What Is Environmental Activism? Bronx Youth Making Green Space

Apr 19, 2023 10:48:10 AM


Brandon Gonzales, 16, is growing up in the South Bronx, also known as “Asthma Alley” for its historically high rates of childhood asthma. 

“I myself don't have asthma, but I know a lot of people who do,” he said. 

But he didn’t associate that reality with environmental racism, nor did he see a path to action, until he started taking an interdisciplinary course on the subject this year. Gonzales and his classmates at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School study the topic across all academic disciplines.

Screen Shot 2023-04-19 at 11.43.54 AMLooking at his neighborhood through this new lens was a revelation. “When I first heard the term environmental racism, you know, I thought it was maybe somewhere across the country, because that’s where we usually hear about it from, or maybe somewhere down South,” Gonzales said. “But I came to terms with the fact that it was actually here, where we actually grew up.”

Now, the concept hits him in his gut. ”My closest family member, my closest friend, can be impacted by environmental racism,” he said. “It’s Black and Brown folks being environmentally segregated and affected more than others in the country.”  

For Gonzales, some of the most emotional material in the course was learning about the reality of human-caused climate change. His neighborhood is disproportionately threatened by coastal flooding and sea level rise. 

Putting Knowledge into Action

His new knowledge inspires him to share what he’s learned to raise awareness for others, including his own mother. “The dominant narrative has an impact on people,” he observed. “People in power have so much control to make us think this is not real. And now our closest family members believe it’s not true.” 

Just as important, Gonzales and his classmates are designing solutions and taking action collectively, connecting with numerous local organizations like The Point, Black Joy Farm, Bronx River Alliance, and Bronxlandia. “We cleaned up our local park, protested to electrify school buses,” he said.

“Capping” the Cross-Bronx Expressway

An increasingly popular strategy to create more green space in dense urban cores involves “capping” highways by building parks over them. The additional green space can help clean the air and reconnect neighborhoods sliced apart through massive urban renewal projects like the building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway and other highways in cities around the country.

For the science and math side of their course on environmental racism, Gonzales and his classmates built models of what it would look like if a section of the Cross Bronx Expressway were “capped.” 

The proposed design they modeled would capture and filter tailpipe emissions, while providing a 2.4 mile stretch of green space on top. 

A Columbia University case study estimated the measure would add an average two months of healthy life expectancy to the lives of 230,000 people living nearby. Those months would come thanks to cleaner air, less noise pollution, and a green place to exercise and relax. The report also found that the proposal would likely improve the quality of education.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently featured another Fannie Lou Hamer student in a video about the proposal. In early April, the city held initial public hearings on ways to reimagine the expressway as part of a two-year, $2 million study.  Brandon dreams of improved air quality. I would like to see a mixed income area. I would like to see a lot of buildings with features like greywater reuse, more gardens, geothermal heating. It is expensive but we do deserve it.” 

Take Action

Rep. Ritchie Torres and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are among the local elected officials most supportive of the plan; their offices are a good place to start learning more. You can also get involved with the Bronx River Alliance to help protect green space in the neighborhood. https://bronxriver.org/ 

Photo courtesy of Anya Kamenetz.

Anya Kamenetz

Anya Kamenetz is an education journalist, author, speaker, and climate advocate formerly of NPR, who now serves as a senior advisor to the Aspen Institute's This Is Planet Ed initiative.

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