Breaking Barriers with New Voices

Summer Academy participants visiting Muir Woods for the first time.

The New Voices Summer Academy kicked off on June 10th! This is always an exciting time of year for the program as we get to see our planning in action, bringing together 25 frontline youth for 6 weeks of environmental justice leadership training.  

Like many communities across the US, the Bay Area has a long history of social and environmental injustice. From police brutality to redlining, these intersecting oppressions are directly linked to health problems and lower income in today’s frontline Bay Area communities. These historical injustices have also created inequities in access to open spaces of recreation, creating barriers to entry for low-income and BIPOC individuals. In low-income communities of Oakland, for example, residents have 78% less park space than those in high-income neighborhoods. Despite being deeply impacted and historically disenfranchised, the Bay Area’s frontline communities are steeped in a rich history of activism and community organizing. At the Rose Foundation, we believe this history informs our present struggles and offers solutions on ways to take action for a more just future. 

Thanks to funding from the California Natural Resources Agency, this year’s New Voices program is taking a deeper dive into the Bay Area’s environmental and social movements through field trips to famous natural and cultural sites in their neighborhoods. By connecting students to regional resources, we hope to reclaim and open these spaces for everyone, especially our New Voices youth as they begin to connect the dots between nature, access, advocacy, health, and community. 

The new additions to the program were highlighted during the first week of the Academy which focused on Community Building and Environmental Justice. Youth took two field trips: first to Oakland’s Black Panther Museum and second to Muir Woods.  

Summer Academy participants at the Black Panther museum.

At the Black Panther Museum youth learned about the Bay Area’s history of social activism. Founded by Oakland college students, the Black Panther Party exemplifies the power of youth-informed community-led movements. New Voices students explored the achievements of the Black Panther Party including wins for education, transportation, healthcare and legal aid for BIPOC community members. Through this exploration, students uncovered the intrinsic link between social and environmental justice. 

Hiking through Muir Woods among peers from similar backgrounds was a powerful experience for our New Voices youth. With the two shuttle service options departing from Marin locations, the woods are difficult to access for East Bay who do not own a car. This lack of transportation has resulted in a predominantly white outdoor space. In fact, surveys conducted by the National Park Service found that 23% of visitors to the national forest and parks were people of color with only 6% of visitors identifying as African American. On their field trip, New Voices youth got to reclaim the space as their own, affirming the possibility of an inclusive outdoor community. Being among the trees and wildlife, youth explored how community extends beyond human connection. They also experienced firsthand how being out in nature improves their physical and emotional health. To care for one’s community means caring for the people as well as the land that nurtures us. 

Through these field trips youth drew connections between history, activism and the environment. Each space reinforced the other: community power is essential to environmental justice and community includes our outdoor resources such as parks, gardens, and recreational facilities. Environmental justice emphasizes the fair distribution of these resources, ensuring that all communities, especially those historically marginalized, have access to clean air, water, and green spaces. Joining together in these spaces that have been historically hard to access, our youth discovered the power in reclaiming local resources. Furthermore, by learning histories of oppression and intersectionality, they are even better positioned to take action against injustice and make these spaces welcoming for their community members and peers to enjoy. We can’t wait to see how these lessons will inform their work as future leaders in the environmental justice movement. 

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