City, suburban students tackle environmental issues 900 from state attend summit to raise awareness

May 08, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Said city student Kristin Harrison to suburbanite Ebony Custis: "Sprawl -- what is that?"

Said Custis, from Bowie, to Harrison, from Baltimore: "I can't believe what you're saying about people illegally dumping trash in the neighborhoods. Is that for real?"

They met in a drab conference room at the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday, two of the 900 environmentally aware students and teachers who attended the governor's first Youth Environmental Summit.

At first the two 18-year-olds thought their worries were unrelated. Custis frets over the sprouting subdivisions that have transformed the small Prince George's County town she remembers into a tangle of strip malls and traffic jams. Such things aren't part of Harrison's world.

Like the other high school students who volunteer in the Baltimore Environmental Justice Project, Harrison's trying to help inner-city residents get a handle on problems such as rats, trash and polluted air.

Felicia Verrett, manager of the nonprofit justice project, explained that urban decay and suburban sprawl are two threads from the same fabric.

"People move to the suburbs because they don't like the living conditions in the inner city," Verrett told a roomful of teen-agers at one of the conference seminars. "They don't want to stay and fix things up, or they feel like the problems are too big for them to solve. So they move to the suburbs, where they get sprawl. And when so many people leave, the problems in the neighborhoods get worse and worse."

But the students at yesterday's gathering, drawn from every county in the state, weren't ready to say that Maryland's environmental woes are beyond help. They have taken on an impressive array of problem-solving projects: planting trees and creating wetlands on school grounds, tilling organic gardens on abandoned lots, building wheelchair-accessible trails through neighborhood woodlands.

The conference was organized by the governor's office and the Maryland Department of the Environment. Its purpose was to teach students about a broad range of environmental issues, from Chesapeake Bay restoration to Smart Growth programs aimed at preventing runaway suburban development.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the conference sponsor and star speaker, announced a new "green schools" award program for schools that include environmental topics in the curriculum, make their buildings environmentally friendly and get involved in community projects.

"What we want to do here is to reach out and create a sense of stewardship, of personal responsibility," he said. "Government programs are great but unless we start personally assuming stewardship for the health of the bay, we're going to have a difficult time in the future."

Several young people gave the gathering a passing grade or better, and said they hoped it would be repeated. But organizer Allison Anderson said the Baltimore Convention Center flunked a crucial test when its caterers served midmorning juice in glass bottles.

Students looked for recycling bins and, finding none, raised a ruckus. The Convention Center does not recycle, so adult organizers scrambled to find an environmentally responsible way collect the glass.

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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