUSIKER: Not all the Corps members are so gung-ho, and some complain at the low wages. But founder and director Joanna Lennon says members shouldn't really think of it as a job.

LENNON: It's not a work program, it's not a job-training program, it's an education program, and we use the medium of work in the community to educate young people in a very broad sense.

MUSIKER: In many ways, the Corps is a melding of Lennon's own twin passions of environmentalism and educational reform.

LENNON: It also empowers them to feel that they have something to offer and that they're seen as resources in the community, and in fact that they are major players, and that maybe this is a good thing that they're citizens. And when you look at what the demographics of the country is going to be, it's going to be mostly people of color, and if we can't engage the majority of the population in realizing that the environment is their responsibility, we're dead in the water.

MUSIKER: In a canyon thick with native bay and oak trees, one of the work crews is rebuilding a park trail that's slid into a creek bed. It's a beautiful setting, just a few hundred yards behind a condominium complex in the city of Hayward. These are the kinds of places that Corps veteran Ronnie Polk says he didn't even know existed before he joined. Now he wants to protect them for his own family and friends.

POLK: A lot of people ain't really into those things, until, once you come here you realize how important all those things are. You take it home with you, and start recycling and everything, and just worry about the environment. You know, like I used to have a knack for killing bugs and everything, now I don't do that, I let little spiders roam about their ways and stuff. So it's good to learn that kind of things, that I can teach that to my little boy.

MUSIKER: Next fall the East Bay Conservation Corps will expand its program for younger kids from just middle schools into elementary and high schools. The White House has just acknowledged the Corps' success by selecting the group to run the largest pilot program for President Clinton's proposed National Service Network. This summer, 250 young people will provide medical services to poor and homeless children. But knowing the Corps, there's bound to be a lesson on urban ecology mixed in as well. For Living on Earth, I'm Cy Musiker in Oakland.



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