“I used to walk around with $5,000 in my pocket everyday,” said Darius Phillips, a young man in the Southeast neighborhood of Washington, D.C. who sold crack and robbed taxi drivers to get by. “You could say something to me…or just look at me the wrong way, and I’d be down your neck,” continued Phillips in an interview for an episode of the Bill Moyers show about the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC). Through ECC, at-risk youth and high school dropouts work on environmental education and conservation projects while receiving minimum wage, benefits, and education funding for completing a one-year term. For these marginalized people living practically in the shadow of the Washington Monument but in one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the country, “something clicks” when they get out on the Anacostia River, often for the first time, and get a chance to see their community in a new way. According to Phillips, “This is a part of me…this is my heritage. And to be a part of something so beautiful, it’s overwhelming.”
I’ve shown this episode to students many times over the years, and it makes me misty-eyed every time, both because of the tragedy and the reasons for hope it conveys. It also offers some of the strongest evidence I’ve seen for the biophilia hypothesis, biologist E.O. Wilson’s argument that “human beings are innately attracted to nature: biologically, we are all still hunters and gatherers, and there is something in us, which we do not fully understand, that needs an occasional immersion in nature,” as author Richard Louv puts it. Louv spearheads the national Leave No Child Inside movement, and I have assigned one of his articles with this title for years as well. In it, he asserts that kids today spend 90 percent of their time indoors (much of it on screens of various kinds), leading to nature deficit disorder and a host of consequences related for children’s ability to focus, physical health, and knowledge about their surroundings. He also highlights what organizations like Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center (UEC) are doing in response. Not only is UEC the official steward of Riverside Park and a local community center, but its outdoor education program also hosts more than 18,000 student visits from 23 schools in the surrounding neighborhoods every year. Immersion in nature not only has healing power, as the case of Darius Phillips (and a growing body of research) suggests, but environmental and experiential outdoor education has also been shown to yield improvements in cognitive functioning, problem solving and creativity, and self-esteem.
I have for some time also dreamed of creating a local organization inspired by these models. Let’s call it Oshkosh Conservation Corps (OCC). Or perhaps, Oshkosh Community Corps, to broaden it a bit (my students and I still need to hash this out). In any case, OCC. The idea would be for young people from this area to engage in hands-on projects that get them outside and give them the benefits described above, while taking small steps to build community, clean up the environment, and generally enhance local resiliency and sustainability. They would get involved because they or their organization (e.g. local schools, Boys & Girls Club, Boy Scouts/Girls Scouts) want to, or because they have to do community service. And they would work on their projects through what I am calling “nested mentorship,” a Russian doll approach through which professionals and professors mentor UWO students in managing the program, who mentor the high school students that are the primary laborers for the Corps, who regularly mentor elementary school age children through field trips, environmental education, and service learning projects. But I haven’t had a chance to do anything about the idea. Until now.
I decided to ask students in my Environment & Society class last fall to work in small groups to create a plan for the OCC as a semester-long project. They took eight of the focus areas—local food, managed waste, environmental conservation, transportation and mobility, safe and healthy community, land use and development, energy, and atmosphere—from the recently-approved Sustainability Plan for the City of Oshkosh and conducted research about their topic and the issues and opportunities that come with it, interviewed people, found case studies from other cities and funding and partnership opportunities (with the Communities program at Oshkosh North commonly mentioned as a logical partner). They also developed action strategies, such as the building of a greenhouse for growing food and environmental education on the UWO campus, a bicycle tour of important local community sites, a composting program at local schools, and conservation and education projects at Terrell’s Island on Lake Butte des Morts. The semester culminated with in-class presentations and their hosting at Time Community Theater of a screening and discussion of the film Play Again, which documents efforts to counteract nature deficit disorder.
According to class member Cassy Hemmen, “Creating the OCC and our own plans within it was an interesting and beneficial way to look at the positive and negative aspects of Oshkosh. Everyone should be aware of and engaged with the many aspects of their city, whether its local food, transportation, energy, waste management, and more. I believe that more community involvement with environmental sustainability in mind is going to make the city of Oshkosh a better place to be.”
Chong Xiong added that, “Some of the most important things that I personally got out of this project is learning how to communicate and work as a team…Learning how to promote community involvement through communication and establishing connections not just within UWO, but also with potential stakeholders and the community itself, I can really see OCC progress as a potential sustainable plan. The key to OCC is to reach out to the community and get the youth involved with things that are out in the community because I really think that when a person grows up, he or she starts losing ‘sense of place.’ Everybody is too busy with their lives and we forget…It is also our obligation to protect and preserve our community because when there is no more community in our lives, we lose more than just ourselves, but everything around us as well.”
And, finally, Mallory Schneider stated that, “Oshkosh is my hometown, and although it is not where I currently reside, much of my time is spent here because of school and family. I would love to see more people, especially kids, getting outdoors and interacting with people and their surroundings. We need to break free of the fear that seems to shut many of us indoors. Through school-based and community-wide projects, the OCC, along with the city of Oshkosh, community leaders, and other organizations, hopes to bring people of all ages together in order to make Oshkosh more inclusive, sustainable, and active.”
Where the OCC could be housed and whether it could actually work are questions for a different day. But keep your eye out for us, and if you’re down with OCC, perhaps you can help make it happen.
Paul Van Auken is a sociology and environmental studies professor who, while not a hockey person, lives by Wayne Gretsky’s motto that, “You have to shoot to score.”