High school students at the June 1 D.C. Environmental Youth Summit pick up litter and perform water quality tests in Oxon Run Creek. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)
High school students at the June 1 D.C. Environmental Youth Summit pick up litter and perform water quality tests in Oxon Run Creek. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

More than 200 young people converged on Oxon Run Park on June 1 for a day of activities, lessons and further enlightenment about employment opportunities in the environmental field and how the environment intersects with their daily lives.

Ronnie Webb, director of the Green Scheme and one of the summit's lead organizers, talks with students about human interactions with natural spaces.
Ronnie Webb, director of the Green Scheme and one of the summit’s lead organizers, talks with students about human interactions with natural spaces.

“I am hoping that students walk away from the D.C. Youth Environmental Summit feeling like a bolt of lightning,” said the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation’s Kehmari Norman, who created the program alongside environmental education nonprofit The Green Scheme

“I want them to feel like nature is cool…most of all, I really want them to connect the dots of how local action really creates positive global climate impact,” Norman said. 

This year marked the sixth annual D.C. Youth Environmental Summit, and the largest one yet. Since 2018, the number of attendees has more than doubled, from about 100 students to 215. This year’s group hailed from five different high schools around the city, including Ballou and Anacostia. 

Environmental Activities Galore 

The summit kicked off with a tour of the farm at the Well. Halim Flowers, an author, poet and visual artist, then gave a keynote address touching on how he overcame adversity in the prison system. 

From that moment on, students perused through various activation stations. 

At one station, Ward 8 Water Watchers and the Green Scheme simultaneously conducted a cleanup of a nearby creek and examination of the microvertebrates living in that body of water. DC Greens also conducted a composting and seedling demonstration while Casey Trees showed students how to identify trees. 

Meanwhile, the sweet, savory smell of sauteed broccoli filled the air around young people as they joined members of Green Things Work at the Vegan Culinary Lab. This happened as a DJ several feet away played hip-hop and R&B hits from the 1990s and early 2000s. Moonverse channeled young people’s fervor for meditation with the Go-Go and Sounds of the Environment activation station. 

The event involved 10 different government agencies and nonprofits, as well as with 17 local businesses.

“All of our vendors are small, minority-owned, and D.C.-based businesses,” said Norman, who works as a Cultural Heritage specialist at DPR. “Everything is hyperlocal.”

On the other side of the Oxon Run Park, Jaren Hill Lockridge helped young people center themselves with Mindful Moments. Rainbow Wellness also conducted yoga sessions while Maurice Andreas guided students in the exploration of their inner feelings with Art in the Park. Staying true to the spirit of self-care, Nail Bed Bar rolled out a nail art lab for the youth while Face Value Artistry provided professional grooming services. 

“I’m excited to see all of these partners that we have engaging and being able to really connect with the kids,” said Ronnie Webb, director of the Green Scheme and one of the annual event’s key organizers. “The environment is a big topic, so there are many ways to engage in the environment.”

In the realm of academic and professional development, students sampled professional wear at SWAP DC’s Dress for Success activation station. Some of them also participated in a mock interview and resume-building station while learning about higher education and internship opportunities.

Kaleb Bland, a junior at Coolidge High School in Northwest, said he focused on his mental health while at the DC Youth Environmental Summit by taking part in Mindful Moments and visiting the culinary lab. He also joined Ward 8 Water Watchers at the water conservation station. 

That experience, among several at the summit, further opened Kaleb’s eyes to the symbiotic relationship humans have with nature. 

“As a young Black man in society, it’s easy to be disconnected from nature,” said Kaleb, 17, a member of the nature club at Coolidge. “I learned that I’m not as in tune with the earth as I could be. I have the free time to pick up trash and do what I can to better my community. This problem is prevalent among today’s youth [because] we’re on televisions and social media.” 

Jaylyn Derriott, a sophomore at Coolidge, said she focused more on social and academic development during the DC Youth Environmental Summit. She told the Informer that the gardening station and job fair placed her closer along her path to figuring out how she wants to serve others in the future. 

“We got a feel for jobs that teach you to do things that help people. You become a better person,” said Jaylyn, an aspiring nurse. “The keynote address was inspirational because Halim Flowers came out of prison to do great things in his life. After 22 years, he came out better. Most young people think it’s okay to do drugs, carry guns and follow what everyone else is doing.” 

Expanding Worldviews and Helping Students Tap into Local Opportunities

As part of the summit’s academic goals for students, Norman and other organizers created a pre- and post-summit survey to find out if the event increased students’ knowledge and understanding of key environmental concepts and facts.

“With the post-summit survey, success to me would mean that the students can define clearly what climate change is, and they can define clearly the steps that they can do locally in order to create a global impact,” Norman said. 

The survey also includes questions about D.C. environmental landmarks. Norman said she hopes students walk away with some factual knowledge—like the fact that Oxon Run Creek flows into the Potomac River—along with an increased understanding of environmental skills like how to plant trees. 

“I want these students to feel empowered, that they’ve built skills right in their hometown and they can partner with the Peace Corps or with the World Bank or any global institution, to lead environmental programs literally all over the world where they’re needed,” Norman said. 

For Ballou High School librarian Melissa Jackson, opportunities that the D.C. Youth Environmental Summit provided will help her students think more deeply about fulfilling college and career opportunities they can pursue in their own backyard. 

Ballou has fostered a relationship with D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation and the Green Scheme over several years that has exposed young people to the outdoors. In the past, Jackson’s students made naturally flavored water from herbs and fruit. 

For many of those young people, the journey continued on Thursday when they put on heavy rainboots and walked through creek water in search of trash and other debris. Jackson said it not only served as a learning experience for the students, but opened her eyes to an entirely new world. 

“I’ve never seen the creek [as a Southeast resident and Ballou alumna], so to get in the water, and even see a deer was amazing,” Jackson said. “The lesson [for students] is to dream big and not let anyone or anything stop them. The summit helped [in the fight] against climate change by showing students what’s on earth and helping them take notice of the creek and how it’s flourishing. Even to see that everything evolves and has its place.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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