Homewood teens focus on 'green' movement
Anthony Thompson, left, 16, and Naekwon Wright, 15, present their community project for the Junior Green Corps of Operation Better Block in Homewood.
Sariah Saunders, 15, discusses her project.
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The youth voice is missing from most neighborhood planning, but in Homewood, 20 teenagers may prove the exception.
During an eight-week research project led by Samantha Teixeira, the Schweitzer Environmental Fellow in the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work, the students toured the neighborhood, taking photographs to demonstrate how they navigate it and assessed its pros and cons.
At the first of the year, Ms. Teixeira hopes to take the students and their research before planners and public policy makers "to advocate for environmental change in Homewood," she said.
"Outsiders don't see what these children see. Yes, they see abandoned houses, weeds, graffiti in playgrounds and drug dealing. But they also see a balance.
"The most important finding for me so far is that many of the youth, without my prompting, wanted to focus on the positive aspects of the neighborhood," she said. "They gravitated toward institutional resources like the YMCA and the library, as well as places like playgrounds, the football field and the high school. I think it's their knowledge of these strengths that will help them find ways to work on the weaknesses."
The teens are all participants in Operation Better Block's after-school curriculum as members of the Junior Green Corps.
"The green corps came about because we realized there is a gap between the African-American community and the growing 'green' movement," said Jerome Jackson, OBB's executive director. "It was to get young African-Americans interested in their role, our carbon footprint and how they can improve the environment."
The group is led by OBB's youth organizer Kahlil Morris and AmeriCorps' Ryan Walker.
Mr. Morris grew up in Homewood, where some things were very different when he was a teenager.
But he said he is "amazed that with 20 years between us, we are on the same page about the neighborhood."
"It was shocking that their positive and negative list is the same as mine," he said. Among the positives remains Westinghouse High School, "a pillar in the community when I went there."
Today, said 10th-grader Naekwon Wright, "Most people think, 'Bad school, violent neighborhood,' but it's not that. It's where kids come to get an education that will lead to jobs that can benefit the community."
Taishawn Daniels, an eighth-grader at Wilkinsburg High School, photographed the CCAC building on Homewood Avenue and said it was "a positive because people who don't live in Homewood come here for an education. And I took this one," he said, putting his finger on a photo of the YMCA. "They've got a lot of programs for kids."
Sariah Saunders, a 10th-grader at Obama Academy, focused on the neighborhood near Lincoln-Lemington. "If you walk by Chadwick Park, you can see graffiti and other things you're not supposed to find," she said. "Like weeds and a used condom."
Ms. Teixeira said the research -- "Youth Mapping to Create Safe Passageways" -- ties into environmental education and activities that have included cleaning vacant lots, maintaining the schoolyard garden at Pittsburgh Faison K-5 and planting sunflowers on Frankstown Avenue. The Junior Green Corps is funded by the Heinz Endowments.
"So many of them talked about environmentally related issues like litter and vacant lots," she said. "They would prefer to see more trees, more green space and natural settings."
To begin their research, they designed tours and did walk-along interviews, taking photographs of places they feel "represent the Homewood they know and used a map to draw paths and routes that they most often take," she said.
Some of the teens said they plan their routes for the least risk of violence.
"When I go home from here [Operation Better Block], I walk down Bennett and right on Lang, through the laundromat parking lot, left on Frankstown, right on Murtland, past the school and right on Hermitage," said Naekwon, who lives in Homewood but attends Brashear High School. "That's the way I know violence is least likely to get me."
Among the photos was Heaven Moore's of an abandoned house "with a dying tree," she wrote on a story board. "It looks like it's close to winter time. No one is taking care of this house, so over the years it will get more [and] more moldy. The old smell will get more and more strong. It seems like no one cares about this house."
"The next step forward," said Ms. Teixeira, "is an advocacy project around what they found, maybe taking a public space that's city-owned and designing it in a positive way.
"I've been talking with a variety of people about the next steps, so we'll get going in January, I hope."
First Published December 26, 2011 12:00 am