Teaching African American Children To Be Environmental Stewards

BY ON August 16, 2012

Young boy walking in the woods

Ooooo Noooo!!! She’s sitting in the grass! Mommy, she’s sitting on the grass! She’s gonna get a bug on her! She’s gonna get in trouble!”

My youngest daughter was tattling on her older sister. Could it be that merely sitting on the grass is a punishable offense in my home?

Well, my kids don’t exactly get punished. But I find myself telling them not to sit in the grass, as I don’t want them bitten by ticks, or ants, or some other creepy, crawly creature.

And let’s just say, when it comes to having a fear of bugs, I act like a lunatic…and the apples don’t fall too far from the tree.

But I’m trying my best to teach my kids to be environmental stewards. And one of the best ways to do that is to teach them to love and appreciate nature. Then they truly understand why they are working so hard to protect the environment and it’s natural resources.

I am actually quite shocked at myself. I grew up in the country; running through the fields with my cousins on my grandparents’ land. We shucked corn, then ate the freshest and best fried corn that my late grandmother could make. We snapped green beans that were taken from the garden (none of that canned or frozen stuff.) We picked butter beans and took the beans out of the pods for dinner (I don’t think my kids have ever even seen a butter bean.) And we played outside barefooted. Yes no shoes…dirt in the toes..all of that.

How did this country girl from Smithfield, VA end up like this? I don’t know, but deep down inside, I still have it in me. And now I want my kids to have the freedom of just playing outside without constantly looking around for predators...I mean bugs.

I wanted to know what parents like me can do to encourage our children to become appreciative of the air, water and land…ok, bugs too.

Headshot of Angelou Ezeilo, executive director of the Greening Youth FoundationIn an conversation with Angelou Ezeilo, executive director of the Greening Youth Foundation, I found answers. Angelou has made it her mission to “nurture enthusiastic and responsible environmental stewardship and healthy lifestyle choices among underserved, disconnected children and young adults.”

Did your childhood experiences contribute to your love of nature and your passion for preserving the environment?

I grew up in Jersey City, N.J. There were not a lot of open areas to play there. My parents realized that it was important for my two siblings and I to have an escape from the densely populated streets of Jersey City. So they purchased a 54 acre home in upstate New York. This humble home with its vastly forested back yard became my annual refuge. I remember so vividly going hiking to pick berries for pancakes, and the snake that lived on the side of the house. I was always so fascinated by the huge trees. However, I did not realize until I became an adult how transformative these experiences were, and how they would play an integral part in who I would become.

What are some things parents (like me) can do to promote a deeper appreciation for nature and the environment in our kids?

Parents today can work on their own appreciation and love of nature. Often times, we see in our programming, parents are barriers to their children of color being connected to the environment because they simply are not comfortable themselves. Once parents work on their fear of insects and/or issues with getting their hair wet, outdoor natural places like National Parks become more favorably viewed for vacation venues. The exposure will surely create fond memories and the entire family will begin to enjoy the outdoors. Start with baby steps…trips to local parks and forests. Maybe parents and their children can take a pollination class together. Then plant some flowers that attract butterflies in their yard.

The Greening Youth Foundation is working to ensure that  all elementary students throughout Georgia have an opportunity to participate in environmental education programs. What types of things can the schools do to provide environmental education in their curriculum?

Schools can utilize the outdoors more for learning environments. Studies have shown that children find outdoor classrooms more exciting, which is a great place to start!

We are so excited to have  Lisa P. Jackson as the first African American EPA administrator. What can we do get more African American kids to be interested in environmental careers?

Exposure, exposure, exposure! I can’t say it enough. Through our Youth conservation corps internship program, diverse young adults are exposed to conservation careers through our partnership with various federal agencies such as, National Park Service, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service and Environmental Protection Agency. Their career paths are being broadened as they learn the many opportunities that exist for them within these agencies.

Some people say government shouldn’t be involved in creating policies that force corporations to be environmentally conscious. What do you think would happen if these companies weren’t held to standards and regulations?

I understand that there is a plush right now to reduce government and the amount of influence it has with corporate America. However, we have to be realistic about self-regulating policies. As we recently experienced with the Gulf spill, corporate greed interferes with decisions affecting the health of individuals and communities. Therefore, communities are reliant on an objective entity to set policy and regulate these corporations to ensure balance and enforcement.

What is your hope for the future for your kids as it pertains to the environment?

I just want my boys to grow up being good stewards of their environment. I don’t know what they will choose to do as a career; hopefully whatever they do will be conducted through a lens of environmental responsibility. I firmly believe that it is their generation that will determine the sustainability of our natural resources. This is why I have dedicated my life to ensuring that children understand the vital role they play in our global community, particularly youth of color

Thank you, Angelou for all the work you do to protect the environment for the next generation.

Photos used with permission: Angelou Ezeilo


TOPICS: Activism, African-American Community, Pollution