(Excerpt from SCA’s Fall issue of the Conservation Quarterly, The Green Way)
Photo credits: Kevin Hamilton, SCA
Many SCA stories are about changing a student’s life. Others focus on changing the fortunes of a national park. This one is about changing the mindset of an entire city.
It’s August. A blazing sun stokes the temperature into the 90s. The heat index is well into the triple figures. The mosquitoes are omnipresent and voracious.
Welcome to Detroit, where a crew of local high school students is cutting a new trail through Rouge Park. The soil is dry and hard as a half dozen teens spread out, Pulaskis in hand, to grade a stretch they cleared the day before.
“We need to get a 5% angle to make it better for bikers,” says crew member Schcari Wade. “It’s hard work, tiring. But we’re getting the job done.”
SCA Detroit is part of a nationwide, community-based SCA program that provides outdoor summer jobs to underrepresented youth. Some 80 students participate in the Motor City alone, and they have much in common. The majority are in their second or even third summer with SCA. They constantly refer to the camaraderie spawned by their diligent teamwork. And a common theme runs through their reasons for being there.
“It feels good to be out here knowing we’re improving the city,” Schcari says. “There’s all this talk that Detroit is raggedy, that people are leaving because of unemployment or because the city’s dirty. We need more people like us to come out and make Detroit a place where people want to live.”
A couple of hundred yards down the trail, 17-year old Brian Moss is among four students constructing a footbridge. A few feet below, the slow-moving water is a breeding ground for insects and Brian protects himself under a head net, hard hat and sun hat. Perspiration streams into his eyes as he tries to read a level to ensure proper placement.
“Some days it’s hot, some days it’s raining. There are always mosquitoes, but it’s worth it,” he states. “ Everybody looks at Detroit like it’s so bad but we’re out here every day showing that young people are working, doing good, and make the city look good so when people come here they don’t just see the dirty things but the trails and the other environmental stuff we’re doing out here.”
Some of that other stuff includes capturing rainwater and supporting community gardens on vacant properties. “We need a healthy outdoors to keep us healthy,” says Terrysa Green, a 19-year old who says her SCA experience prompted her to pursue a forestry degree.
Another SCA crew is putting the finishing touches on an outdoor classroom behind an elementary school. They installed a series of wooden benches under a large shade tree. You hear birds here, not the clang of locker doors or the noise of passing traffic. And the breeze is both cooling and calming. When asked what they’ve learned through the experience, the group is quick to respond. “Perseverance,” says one. “Hard work.” adds another. “I learned a lot about myself.” “A new attitude.” “That we can do anything.” “Pride.”
That’s when the conversation takes a familiar turn. “I once heard on the news that Detroit is the seventh worst city in America,” states Gregory Harris. “That’s not accurate at all. But it made me want to make the city better.”
“I agree. That [reputation] is irritating,” says Kira Peoples. “It doesn’t take much to improve your community. Everybody can do a little something to make things better. Just try. I mean, it’s your city.”
Altering people’s perceptions is sometimes more challenging than transforming a landscape. But these Detroit teens are confident their efforts are influencing public thinking. After all, notes Chris Moore, people change their minds every day. “But what we’re doing,” he says, “will last until…forever!”