Following their participation in the Times Square ball drop on Dec. 31, 2019, Diane Arevalo, Ricardo Herrera and Mayerling Lantigua, all seniors at WHEELS, share their vision for climate justice in this OpEd.
On December 31 we joined Mayor de Blasio to drop the New Year’s Eve ball to begin a new decade, broadcasted live to millions around the world. Our Environmental Science teacher, Dr. Jared Fox — a recipient of the 2019 Sloan Teaching Award presented by the Fund for the City of New York — stood with us. We were invited because of our work addressing climate change and environmental injustice.
When we stood on stage we were both nervous and proud. We thought of our lives and our families; how none of our parents attended college or, for some of them, even high school or middle school. Nonetheless, there we were, preparing to drop the Waterford Crystal Ball and ring in 2020, the year we will graduate from high school and enroll in college. We never thought it was possible to have these opportunities, yet we have pride in knowing that we represent those from Latinx backgrounds who too often have to overcome so much to make their voices heard.
At the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), a NYC Outward Bound School that serves pre-K-12 students in upper Manhattan, we have launched a project called the Clean Air Green Corridor. Our vision is to transform 182nd Street from Amsterdam Avenue to Broadway, providing thousands from our community access to Highbridge Park, an often overlooked and underutilized, but nonetheless, an essential ribbon of green space on the perimeter of our neighborhood. The Clean Air Green Corridor will serve as a link to this ‘Anchor Park’ currently riddled with homeless encampments and individuals struggling with opioid addiction. Along our envisioned Corridor, trees and plants will purify the air, provide shade, and combat the effects of an urban heat island. There are five other schools, besides our own, that we hope will join us to help form this passageway to our local park.
Our current efforts were inspired by a one-week elective course called Restoring Highbridge, taught by our teachers, Dr. Fox and Mr. Erick Espin. In this course, we learned about the history and importance of the green space around us. We learned why a highway was placed near our community, about the devolution of Highbridge Park during the 20th century as roads, bridges and neglect minimized our community’s access to the park and waterfront. We worked closely with Friends of WHEELS, our school’s nonprofit partner that leads college access, success and leadership development, to develop this idea into an initiative and mobilize our community. We have received support from our local elected officials and many community partners. Thanks to their belief in our project we have already redesigned our school gardens and beautified our block. However, we are only just getting started. One day, we hope to pedestrianize 182nd Street and extend our greening efforts across Washington Heights.
On New Year’s Eve we were honored to have the opportunity to welcome the new decade and be recognized for our work as climate activists. When we walked out of our school for the Global Climate Strike in September, we marched for Washington Heights and for the Clean Air Green Corridor. We marched to represent low income communities of color like ours, which are often most affected by environmental and climate injustice. We believe that disinvestment in our communities has been normalized, that students are taught that it’s ok to walk by drug use, unsanitary blocks with no green space, and pervasive and depressing monotone cement. Gentrification is real and may be encroaching on our neighborhood, but this is our community. We want to make it healthier and more beautiful for us —and not be pushed out in the process. We crave the opportunity to play an active role in climate solutions and be a part of the youth-led climate movement. We believe initiatives like the Clean Air Green Corridor should receive the support and funding necessary for full implementation because we and students like us are ready to create a better world.