This week is National Environmental Education Week and I had the pleasure of kicking it off right by participating on a panel called “Overcoming Environmental Injustice: Getting Latino Kids Outdoors.” The panel was part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s 2012 Young Latino Leaders Summit, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Graduate Summit.
I was honored to share the stage with our host and moderator Melissa Ocana (Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute STEM Graduate Fellow), Rowan Gould (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), Lisa Garcia (Environmental Protection Agency), Laura Hickey (National Wildlife Federation) and Roger Rivera (National Hispanic Environmental Council).
Melissa opened the panel by sharing the results of her research. “Environmental justice barriers must be overcome to ensure Latino youth have a fair chance to reap the many benefits of outdoor activity,” said Melissa. “In particular, outdoor activity can result in youth engagement in STEM fields and academic improvement.”
I couldn’t agree more. In fact, Sierra Club supported a study a few years ago to determine how sixth graders from California (primarily Latinos) would respond to an outdoor environmental education experience. Following a weeklong outdoor education course, the students saw improvements in classroom behavior, interest in learning and a 27% increase in their science test scores! More and more research is demonstrating that kids who learn outdoors do better in school across subject areas.
Unfortunately, most kids aren’t getting outdoors, let alone the chance to participate in an environmental education program. Did you know that 80% of Americans (and 90% of Latinos) now live in urban areas with limited access to green space? In fact, 30% of Latino adolescents have ZERO access to safe parks or open spaces. And even if they do have access to get outdoors, the air quality in their neighborhoods is likely sub-par – 66% of Latino families live in areas that don’t meet air quality standards. Sierra Club is fighting for cleaner air and addressing environmental justice issues across the country.
Through Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors program, we are working to overcome some of the barriers that are boxing an entire generation inside four walls. Each year, Sierra Club trains and certifies hundreds of outings leaders and reaches over 10,000 kids a year through a vast volunteer network of Inner City Outings volunteers. For the last two years, the Baltimore and Washington, DC ICO groups have partnered with the federal government to connect primarily Latino youth with nearby public lands through the Diverse Youth Outings Project.
We’re making some progress, but there is still a big hill to climb. We need to protect funding for environmental education and grow the ability for schools and community-serving organizations to provide quality programming for kids across the country. We also need to work together to ensure that all kids have access to safe, clean and green spaces where they can run and play outdoors.
Be sure to subscribe to the Mission Outdoors newsletter, where we will keep you posted on upcoming opportunities and ways to get involved.
by Jacqueline Ostfeld; Sierra Club's National Youth Representative