NYC Youth Speak Out About Environmental Issues 3: UN Commission on Sustainable Development

On April 2nd, the Human Impacts Institute (Hii) led a workshop for 80 students involved in the LIFTT program at the Intrepid Museum. LIFTT–Leadership Institute For Today and Tomorrow–is a leadership program for NYC youth entering their junior year of high school. Hii’s role in the program is to train youth in environmental leadership, community development, documenting and interviewing community members to foster social change.

In the previous session, LIFTT students divided into groups to discuss key environmental topics from the 2011 UN Commission on Sustainable Development, to be held in May. These topics included: Transportation, Mining, Chemicals, Waste Management, and Sustainable Consumption and Management. The students’ brainstormed ways in which these topics relate to them, their community, and how they can play a role in alleviating some of negative impacts related to these environmental issues. Some of the most significant and popular solutions included reducing their impact on the environment by consuming less, using public transportation, and not purchasing items that contain harmful chemicals. They created questions surrounding these issues that they would like to ask people in the NYC community.

On their own time, seven of the LIFTT students participated in Human Impacts Institutes, “Urban Eco-Challenge.” They practiced action and advocacy techniques with people in their communities. Students were asked to complete three eco-challenges with topics from the CSD. For example, some students spent one day only taking sustainable transportation (bus, bike, skateboard, walking). After completion of each task, the students had to tell someone close to them—a friend, family member, teacher, or neighbor—about what they were doing and why they were doing it. Their reasons for completing each eco-challenge included saving money, reducing emissions, decreasing detrimental effects on other countries, and living in a healthier environment. The students were successfully able to spread awareness to people close to them about personal steps they were taking to create a more sustainable world.

During the April 2nd session, participating youth took their questions and solutions to local community members. The goal of the event was to produce a video that gets to a heart of what New Yorkers think about these environmental issues. Students split up into eight groups based on topic and ventured to 5 different neighborhoods of Manhattan: East Harlem, World Trade Center, Canal St, 5th Ave at Central Park, and Times Square.Before students dispersed into different neighborhoods to interview citizens, they were responsible for three preparation tasks:

  • Determining how their location fits into their topic;

  • Coming up with a strategy of how to make the interviews as interesting as possible; and

  • Coming up with three additional questions that will make people think.

Youth then ventured out in small groups to ask New Yorkers and visitors to the City sustainability interview questions, created by students in previous workshops. Students took turns playing the roles of director, production assistant, sound manager, outreach specialist, interviewer, site specialist, and note takers, practising different skill-sets and challenging themselves in different components of outreach development.

Acknowledging the residual health impacts of 9/11 on the environment and community, the Chemicals group traveled to the World Trade Center with their main goals of their interviews of informing people as to how chemicals affect their bodies. They asked questions such as: “How do you think chemicals affect you?” and “What do you think New York City could do to help reduce our chemical intake? New Yorkers responses included creating law to reduce construction, eliminating personal cars, creating education outreach in the news. Many of the community-members were unaware about the harmful effects of chemicals and responded with surprising lack of interest to the topic.

Targeting one of New York’s icons of consumption, the Sustainable Consumption groups traveled to Times Square. The group’s main question was: “How do you personally contributed to the problem of consumption and what ways can we re-use our materials?” The student’s interview goals goal was to bring people’s attention to sustainable consumption and its’ meaning for them. Students found it difficult to interview in Times Square because it was so busy but they received a mixed range of feedback. Some people were well informed on the issues of consumption and others were unaware of the impacts of purchasing, waste and consumer choice. Inspite of this, the sustainable consumption group felt their interviews were successful in getting people thinking about sustainability and their role.

The Mining group traveled to New York’s famed 5th Avenue, where high-ticket stores meet Central Park–one of New York’s natural treasures. This group chose to focus mainly on the mining of diamonds and correlated controversy. Their interview questions included: “What do you think the real value of the diamond is?” and “Are you educated about where diamonds come from?” Most people had the same response: They do not think diamonds are worth all the risk to the environment and workers and most understand the conflict and impact of where their origins. However, many respondents also acknowledge the appeal and social pressure to purchase diamonds as a “symbol of love”.

Acknowledging the disproportionate impact environmental degradation has on minority and low-income communities, the Waste Management group traveled to East Harlem. The main questions included: “ How does it make your feel to see waste in your community?” and “How is the government doing with waste regulation?” Responses showed that many people know of NYC’s recycling efforts but are not making the personal commitment to recycling. Most respondents were saddened and angered by the presence of litter in their community and wanted to see more City support for waste reduction. This groups’ students remarked that if citizens come together as a community they could motivate each other to foster stronger recycling efforts. Ultimately, students were glad that many citizens are aware of the problems that are associated with not recycling.

On the way home from their location, students reflected on what they learned and observed with a post-interview worksheet. Many students thought responses were constructive and their questions got people thinking about how these environmental issues make a difference in everyone’s lives. Students reflected on how difficult interviewing can be in a big city, but they think they were successful in completing their goal. After their day of interviews, students still came out with more questions they’d like to ask their neighbors, including:

  • “Does this make you care about chemicals?”

  • “Did our questions stay in your mind?”

  • “How does the city contribute in solving the environmental problem?”

Students look forward to creating more space for interviewing such as in schools, their local communities, other surrounding boroughs, businesses, sanitation plants, and supermarkets. They think the information should be used to better the environment, educate the public, and reduce waste. Overall, the LIFTT students’ saw it as their task to educate the public on these five environmental topics in order to foster long-term community change in the future.

Stay tuned as Hii premiers the students’ interviews in the upcoming weeks!

By Melissa Mitchell, 2011 Human Impacts Institute Environmental Education Intern

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