It’s a sunny morning in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The local Little League is playing its first game of the season, trees are in bloom, and seven teenagers are gearing up to do some hard labor.
Although those familiar with this Brooklyn neighborhood known for its high crime rate might have initially assumed otherwise, these high schoolers aren’t doing court-mandated community service. They have voluntarily given up the first nice Saturday of spring to help clean up their neighborhood.
This new group, the Brooklyn Green Teens, was organized by the New York City Parks Department in April to get teenagers more personally involved in environmental activities. On this particular weekend — the first in their inaugural season — they are slated to aid in the restoration of the Vernon Cases Community Garden, one of the more than 30 community gardens in Brooklyn. The Green Teens join the ranks of a growing number of programs around the country hoping to give kids more opportunities to get involved in community-based environmental stewardship.
One of the young volunteers is Clive Barker. Clive is a smiley, 16-year-old New York City kid and, presumably, he is exactly who the parks department is trying to attract for this new initiative. His hair is curly and matted on one side, proof that he probably hadn’t showered before meeting the other Green Teens at Tompkins Park that morning. This is Clive’s first foray into the world of active environmental awareness, and his first time meeting his fellow volunteers.
While many of the other kids goof off, run around, chat and tease one another, Clive — who’s shorter than most of the girls and boys volunteering that day — hangs back, sitting to the side assessing the situation.
“I’m kind of picky with my friends,” he says. Clive likes to lump his acquaintances into two categories: the “intellectual” summer camp friends and his “less sophisticated” school friends. But at the moment, he isn’t sure where these new peers will fall within his carefully crafted spectrum of friendship.
After giving the kids a little bit of time to get acclimated to one another, the leaders of the group — three adults employed by New York City — rally the troops and herd them about four blocks down the road to Vernon Cases, where they will spend the better part of four hours cleaning that day.
Once at the garden, the teens get to work. Irina Grinevitskaya, the caretaker of the garden for the past three years, assigns tasks. A few kids are responsible for hanging their hand-made Green Teens banner outside of the fence while others start breaking sticks and shoving them into marked black trash bags. Clive’s job is to till the dirt of an old, run-down flowerbed.
It’s odd work for a skinny teenager with braces, but he catches on to the rhythm and pacing of digging up rocks and entrenched roots almost immediately. “This is fun. I like working in dirt,” Clive says while working next to Pierre Guthrie, another 16-year-old boy with an easy-going attitude and diamond studs in both ears.
Clive and his family moved to the U.S. three years ago from Guyana, a small country in South America. “There are opportunities down there,” says Clive, “but it’s nothing like what you would get here. That’s why my parents wanted to move.”
Once he graduates from his high school, the Cultural Academy of Arts and Sciences in Brooklyn, Clive dreams of leaving New York for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study computer engineering. His collegiate ambitions played a major role in Clive’s decision to start volunteering with the Green Teens. “I need to volunteer to get into college, and working with plants seems easier than working with people.”
Jackie Brown, one of the adult leaders of the Green Teens, believes that in the past, many kids started coming to parks-related events because their parents urged them to, but recently she has noticed a shift.
“Now I really see these teens caring about their futures, and environmentalism is definitely a part of that,” says Brown. “They see themselves becoming a vital part of the community with this program, and yeah, sure, college is a part of it.”
New York City is hardly the only place with a teen-focused environmental awareness program. Many other organizations around the country are working towards making it easier for teens to volunteer, but most are taking different approaches. One of those groups is the Student Conservation Association (SCA). With service projects in every state, the SCA trains teens to engage with the environment by teaching them hands-on skills that also act as job training.
“The Green Teens sound like they have a similar mission to ours,” says Kevin Hamilton, a communications officer at the SCA. “But I think the way we do things is a little different. Many students in lesser-privileged communities can’t afford to volunteer for free so we give them pay checks as well as conveying skills and experience necessary for a career later in life.”
The Green Teens were originally only going to work in community gardens once a month during the summer and fall. However, Brown decided to add more cleanup dates to accommodate the high volume of requests from gardeners in need of young workers. The group has a different garden booked every Saturday for at least the next two months.
“I wanted the teens to come work here. I hope that maybe our garden can be a part of an education program for kids and teens,” says Grinevitskaya, as she is called away to help Clive load a garbage bag full of sticks.
Each of the five boroughs has their own Green Teens program. So the leaders, like Brown, are capitalizing on the opportunity to introduce a little bit of friendly cross-borough competition to the cleanups. The organizers have started unofficially counting bags of organic matter — like the three Clive helped Grinevitskaya load that day — collected by each Green Teens branch. At the end of the season, one of the groups will be named champion.
Brown thinks that a major strength of the Green Teens program is the coordinators’ ability to come up with fun ways to show teens like Clive the nature that surrounds them, even in New York City. It not only helps them get in touch with their community, says Brown, but with nature on a deeper level.
“I never thought about nature when I was down in Guyana,” says Clive. “It was just there. You didn’t have to find it. New York is different.”
As the day wore on, Clive seemed to forget his less-than-altruistic reasons for joining up with the Green Teens. He slowly became more absorbed into the gardening activities happening around him. He even started talking to the other kids, and had too much energy to sit in one place for very long.
“Yeah, I’ll definitely come back to volunteer again,” he yelled from across the yard. “I’m going to go help now.”