'Green' awareness blooms for 10 inner city teens Summer program nurtures vision of environment

August 13, 1991|By Diane Winston

This mayor of Baltimore had no problem making decisions. He knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it.

"We need lots of trees for oxygen," said 13-year-old Bruce Pendles, who played the part of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke during a morning session of Baltimore's Project RAISE (Raising Ambition Instills Self-Esteem). "If I were really mayor, I would clean up Baltimore. I would organize people to clean up their neighborhoods and then to clean up the water."

Bruce Pendles' civic vision springs out of a summer program that started inner city youth thinking about the environment.

Project RAISE, working with Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, designed a six-week program that put 10 teens to work cutting trees, pulling weeds, identifying leaves and -- as their final project -- designing a community park.

The teens, who are paid minimum wage under a city summer employment program, are learning new skills that can be put to use in their communities.

"I told these kids that they would be working outside but it wouldn't be glamorous," said Michael Johnson, coordinator of Project RAISE. "But I also told them they would be learning something."

What they learned was on display last week in a steamy third-floor classroom at the Charles Carroll of Carrolltown Elementary School in East Baltimore.

Four teams designed community parks for the empty lot down the street from the school, on the southwest corner of North Central Avenue and Orleans Street. Hanging from the blackboard, the park plans -- colorful squiggles, circles, boxes and squares -- looked like a cross between abstract art and a rough sketch of an inner city dream.

"The mayor," judging the entries from a raised platform, had no doubts about his favorite design for Project Raise Park.

He ignored the playgrounds with swings and slides, parks with basketball courts and picnic groves. He chose a simple plan: a park with a fountain flanked by flower beds. It would be a serene spot in a community choked by bricks, traffic and litter.

Janaico (pronounced Jah-NAY-see-oh) Graham, who had announced his intention to run against the mock mayor, challenged the selection.

Janaico said that his team's project -- a clutter of swings, slides, hanging tires and playing fields -- was better for neighborhood kids.

"When I was a kid and played in a playground, I didn't want to walk around and look at flowers, I wanted to have fun," said Janaico, 16. "That other one is a nice design, but when it snows, there won't be any flowers or trees left."

When Janaico and his friends weren't planning for the barren, grass-stubbled lot, the project's supervisors -- Yale students Morgan Grove of Philadelphia and Matthew Taylor of Atlanta -- took them on environment-related field trips. They cut and climbed trees, mulched fields and learned about forestry.

Their dedication surprised friends, who preferred sleeping late, and amazed some families.

"My mother asked why my clothes were all dirty and when I told her I had been pruning trees, she didn't believe me," said James Wheeler, 14. "She thought I was lazy."

James' mother wasn't the only person whose opinions changed during the summer.

Mr. Grove, who is a doctoral student at Yale, said that his two-year stint with Project RAISE was a "real eye-opener."

"Every day, these kids redefine our ideas about environmentalism," he said.

"A lot of people in Maryland cite the Chesapeake Bay as the most important environmental issue. But when you talk to these kids you learn the city's dirty, there aren't enough trees, the community's noisy and there's no place to play," he said.

"These are environmental issues, too."

If Mr. Grove and his young colleagues have their way, city dwellers will have one more place to play by next summer. Representatives from the city's planning and parks departments heard yesterday about Project RAISE's plans for the 16,748-square-foot lot.

Mr. Grove hopes they will like the designs and allow his proteges to build a park next summer. It would be a park whose planners had struggled with the hard realities of inner city living.

"One of the key issues is that some of the kids want metal detectors in the park to keep out drug dealers," said Mr. Grove, who noted the Baltimore model may be replicated in other cities next summer. "But another kid asked, 'Why? Drug dealers are people, too.' "

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