Pomona College’s Sontag residence hall’s positive environmental impact stretches far beyond its 2013 Green Good Design award. Thanks to the Rooftop Garden Project, a joint initiative by the Draper Center for Community Partnerships and local non-profit Uncommon Good, Sontag’s rooftop garden currently serves as a learning space for Teen Green, a group of local elementary, middle, and high school students interested in environmental issues.
“The large age range is interesting and I don’t think it happens all that often,” said Draper Center volunteer Bianca Rodriguez PO ’17. “I mean, the little kids have the weirdest, random-est ideas, and the older kids—they have a background, and they’ve been in the program for years so they have some more knowledge that the little kids can take. And then there’s us and really we’re learning with them.” The “us” to which Rodriguez refers is a group of volunteers from the Claremont Colleges who call themselves “environmentors.”
The environmentors guided Teen Green students through various environmental justice issues from local food policy to sustainability at their biweekly meetings at Sontag rooftop garden. “My goal for Teen Green and the Rooftop Garden collaboration is to give and allow students from underserved communities to exercise their power over the future of their environment and to give them the tools necessary to practice environmental social justice in their neighborhoods,” wrote Uncommon Good’s educational program director, Carlos Carrillo, in an email to TSL.
The program incorporates a number of hands-on experiences, including cooking, gardening, and art. “Having it outdoors makes it more casual and relaxes people, especially kids,” said one of the project’s new recruits, Sophie Janssen PO ’19. “I think sometimes, a lot of kids do better when they’re outside and they’re moving. They’re just a lot more open to new ideas and comfortable, so they’re more willing to make mistakes.”
While the hands-on element is essential to student learning, the Rooftop Garden Project emphasizes the classroom aspect of the program. The project allowed students from underserved schools to picture themselves in a college setting and get a feel for research. Each semester, the Teen Green program culminated in a final project on an environmental justice issue.
“Food education is not at the forefront in the U.S. and people do not understand the need to be eating healthy,” said environmentor Clive Bender PO' 17, reflecting on the importance of past students’ work on often ignored issues like food deserts. “Large corporations value quantity over quality, so in underrepresented neighborhoods people generally don’t have access to knowledge of the importance of food, and you see a lot more diseases in general. I think it’s really important that people are aware of what they’re putting in their bodies. We are what we eat, basically.”
The Rooftop Garden Project has recently undergone several changes financed by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of its new Elemental Arts Initiative. “As of last spring, it feels like it kind of is a new a program because of that grant that we got that allowed us to buy all these art supplies and cooking supplies,” said project coordinator Maddi Cowen PO ’16. “I think our focus and mission has changed a little bit and we’re still exploring what that can look like.”
Another new aspect that Cowen and fellow coordinator Maya Kaul PO ’17 hope to implement this semester is the addition of training sessions for the environmentors on alternating weeks. The decision to add training sessions stemmed from the Draper Center’s philosophy of reflecting on volunteers’ personal position in relation to a project’s larger goals.
“We’re building community within the volunteering group, so having more face time and more reflection so we can get a sense of who’s in the room and what experiences and backgrounds they are coming in with, but then also to work on ideas that are directly related to what we’ll be working on the following week,” Cowen said. “'Training' is a word that we use at the Draper Center that means a lot. It’s definitely not just logistics—like here are the skills and approaches that you must take engaging in a project, but it’s really more discussing goals and thinking big picture.”
With the new semester came new volunteers. The Rooftop Garden Project hosted a beginning-of-semester open house to recruit new environmentors on Jan. 29. “The program is very dynamic and sort of adjusts to the strength of the volunteers and what their interests are, so every year the focus of the program is slightly different,” Kaul said. Despite changes in the organization and funding, the new volunteers might be the biggest change of all in the Rooftop Garden Project’s direction for the spring. “I don’t know what to expect this semester, but I’m excited. Really excited to go back, see the old kids, meet some new ones, get involved and get my hands dirty,” Bender said.