Climate adaptation education for all

Three Boston programs provide youths of color with thoughtful training for green jobs.

Extreme heat, jaw-dropping storms, devastating floods and other dangers growing in the climate crisis: “If you are 15 to 20 years old, this is normal for you,” says Mark Borrelli of University of Massachusetts/Boston.

That new normal comes alongside an old normal: Young people from disadvantaged communities that are at the greatest environmental risks typically get no say about those risks. And although the U.S. is now starting to generate a wealth of green jobs in the race for climate resilience, youth of color generally are among the last to see employment opportunities.

But three Boston programs are rising to the challenge. Their leaders outlined their efforts for preparing diverse groups of young people for green jobs at an Environmental Business Council of New England/Sustainable Solutions Lab session on April 14.

Starting green in middle school

“The opportunities that exist in Boston always bypass our kids and our communities unless we deliberately build bridges,” said Matt Holzer, principal of Boston Green Academy (BGA). That’s been the mission of the academy since its founding in 2011. Based in Brighton, BGA enrolls more than 500 middle school and high school students. “We represent the mosaic of Boston,” Holzer said, with more than half the students coming from low-income neighborhoods in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.

Some incoming students have never heard of environmental sustainability. “Our job is to widen their worldview and empower them to take advantage of those opportunities,” he said. “We help them have the language and the skills and the experience to talk about it and to be in the room where it happens.” The goal is not just to deliver a set of skills but to enable students to work with a purpose that makes sense to them.

BGA students quickly get out into the wild at the Blue Hills Reservation, Mattapan’s Boston Nature Center, Thompson Island in Boston Harbor and other places. “We give them mentors, we give them opportunities, we have guest speakers, their classes are focused on ecology and urban ecology–things that are germane to their experience,” said Holzer.

Beginning in ninth grade, about a quarter of BGA students enter an environmental career technology program, “a deep dive with credentials,” Holzer said. As seniors, students do paid internships. “We have to provide stipends, because they work, and we’re competing with McDonald’s,” he said.

“We are addressing economic inequality,” he said. “There’s a deliberate commitment to equity everywhere. All we are doing is trying to give our students everything that they would have if they went to high resource places without racism or economic oppression. That’s what we want. And so we’re trying to create those spaces.”

Training the unemployed and underemployed

Often when attending green workforce development meetings, “I’m the only one that looks like me,” said Davo Jefferson. “So we’re trying to expand on that.”

Jefferson is executive director of PowerCorpsBOS, a green jobs program for young adults that the city launched last year. “It’s a six-month program targeted towards opportunity for folks in Boston age 18 to 30, who are generally not on a higher educational career track, typically unemployed or underemployed,” Jefferson said.

Based on a successful Philadelphia program, PowerCorpsBOS graduated its first class of 21 in December. Participants are paid each week and given a monthly T pass. PowerBOS offers two professional tracks, urban forestry and energy-efficient building operations.

Urban forestry might not seem the most obvious job entry point. “For many young folks from the communities that we’re recruiting from, trees are not on your radar,” Jefferson said. He noted that one street in the Dorchester neighborhood where he grew up lacks a single tree.

But the need for trees grows ever more obvious with climate change, and PowerCorpsBOS training supports the expansion of Boston’s urban tree canopy, particularly urban wilds like Buena Vista in Roxbury, above.

The program builds toward certifications in OSHA safety measures, first aid, pesticide application, energy efficient building operations, and other relevant skills. Training takes a village: inhouse experts, project partners from other city agencies, contract trainers and especially potential employers.

“Students receive professional skills training, which consists of things like time management, workplace etiquette, conflict resolution, working independently and on teams,” Jefferson said. They also get help finding and keeping jobs: resume building, job search techniques, networking, interview preparation, keeping the job and moving up in their careers.

Crucially, Jefferson said, PowerCorpsBOS also offers support mechanisms to help trainees navigate life obstacles they may be encountering, including assistance with housing, childcare, legal issues, obtaining vital documents and other stumbling blocks.

Creating climate ambassadors

Last summer a month-long program led by the University of Massachusetts/Boston turned 15 high school students into climate ambassadors, doing field research on extreme heat in Roxbury.

The program is a cooperative effort with the Boston Planning & Development Agency, Boston public schools and Roxbury Community College.

“The intent here was to encourage youth of color to consider public sector careers,” said Alan Wiig, associate professor of urban planning and community development at UMass. “And then through that, to do a project that would reinforce resident-led and city-supported efforts to address extreme heat in lower Roxbury.”

“We wanted a real-world project that would pull us out of the classroom and into the city,” said Wiig, “and would focus on a critical issue that’s confronting the community that these youth live in… Perhaps most importantly, in my opinion, it was a paid work experience that they could put on a resume.”

In addition to classroom studies, the group took weekly field trips at places ranging from Boston Harbor to City Hall. In the field at Roxbury’s Nubian’s Square, they managed to perform 109 interviews in 75 minutes. Residents generally were happy to talk with the teenagers, and agreed that extreme heat is a serious problem in the neighborhood.

A week after those interviews, the students measured air temperature at 26 locations in Roxbury on what turned out to the hottest day of the year around the world. Boston’s official high point, measured at Logan Airport, was 89 degrees. “However, in lower Roxbury, the findings were 10 degrees hotter and in some cases 20 degrees hotter,” Wiig said. “That speaks to the effect of urban heat islands, and how uneven [heat] is across neighborhoods like lower Roxbury that lack shade trees.”

Surprisingly, parks and playgrounds were particularly hot. This summer, the program expects to enroll about 40 students and work with Boston Parks & Recreation to redesign two parks in the neighborhood.

Another surprise was the high student interest in getting jobs as climate ambassadors. “This isn’t something that myself and other professors thought of; this is something that the teenagers thought of themselves,” Wigg said. These young people could conduct outreach to connect residents with the resources to adapt to extreme heat and other climate stressors, and they could act as advocates to City Hall and the State House, he said.

Like other speakers at the session, Wiig emphasized the critical need for programs and people to stay engaged with their students over the long run. “We need to commit to 10 years of mentoring with the same group of youths,” he said.

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