Building a Bridge between Environment and Equity

By Lydia Hooper

Even those of us familiar with environmental justice often cannot see this issue in our own communities without taking an in-depth look. The more I have learned about Westerly Creek in the Denver Metro Area, the more I have come to understand how the quality of this waterway is not just about public and environmental health, it’s about fairness. I have also been delightfully surprised to find that it is young people who are leading the way to change.

Westerly Creek

Most of the Westerly Creek disappears underground but it is also much nearer to homes, both factors which increase the risk of flooding damage in this neighborhood during Denver’s annual flash flood season. Moreover, the people most affected by such floods are the least protected. Flash floods often may have a dangerous wall of roaring water carrying rocks, mud and other debris that can damage property and possibly endanger lives. The area has become a resting place for refugees and immigrants, and due to numerous language and cultural barriers as well as preoccupation with the day-to-day concerns of low-income living, the majority of local residents remain unaware of these flooding dangers.

So far there have been at least three plans drawn up for a greenwayalongthecreek, but since such a major re-engineering project would cost about $1 million per block, it has been very difficult to secure funding. But the good news is that there are some who are working to fight this injustice right now – like my colleague Donny Roush at EarthForce, an organization that empowers youth to become leaders in their communities. Roush hopes to cultivate community-based solutions through facilitation of the EarthForceProcess, six-steps that use scientific inquiry, service-learning and civic action tools to engage students in taking action on environmental issues.

This past summer Roush explored Westerly Creek’s issues with a group of students from the neighborhood’s Fletcher Middle School. Earth Force helped students to conduct experiments to locate nearly 100 homes that are in areas most vulnerable to flooding. The students then decided to make and distribute brochures to educate their neighbors about local flooding dangers. “I do think we made a difference,” ninth-grader Cynthia Casillas told theDenverPost. “I think we spread awareness.”

These students will continue to work with their schools and Earth Force, and have expressed interest in not only sharing their research with residents, but with the local government as well. And as the City of Denver continues to hold meetings with the public to find ways to address the dangers from the flooding season, I won’t be surprised if community youth are the first ones to take a seat.

About the author: LydiaHooper is the “KeepItClean” Communications Liaison for DenverPublicWorksWastewaterManagementWaterQualityDivision and EarthForce, a non-profit that focuses on community partnership and facilitation of environmental service-learning projects for youth nationwide.