Maysa Maryam, a high school junior who lives in the Bronx, hadn’t had much experience with the Bronx River, the only freshwater river in New York City that winds through her borough. That changed last summer, when she was an intern with a program known as CityParks Green Girls Empowered by ING. Maryam donned waders, ventured into the water and participated in a cleanup, while also learning how this waterway has a long history of environmental racism.
“I don’t really like to go into water, because I’m scared sometimes,” Maryam says, “but by opening myself up to the experience I learned a lot.”
Green Girls is a 20-year-long afterschool and summer program that supports middle-school girls in New York City with STEM learning (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) through outdoor adventures in parks and along waterways. More recently the program turned its focus to the climate crisis, amending its curriculum to teach girls about climate change, provide space to process the emotional toll, and offer avenues to engage in environmental advocacy.
This latest evolution is also part of a free, national curriculum Green Girls recently released to help educators combat climate change and youth mental health issues through their own afterschool and summer programs. Early adopters include the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, The Fresh Air Fund and the DC Public Library. “We’re sharing a model that is an integration of science, STEM, socioemotional learning and environmental advocacy,” says Chrissy Word, City Parks Foundation director of education.
The history of Green Girls goes back to 2002, when nonprofit City Parks Foundation started thinking about ways to bring more young women of color from under-resourced neighborhoods into science. “In the ’90s, there really started to be an awareness about the gap in science learning and the professional science field, which at that point was nearly 100 percent white male driven,” says Word. The idea was to provide an alternative to traditional educational pathways, which often discouraged or marginalized young women, especially girls of color.
Early on Green Girls educators realized “that the kids didn’t just want to talk, they wanted to do something,” according to Word, so the curriculum evolved to include environmental advocacy like river and park cleanups. The idea was to prompt the students to think about their own communities in relation to science, and act on it.
Climate became an inevitable focus, especially because many girls lived in neighborhoods impacted by environmental racism and at high risk to the impacts of climate change. About four years ago, Green Girls began amending its curriculum to reflect that.
Maryam and her sisters, seventh-grader Faezah Samyum and sixth-grader Raisa Rahim, have all benefited from the curriculum update. Beyond the Bronx River cleanup, which happened in partnership with the Bronx River Alliance, they’ve spent time at local Shoelace Park learning about the ecology around them. “We went down to a part of the park and got to get rid of some invasive species … I didn’t know there were invasive species so near to me,” says Maryam.
(Photo by Sean Jamar/Courtesy of CityParks Green Girls Empowered by ING)
As part of the socio-emotional learning component of the curriculum, they’ve journaled about topics like “how can we interact in our parks?” and “what does an environmental solution look like in my community?” Rahim created a jingle that ends with “Let’s go catch some butterflies, change the world one step at a time.”
Mayra Sanchez, the program manager working with Green Girls on the ground, emphasizes how important it is to look at science through non-traditional curriculum. “The idea is to empower students, young people, to voice out their questions and who they are,” she says. “We want to remove the stigma against science, be creative, and see science through a different lens.”
That also means creating space for climate anxiety, which has dramatically increased among youth. “We try to create a safe space and instill trust within our students,” Sanchez says. “We’re able to create a space for students to ask questions about climate change.”
The public curriculum includes several new lessons with a specific climate focus, while still revolving around Green Girls’ longtime model combining socio-emotional learning, and student-centered, place-based and service-based learning, as well as partnerships with environmental groups and internships. Each of the eight lessons includes the recommended duration, purpose, standards, materials, background information, notes on preparation and suggested daily agenda. “The idea was to translate this for teachers in ways they could easily utilize it,” says Word.
To Sanchez, it’s a great opportunity to spread a core lesson of Green Girls: “We’re all scientists, as long as we’re asking questions of curiosity,” she says. “And when we can align ourselves with local community members … we’re showing that people like me, people who live in the Bronx, can connect with community to make this work even more impactful.”
Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit.