Sophomore Marcel holds up his handmade sushi role at Tuesday's Youth Summit

Marcel,  a CG sophomore, holds up his handmade sushi role made with coaching from Miya’s Bun Lai at Tuesday’s Youth Earth Day Summit

Earlier this week, high school students from across New Haven converged on Gateway Community College for the first-event New Haven Youth Earth Day Summit. The summit — the brainchild of teachers from Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, planned with support from staff at Common Ground, Hillhouse, Gateway, and local environmental groups — aimed to celebrate student-led sustainability efforts across the city, and to fuel new efforts that cross the usual divides between the city’s schools.

Summit emcee Natalie Reyes — a Common Ground graduate and current Gateway student — welcomed the 75+ attendees  a call to action. “Your job is to learn how you can take action to protect the environment. Meet some new people. Learn about some local organizations. Figure out how you want to make a difference.”

Adults were on the sidelines throughout the Summit, and looked on with pride as students took turns explaining how their schools are grappling with today’s most serious environmental issues. These students presentations had real stakes; thanks to support from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation and the Renee B. Fisher Foundation Fund, students from each of the participating high schools left with a $300 mini-grant to continue their efforts beyond Earth Day.

Students rose to the challenge — and shared work reflecting the diversity their schools. Theater students from Co-Op Arts & Humanities High School preformed an original production, beginning with despair in the face of pressing environmental challenges, and ending in a clear and optimistic call to action. Another group from Co-Op shared a film they had created, inspired by Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, which included the most substantial treatment of environmental issues in any presidential inaugural to date.

Drawing on their experience in AP Environmental Science, students from Hillhouse High School explained the real research they are taking on in Beaver Ponds Park, directly adjacent to their campus. After adopting the park as their classroom laboratory, they realized how much work was needed to help this natural area thrive. Students spoke about their efforts to bring bluebirds back to the park, eradicate the invasive species Japanese knotweed, monitor water chemistry, build a website for the pond,  and study the effects of the proposed installation of astroturf on the athletic fields adjacent to the pond. With the help of mentors Nan Bartow and Bill Bidwell from Friends of Beaver Pond Park, and  Jasmine Gear from Southern Connecticut State University, the students have been able to make a large impact already. To learn more about the students project and learn how you can help their efforts visit their SeeClickFix page.

Common Ground’s students rounded out the presentations, speaking about a wide range of sustainability efforts. Seniors presented their work to grow sustainable Talapia and launch a new Community Supported Agriculture project open to families of our high school students. Underclassman shared the small business that they run, selling eggs from Common Ground chickens, and described their work building and educating through school gardens across the City of New Haven. Common Ground students in arboriculture internships at the Urban Resource Initiative shared the myriad benefits of urban street trees — from crime reduction to reduced asthma rates — and encouraged their peers to request trees for their own neighborhoods.

Looking relieved to have their formal presentations out of the way, students dove into serious (and sometimes less serious) conversations with peers and representatives from local environmental groups. While they waited their turn to learn how to make sustainable sushi from Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi, they discussed healthy grocery options with the folks at Elm City Market, learned about jobs in clean energy and at local parks, and exchanged phone numbers. Full of possibilities and surrounded by new friends, students gathered to make and share their action commitments moving forward.

Will these students be able to sustain their commitment and ambition in the face of competing priorities and daunting challenges? Common Ground senior Cliff Price offered his advice to his peers: “Do what you are passionate about, and the ambition will come naturally.”