I grew up in an urban area that happened to have trees, grass and butterflies. While it allowed me to spend some of my childhood in nature, it did not protect me from the pollution, crime and other happenings in and around my neighborhood, the ones that eventually altered the wellness of my community.
Little did I know then that my love for nature and people would evolve into my life’s work and passion. For the past 20 years, I have worked in environmental education. I have worked with adults and children who live and walk next to trash, abandoned buildings, and other unpleasant things. For many, it’s easy to feel hopeless. But there’s good news, too. In recent years I have watched the definition of “environment” expanded from being mainly about wilderness to include people and their immediate surroundings.
With over 80 percent of the United States population living in urban, crowded spaces, we need more awareness than ever about the nature in cities.
I’ve wondered: What will it take for people to become hopeful about themselves and their communities? This is why I’ve developed a tool that can help people generate awareness, hope and action to change what is not good in their hood, and to do this first by understanding what’s good in their hood.
“What’s Good in My Hood,” published by the New York Restoration Project, is a tool to help children and adults make this happen. It’s a workbook that provides a platform to log, compute, and synthesize observations and feelings about the immediate environment. Arranged in focused units, it asks a series of questions, including:
- What’s good in your hood? Where do you live? What are the living and non-living things, human made and natural, that make up your environment?
- Can we live? How do living things exist in your community? What contributes to their survival? What contributes to your survival?
- Where is water in your community? Where does it come from? Where does it go? How do you depend on water? How does it depend on you?
- Where is food in your neighborhood? Where does it come from? How is food connected to seeds and to your neighborhood and beyond?
- What is good in your neighborhood? What can you do to keep it good? What is not so good? What can you do to make it better?
Each unit in “What’s Good in My Hood?” is designed to highlight the different ways that neighborhoods sustain life in urban communities. Children and adults get to know the top living and nonliving elements that make up where they live; they consider the sources of food, water, and shelter. The workbook helps students understand the rivers they depend on for drinking water, the connections between humans and oceans, how pollution affects the seafood that these young people like to eat.
Many of the elementary school students with whom we piloted this workbook were astonished to discover how many living things (including humans) with whom they share their neighborhoods. For example, some students had never considered where pigeons live and where get their water. The workbook also helps students understand if issues are local, state, or national — and who they can call for support or action.
The success of “What’s Good in My Hood?” depends on dedicated leadership. Leaders can be parents, teachers, teenagers, community leaders — anyone who cares enough to dedicate the time to helping young people answer the questions, facilitate conversations around the findings, and follow through with an action plan.
In urban communities across the nation, “What’s Good in My Hood?” is still evolving. Not enough time has passed to know if the workbook is measurably increasing hopefulness. I do feel confident that the workbook has helped encourage dialogue and has empowered many of our young people to get out into their communities, to make informed statements about what they see happening around them.
My greatest hope for the book is that it will help decode misconceptions about who we are, how we are all connected through nature, and the power we have to make a difference in our world.