A new generation of environmental leaders are changing their community
Teens fight for environmental justice in Yonkers, NY.
“Dying from heat is not something that I considered to be a prominent top ten killer of people.” The incredulity was not missed on Jessy Zhang who is part of the Green Team, a group of Yonkers public high school students putting their boots on the ground and working on environmental restoration each year. Excessive heat, also known as the “silent killer,” takes more lives than any other natural disaster. The other climate crisis, flooding, stands as the country’s most common natural disaster, costing the City of Yonkers millions of dollars in damages.
Yonkers is a unique city both geographically and socio-economically. Its entire west side borders the Hudson River, and three additional north-south rivers create steep hills that contribute to extreme flooding. Southwest Yonkers is unlike the rest of the city due to poor policy decisions. Through historic racism and redlining practices, it has a high population density, a neglected infrastructure, a low rate of employment, and environmental contamination that goes back over a century. All this adds up to a significant vulnerability to excessive heat.
Many of the Green Team come from this part of Yonkers, living on the front line of today’s most pressing environmental issues, such as extreme heat, flooding, air pollution, and land use. They are also increasingly aware of the risks the climate crisis poses to our society and the need for solutions. Young people make up 25 percent of Yonkers’ population, and although they are among the most climate-vulnerable population, they are oftentimes underrepresented in decision-making and planning processes.
“I live in a low-income area, I’m in a house that has cooling and heating cut out during the summer and winter, and the area near me has a park with too few trees and too much trash to make it a suitable option.” Ulizes Atlixqueno shared.
Ulizes is also a member of Groundwork’s Green Team and is one of the many affected by too much asphalt and too little tree canopy coverage and viable green spaces. Oftentimes, this causes people to feel trapped in their apartments without a place to cool off during the hottest days of the year. That is why Ulizes and 29 other teenagers who make up the Green Team decided to be part of the solution to these environmental injustices.
In the past year, the Green Team tackled the impacts of climate change by planting hundreds of trees, building pollinator and rain gardens, installing infiltration drainage trenches, and removing invasive plants across Yonkers and Westchester County. Lily Bartlett, Groundwork Hudson Valley’s Youth Programs Manager highlighted, “Youth are the driving force for environmental justice in our communities.”
At the Smith O’Hara Levine Park, the site of the old Putnam rail line and the future Yonkers Greenway, the Green Team has maintained greenery at the new playground, and planted a shade tree to provide respite from the extreme heat. During a heatwave in July 2022, the temperature at the playground reached 101 degrees — 5 degrees hotter than the city’s official temperature. An adjacent shaded seating area constructed by the youth also helps the community escape the brunt of the heat.
The Green Team has also worked to address flooding in climate-vulnerable areas. They installed a rain garden at the Francis Reagan Townhouses, a municipal housing property affected by flooding every time it rains. Rain gardens filter storm water before entering the local waterways, alleviating and reducing flooding issues. They also serve as a nourishing habitat for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, while providing a green space and beautification. Something as simple as a rain garden can prevent millions of dollars of damages due to flooding and improve the safety and quality of life for vulnerable tenants.
Groundwork Hudson Valley is working to address these issues caused by climate change through hyperlocal nature-based solutions and by expanding its Green Team program to build the capacities of future environmental leaders. “Our programs provide a platform for youth’s voices to inform organizational and political decisions in the community. With Groundwork, they transform their community, and themselves, through technical training and skill building.” Bartlett added.
Future plans are in place to pilot a workforce development program for young adults ages 18 to 24. This program is used by other Groundwork organizations across the nation to propel young adults into prosperous technical and vocational careers, providing industry-standard training and certifications, work experience, and mentorship. This model creates a pathway that youth can use to transition to a professional network in the workforce.
For now, Groundwork’s determined Green Team high school students will continue to devote themselves to providing cooler and healthier green spaces in their communities, gaining the skills necessary to one day become environmental leaders.
Groundwork Hudson Valley is an environmental justice non-profit working with communities to improve climate resilience, promote sustainability education, and nurture the next generation of environmental leaders. Visit us at: groundworkhv.org for more information.