Green City Diaries: Sustainability, the next generation

When I ask 8-year-old Detroiter Taneesha Fashion what sustainability means to her, she answers, after a brief pause, "to do things that can keep going on, and they work, and they're productive, and they help the Earth." When I ask her how she practices sustainability in her daily life, she tells me, "I recycle plastic and cardboard, I eat fruit in the mornings, and I take care of my baby sister."

There's something remarkably clear and direct in what young Detroiters have to say about sustainable living. They have a knack for cutting to the chase, for simplifying what grown-ups easily overcomplicate: Sustainability means thinking long-term. It means caring for yourself, caring for others, caring for the planet. It means taking personal responsibility.

You've heard the old story about kids in Detroit. Reduced to one essential and frequently repeated narrative, it goes something like: they're not all right. The truth, of course, is much more complex. Here's one huge, but criminally underreported, part of the story about Detroit kids and teenagers: under the guidance of some heroic adults, many of them are busy transforming their city into a greener one. In school, after school, and at home, they're growing and selling food, taking ownership of their neighborhoods, and learning how to conserve natural resources.

They're learning about alternative energy and energy reduction, landscape design, neighborhood mapping, and, of course, the classic three R hierarchy that bears repeating, because it remains so clear-cut and essential to a better shared future: Reduce consumption first, reuse materials second, and then, finally, recycle what you can't reuse.

Ten or twelve middle schoolers are discussing the practical application of this hierarchy when I visit Palmer Park Preparatory Academy to observe an after school science club there. Established by Green Living Science (GLS), a nonprofit spinoff of Recycle Here, Detroit's community recycling center, the sustainability-themed club meets three days a week for nine weeks.

The evening of my visit, GLS employees Rachel Klegon and Mary Claire Lamm are holding up various objects, including a plastic bag, an aluminum can, and a styrofoam container. The kids are determining which of three bins in front of them each object should be placed in: the one marked "Reduce," "Reuse," or "Recycle."

Later, they play a relay game that reinforces the conversation (and that has them howling with laughter as they walk like ducks, chickens, and penguins across the room). There aren't exactly right or wrong answers, Rachel tells me; the point is to provide the opportunity for each student to discuss his or her decision-making process, and to open up a larger conversation about the three Rs in an engaging way.

Green Living Science is working with these students in particular because Palmer Park is one of three neighborhoods that are part of Detroit's pilot curbside recycling program. (The others are East English Village and Brightmoor-Rosedale.) The educational work that GLS does, which includes school assemblies, classroom visits, and after-school engagement, is always paired with hands-on activities.

For many kids in the neighborhood, recycling is a new experience, and the science club helps them understand how to do it better. The kids, in turn, help their parents; Rachel says that Recycle Here sees more grown-up visitors after GLS school visits, with parents saying that they didn't think much about recycling until their kids came home from school talking about it.

Anthony, a 13-year-old member of the science club, tells me that it's hard for him to watch people throw trash on the ground in his neighborhood. He says that some of his peers "just don't care" about littering, but that he sometimes follows behind them and picks up their discarded garbage when they're not looking. "If I was the president," he adds seriously, "I would make everyone recycle."

On the city's west side, near Rouge Park, students enrolled in the Detroit Institute of Technology (DIT) are getting a robust education in sustainable thinking under the guidance of teacher and environmentalist Ramona Gligor. DIT is an independently managed school on the Cody High School campus, part of the "small schools" program that the Detroit Public School system started five years ago with support from the Venture Fund and United Way.

The program targets schools with high dropout rates in neighborhoods marked by acute levels of poverty, crime, and violence. It's an attempt to restructure the education process in those neighborhoods in order to successfully graduate more students and get them into college. There are 365 students enrolled in DIT this year.

With the support of principal Mary Kovari and help from several other committed teachers and administrators at the school, Ramona has developed an in-class and after-school sustainability curriculum that is truly remarkable in its scope. From nutrition classes complemented by hands-on gardening activities, to design projects led by visiting landscape architects, to field trips to the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge to plant erosion-fighting trees and shrubs, these kids are immersed in hands-on sustainable thinking.

DIT seniors Antonio Williams, Keymari Eddings, and Damarr Byrd are all enthusiastic about describing the work they did over the summer with the Detroit Youth Energy Squad. After a semester long after-school training period, they and around 50 other students visited houses all over the city to teach residents about energy efficiency and to help make their homes more efficient.

Visiting about four homes per day (for a total of more than 1,000 over the summer) they went over residents' energy bills with them, changed light bulbs and faucets, installed door sweeps and weather stripping, and repaired broken windows. The work was done for free, and all of the students were paid for their time, with each receiving an additional $1100 grant to apply toward college tuition.

When they finished their neighborhood work, the students then performed an energy audit on their school, presenting their findings to the Detroit School Board. ("They caught us not turning our computers off at the end of the day like we were supposed to," Ramona admits.)

Taejah Mixon and Alexus Ridley, also DIT seniors, are equally enthusiastic about their work with the Detroit Youth Food Brigade, through which they spend summers learning about vegetables and selling them at Eastern Market. Neither knew much about vegetables or had spent much time at the market before their involvement with the Food Brigade, whose intent is "to use food entrepreneurship as a vehicle to encourage kids to create change in their communities," in the words of founder Noam Kimmelman. (His business, Fresh Corner Cafe, is currently based out of the Green Garage.)

In the program's second year, each student's responsibilities were expanded to include selling vegetables at neighborhood markets, too, as well as interning at a local food business. They were also paid for their time. The experience, Alexus maintains, helped her develop practical math and business skills, as well as introduced her to vegetables she'd never even heard of (Arugula?).

In the program's second year, each student's responsibilities were expanded to include selling vegetables at neighborhood markets, too, as well as interning at a local food business. They were also paid for their time.

In addition to significantly increasing her awareness of environmental concerns, which had never much been on her mind, Taejah, who is hearing impaired, also describes how the experience of interacting with market customers helped her work through her shyness. She became so comfortable speaking in public that she confidently presented her work at a recent, student-led conference at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. According to Ramona, who beams as she tells me, Taejah knocked it out of the park.

We're going to mix things up this month by concluding our exploration of green kids in the city with a video. We opened with Taneesha Fashion, who got me thinking about this topic several months ago when she performed part of an unforgettable rap about personal responsibility during a Friday community lunch at the Green Garage. Matt Dibble of Final 5 Productions, a GG business in residence, filmed Taneesha and her co-writer/producer/dad Bryce performing the full rap, called "It's Me," a few days ago in the Green Alley. We couldn't have asked for a more succinct or joyful expression of young Detroiters' sustainable spirit.

Green City Diaries is a co-production of Model D and the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library. For more information about Detroit's numerous green youth initiatives, check out the library's Green Kids in the City resource page. To suggest a topic or tell us what you're working on, email us here.

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at