Unbeknownst to many of its residents, the city of Newburgh, NY has been long fraught with pollution. Meet four young advocates working to plant the seeds for a bright future.
A history of poor-quality water, high asthma rates due to pollution, a controversial gas line construction project on the way, and high rates of COVID-19 are some of the symptoms that have led the city of Newburgh, New York to be a designated environmental justice community.
As is the case with a majority of environmental justice communities, a significant portion of Newburgh’s population is made up of people of color — with nearly 50% identifying as Latinx — and people who have lower incomes. Insufficient awareness of environmental issues, language barriers, and a lack of resources leave many Newburgh residents ill-equipped to advocate for themselves.
However, there’s hope for a brighter future for Newburgh: it recently became one of 10 cities awarded a $19,000 TD Green Space Grant for an Environmental Justice Fellowship Program.
The Fellowship, made possible by partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation and TD Bank, was awarded to four BIPOC-identifying “Newburghers” between the ages of 19 to 24. Alongside their leader Ronald Zorrilla, Founder & CEO of the service-learning and outdoor education nonprofit Outdoor Promise, the Environmental Justice Fellows will have the chance to make a real impact on Newburgh citizens’ quality of life.
The Fellows’ Big Task: Getting the Word Out About Pollution
You would think that in a community subjected to poor-quality air and water, Newburgh residents would know about how toxicity might be impacting their daily lives; however, according to Zorrilla, this isn’t the case.
“Many people still don’t realize how bad it is,” he told us. “Newburgh’s water supply was polluted for 20 years and residents weren’t told until recently.”
The Environmental Justice Fellowship, a collaboration between the City of Newburgh, Greater Newburgh Parks Conservancy, and Outdoor Promise, was created to integrate climate and environmental justice education in Newburgh’s communities. Sounds like a tall task, right? That’s why the fellows have a specific environmental justice component they will soon become experts in: trees.
While it might seem simple at first, trees play a huge role in cooling entire communities. On a hot summer day, areas with ample tree coverage can be up to 10 degrees cooler than those without! What’s more, study after study has shown that communities of color are more likely to have sparse tree coverage compared to predominantly white communities. Tree planting is both a climate mitigation mechanism and an environmental justice solution.
But the fellows won’t just be planting trees; they’ll also be engaging the community by developing an online course, “Tree Planting in Newburgh,” and hosting educational workshops for residents to learn about the importance of trees, green spaces, and conservation. To include more Newburgh residents in their movement, the fellows will be translating materials into Spanish.
To kick off the first week of the seven-month program, the fellows spent a fun-filled morning getting oriented and hiking to Snake Hill, the tallest point in Newburgh. Environmental Justice Fellows (from left to right): Ameesah Cotten, Marichen Montiel, Kathryn McKenzie, and Heidy Bonilla.
Experiencing the Promise of the Great Outdoors
In addition to environmental justice, Zorrilla’s mission for Outdoor Promise stemmed from the disparities he witnessed between low-income communities and white, wealthier communities. Growing up in Queens, Zorrilla (like many others) did not have the luxury of easily accessible outdoor areas or outdoor activities.
It wasn’t until he landed a scholarship with New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation that he started to develop an appreciation for the outdoors. The scholarship gave Zorrilla the opportunity to attend an overnight camp, Camp DeBruce, where he learned to shoot a bow and arrow, went on night hikes, and made s’mores by the campfire.
“I came back from that experience and started volunteering at different outdoor centers,” Zorrilla told us. “I spent over 1000 hours volunteering.”
The entire experience gave Zorrilla the means to understand the power of spending time in nature. “I had the luxury of being able to have that experience. Seeing the gap in outdoor education had a profound impact on me,” he shared.
“I thought if I could just get kids outside to experience it, they’ll love it too and want to protect it,” he added.
Outdoor Promise began as an idea Zorrilla had in an entrepreneurship class in college, but in 2015, Zorrilla and his wife, Ashley Collazo-Zorrilla, turned it into an organization. Outdoor Promise now works with kids of all age groups, hosting outdoor clean-ups and providing STEM education.
NYC H2O: Protecting Ecosystems Next Door
In the near future, the couple plans to uplift the voices of historically marginalized communities through podcasting, and create online courses geared toward environmental justice, sustainability, and outdoor education.
When it comes to organizing communities around environmental causes, Zorrilla has one tried-and-true theory: “You can’t have a passion for something you haven’t experienced,” he told us, “so the first step is getting people out there.”
The Environmental Justice Fellows have already taken that first step — and we can’t wait to see what they’ll accomplish!
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