In Kansas City, urban teens are having a major impact on local environmental issues under the guidance of Green Works in Kansas City. This inventive nonprofit combines environmental stewardship with educational support and professional development to help the city’s underprivileged youth excel.

Green Works Grows Knowledgeable Community Leaders

Green Works students and teachers

A group of Green Works students at their graduation from the program.

During the 2015-2016 school year, Green Works students tackled several environmental issues in the city. Some students took on the problem of urban blight by evaluating vacant lots throughout the city. Working with professionals, the students determined how each parcel of land could best be used by anyone looking to convert the lot to a new purpose. Students also stepped up as environmental role models for their communities. First, they organized a successful trash mob event, encouraging community members to come together to clean up a heavily littered location. They then used footage from the trash mob event to write and produce a PSA video on littering.

Green Works LogoOur urban students of color generated relevant suggestions we hope will inform the final outcome of the vacant lots project. Being involved in the process spurred a rich dialog with our students encompassing race, education, consumer culture and disenfranchisement.

Mary Silwance | Program Director for Environmental Education, Green Works in Kansas City

Students in the Green Works East program were inspired by what they’d learned to give a presentation to their school district and the city water department advocating for green renovations to the school’s parking lot and green spaces. Those same students are now brainstorming ways to minimize their cafeteria’s waste stream.

Several Green Works students spreading mulch.

Green Works students enrich the community while enriching their own relationship to it.

Green Works LogoDeepening science literacy means that what they learn informs their paradigm and behavior, how they accurately recognize and build on new learning in varied situations.

Mary Silwance | Program Director for Environmental Education

How Green Works…Works

Green Works offers wide-ranging programming that gives low-income teens opportunities to develop the professional skills and connections that open the door to a successful career. The programs are also designed to improve students’ science literacy and deepen their engagement with the environmental problems in their community.

Green Works LogoThey’re not only learning about environmental issues impacting their lives, they are also developing strategies to address these issues as well as connections with allies in environmentally related fields. This foundation can be drawn upon and utilized in whatever career they choose.”

Mary Silwance | Program Director for Environmental Education, Green Works in Kansas City

In their first year in the Green Works program, students take field trips, participate in service learning opportunities, and complete science experiments that give them a hands-on education about Kansas City’s biggest environmental issues. Their second year focuses on professional development, helping students identify their career interests and learn the soft skills necessary to excel in the working world.

With two years of programming under their belts, students earn a paid summer internship related to their career goals. They can also participate in various service learning projects and job shadowing opportunities that put them further down the path toward a successful career and a lifetime of engagement with environmental issues.

Green Works students at work at his internship.

Green Works internships prepare students to pursue the career and future they envision.

Green Works LogoOur students often represent the only age and, sometimes, racial diversity at community events and meetings, but they are able to engage knowledgeably, not merely a token presence, because they have had solid instruction on the issues.

Mary Silwance | Program Director for Environmental Education, Green Works in Kansas City

The Proof Is in the Students’ Engagement

Where did the idea to combine job skills training with environmental education come from? “Low-income urban residents are particularly vulnerable to environmental issues,” explains Mary Silwance. “For the vast majority of our students, Green Works programming represents their only connection to the environmental movement.”

Students reveal the importance of establishing that connection to the environment in their post-semester surveys. “The way people treat the earth surprised me because at first I didn’t know the things we do daily affected our water,” wrote one student.

Two Green Works students doing an experiment.

Two Green Works students conduct an experiment on measuring thermal energy.

Another showcased how effective the Green Works program is at introducing students to complex scientific and environmental concepts: “I’ve learned that built environments impact watersheds and ecosystems… I learned many ways of helping the environment. For example, we could change parking lots to pervious surfaces so we can filter water.”

“This makes me want to pick up all the trash I see around my community because it will impact me and my water,” wrote one student, illustrating how the Green Works program has changed their relationship with the environment. As another student wrote, “The things I learned in this class will impact my choices because now I know things that affect the world, it starts with people. So the little things I do can change, which makes a difference.”

Green Works LogoWe engage our students in the areas of water, energy and consumption in ways that are hands-on, mindful and proactive. We talk realistically about the challenges their generation will have to address. Our students are learning at a young age to value clean water, clean air and to counter the consumer mindset that sacrifices our health and our environment.

Mary Silwance | Program Director for Environmental Education, Green Works in Kansas City

If Green Works students can make such a powerful impact on Kansas City as teens,
We can’t wait to see the kind of leadership they’ll take on as adults.

Budget Dumpster is your community-focused source for a dumpster rental in Kansas CityThis is part of a series of articles shining a spotlight on organizations making a difference in the communities we service. If you know of another great organization, let us know in the comments!