Mars, our Summer Academy Program Coordinator
The New Voices Community Summit in July marked the end of the Summer Climate Justice Leadership Academy. We were inspired by the passion our Summer Academy participants showed when sharing about the local climate justice issues they learned over the 6-week program. To learn more about the success of this newly expanded, virtual program, we spoke with the program coordinator, Mars Keith.
Mars, this was your first summer as a program coordinator for New Voices. What was the 2021 Summer Academy like for you?
The 2021 Summer Academy was a great experience for it being my first time and first virtual program I’ve helped to run. I feel like I learned a lot about what it means to run a virtual program for youth. Whether it be providing the youth with the proper resources to be able to participate in a virtual program like a working device and wifi, or making sure that the youth are set up at home with proper meals and produce. There are a lot of aspects to running virtual programs that I think some organizations don’t understand.
Describe a day in the life of a Summer Academy student
A day in the life of a Summer Academy student would probably start with them waking up in the morning. They might eat some breakfast, and then they’d have a few hours of the day to either get themselves ready or handle things in their life. At around 1:00 pm our youth hop on zoom with us and depending on the week will learn about a different topic surrounding environmental and social justice. After about two hours of interactive lessons and presentations from guest speakers or Summer Academy Staff, we might jump into a kahoot which is a virtual game that allows you to compete with your classmates to see how much knowledge was learned by the group. After our game and wrapping up some announcements youth are given experiments and projects that they can do after zoom. They can do these things on their own time or in PODS which are groups the youth are placed in each week to get to know different youth in the larger group a little more personally. Those PODs are run by POD Leaders who are youth who have been a part of our program before and have come back to help other students in the program. After our students do their experiments or projects they then have the rest of the day to themselves.
What are some ways that you think the Summer Academy has impacted students’ lives?
The Summer Academy has impacted the lives of our youth in many different ways. It was something I almost immediately noticed while joining New Voices this year. In many ways the staff of New Voices understand that when working with youth it is important to come as you are and be you, I think because of that we had a lot of youth that we watch blossom out of their shyness. I also believe that the Summer Academy staff helped youth to see the greatness within themselves. Oftentimes we as a community forget how strong youth are. We forget that so many great movements were led by youth and when we decide it is our time to sit down we will need more people to stand up in our places and do better than us. We as staff make sure to remind our youth that as much as this world is ours it is theirs also and they should also have a say in the things that will affect them. I believe that our youth know that when they go into the world they have people who support them and the moves they make.
Out of all the activities, workshops, and field trips this summer, which do you think was most memorable for the Summer Academy participants? And what was your favorite experience?
I think the most memorable activity for me was our poetry workshop and slam. Our youth were very nervous. At the beginning of the workshop we heard so many youth say, “I don’t know how to write poems/ I’m not a poet.” When we asked if any volunteers wanted to read what they wrote it was complete silence. One of our POD leaders, Michelle, who was helping to lead the workshop had an idea to call on students and let them know this is a safe space where they could share their work and not be judged. Youth decided to step up and volunteer themselves. Through this process we heard so many beautiful beginnings to poems that were later finished and performed at our poetry slam. These poems held beautiful stories about our youth and their experiences with the topics we covered in our program. Topics they touched on ranged from environmental injustices such as living next to factories and the health effects of that, and social injustices such as police brutality and beauty standards. Our youth shared with us what they feel is important to them and their communities.
Did the students or the program as a whole achieve any climate justice wins over the summer?
One of the climate justice wins we had this summer was The Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s ruling that requires Chevron Richmond refinery and another refinery in Martinez to cut down and clean up the pollution they have been spilling into communities of color for many years. A lot of the New Voices youth and staff have been advocating for this change and many more changes for a long time and it is great to finally see it.
What was the most powerful moment for you during the Summer Academy?
The most powerful moment for me during summer academy would probably have to be the poetry slam. We had so many youth who claimed they couldn’t write poems and didn’t know how. At the poetry slam, we heard so many beautifully written poems about things that really mattered to them and it changed my life to hear how powerful their words were.
What are some ways you think this year’s participants will apply their experiences in the program moving forward?
In our exit interviews, we have heard so many youth echo the fact that now that they have learned about environmental justice they will be educating their friends and people they know. Some have even mentioned starting clubs at their schools. I think the saying, “Each one teach one,” is very important especially when it comes to youth.
What do you hope for, for the Summer Academy students?
My hope for the Summer Academy students is that they teach their communities about the things they learned but also remember what it means to work together. I think something our youth really noticed is that organizations, movements are more powerful when you come together and work.
How can we “older folks” support these rising environmental and climate justice leaders?
Older folks can do many things but to make it simple: we can give youth the platform to say what they need to say and address their communities the way they need to. Older folks have to understand that youth are leading the generation and it’s our job to give them that space but also to help guide them.