Rooftop Garden Mentoring Project plants seeds of leadership in local youth

Two female college students stand in front of a tv monitor. It displays an image of a rooftop garden.
Chloe Wanaselja PO ’21 and Amanda Mutai PO ’21, co-coordinators for the Rooftop Garden Mentoring Project, discuss the project’s mission to new members. (Aleecia Sharpe • The Student Life)

Every other Thursday afternoon atop Pomona College’s Sontag Residence Hall, Claremont students gather with local middle and high school students to learn, eat, garden and foster community. 

Armed with home-grown veggies and a view of the mountains, they aim to conquer environmental justice issues and have fun while doing it. 

The Rooftop Garden Mentoring Project is a 5C program that teaches collaborative mentorship with a focus on environmental justice education and leadership. 

The program partners with the Draper Center for Community Partnerships and Teen Green, a youth-led environmental group facilitated through the nonprofit Uncommon Good. The participating students attend Los Angeles-area middle and high schools.

The project was founded eight years ago, according to one of the coordinators Amanda Mutai PO ’21. It now has 15 members and 25 participating Teen Green students.

For co-coordinators Mutai and Chloe Wanaselja PO ’21, collaboration is central to the program’s mission.

“[We aim to foster] leadership around sustainability and environmental justice issues, among both the Teen Green and the 5C students,” Wanaselja said. “We want it to be a mutually beneficial relationship between both groups, where both are learning from the other.”

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In last Thursday’s meeting, 5C program mentors, known as “environmentors,” worked with Teen Green students to brainstorm what environmental justice, food justice and sustainability concerns they plan to explore this year.

“They lead the entire session, which is really exciting to see,” Mutai said. “[Topics are] dependent on what they want to learn more about, and the issues that are affecting them.”

The participating Teen Green students will learn to lead through tackling environmental issues. For member Nicholas Nguyen PO ’23, climate change makes providing young people with these skills more important.

“We’re almost at the point of no return in 2030,” Nguyen said. “It’s important that people just a couple years younger than us are well-equipped to deal with the [environmental] problems that we all will be sharing in about a decade or so.”

This year, the program is looking to put environmental justice front and center.

“We’re trying to be more explicit about addressing environmental justice this year,” Wanaselja said. “In the past few years it’s definitely been there but it’s been more implied instead of actively stated and talked about.”

Wanaselja joined the Rooftop Garden project because she deeply cares about environmental issues and felt the program created tangible impact. 

“You can see the growth of students over the time that they’re involved in Rooftop, whether that be Teen Green students or the environmentors,” she said.

Food is also a central component of the Rooftop Garden experience, and Mutai said they work to provide healthy and organic snacks. The group also grows vegetables on the rooftop garden, which Wanaselja said is important to the mentoring project and greater community.

“I have been really fortunate to have access to healthy food, and it means a lot to me to be able to have that,” she said. “A lot of people don’t [have access to healthy food] and I’m excited about teaching more people about what that means and how they can take control of that themselves.”

Additionally, the program’s gathering spot is central to what makes it so special, Wanaselja said.

“I think being able to see the mountains is a really big part of it,” she said. “You’re definitely outside but you’re also above in a way that makes you able to see your surroundings in a special way. And it’s just really beautiful watching your food grow over the course of a semester or year.”

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