Healthy Yards with Youth in Charge

The Worcester, Mass., Toxic Soil Busters co-op shows improving a neighborhood’s health doesn’t have to be limited to experts and outsiders. 

Picture Hazmat suits, water guns, gas masks, and a team of youth who mean business. In the back of a giant, painted landscaping van, they conceal their real weapons: soil-cleaning plants and a commitment to democracy in the workplace. Now picture these hard-working teens — the Toxic Soil Busters co-op — at a microphone spreading their message:

TSB is a co-op
We tryin’ to make it official
Not just tryin’ to get gwap ($)
It’s about the environmental
Lead can affect your brain
Damage your mental
The government don’t care
All they wanna do is embezzle
But we here to let them know
The community ain’t gonna settle!

— Excerpt from a rap written by Worcester Roots’s 15-year-old design coordinator, Averi Hamilton, and 16-year-old cooperative co-founder, Janice Serrano.

Slowly and meticulously, Worcester Roots Project and Toxic Soil Busters co-op members have crafted a cooperative where youth build skills and develop their potential as agents of change while organizing for environmental and social justice. Just as importantly, we are earning a good income from our community health work. We have found that new social relations are needed within the functioning of our co-op as well as in our neighborhood. Organizing, social justice, environmental justice, and youth empowerment cannot be addressed in isolation. Searching for their powerful intersections helps illuminate our path.

How It Came Together

In 2001, a group of residents and students came together to find a solution to a neighbor’s high soil lead concentration that was contributing to their child’s elevated blood lead levels. There were resources for de-leading inside the home, but what about the soil? At first glance, the solutions (namely excavation) seemed expensive and out of reach, but upon further research we were intrigued by lab studies that showed scented geraniums and certain other plants could suck up lead from the soil.

We educated ourselves, held community workshops, and then experimented in the field with this process, called phytoremediation, safely disposing the lead-filled plants far from where our neighbors were gardening and their children were playing. Our neighbors were intrigued and energized by the tactic of using nature to heal itself. We wrote grants to be able to offer free soil testing to residents and then follow up with multiple options for getting their soil lead levels under the EPA’s safe limit. This usually includes a combination of phytoremediation, raised garden beds, new clean soil, and a variety of landscaping techniques.

We decided to formalize our work as an organization. As we made a strategic vision for this project, we decided to start by defining “environmental justice.” For us it is about the spaces where people live, work, play, and grow. It is about how toxic our backyards are, how little green space our neighborhood has, how unhealthy our homes are, and how poorly the public transportation system works for people on our streets.

The justice aspect lies in how these problems disproportionately affect low-income folks and people of color. Maps of where lead-poisoned children live revealed a glaring concentration in our inner-city neighborhoods: We had found our issue!

Beyond Cleanup

We quickly realized that cleaning up was not going to be enough. Government and paint companies continued to sell lead paint or allow it to be sold in this country for 100 years after they knew about the toxicity of lead. There needed to be accountability from those who created the issue, as well as more resources for those who were ready to address it locally. This offered an opportunity for community members to organize. We had to expose the injustice and push for more to be done about it in Worcester.

We helped start the Worcester Lead Action Collaborative (WLAC), facilitated dozens of workshops on environmental and social justice community organizing, and built a grassroots effort to tackle lead contamination in Worcester. WLAC grew to include over 20 nonprofit organizations, universities, city and state departments, and even a property owners’ association.

Before the Worcester Lead Action Collaborative, the only lead data compilation was done by the state and the only resource for homeowners who wanted to de-lead properties in the city was a small “Get the Lead Out” loan program that was constantly being threatened by budget cuts. There were also no financial resources for abating lead in soil. Within three years of WLAC’s work, we made 6 million dollars of HUD funding available for de-leading Worcester homes, including $45,000 per year for soil work: a major source of funds for Toxic Soil Busters’ work. We also created locally-appropriate lead-safety materials in six languages, completed two major neighborhood health studies, and identified the neighborhoods at high risk for lead-poisoning.

The collaborative’s efforts paid out! The number of lead-poisoned children began to decline.

Recently WLAC has become Worcester Green and Healthy Homes Coalition, which reflects our now broader focus on healthy homes issues beyond lead, such as asthma, weatherization, and mold. Toxic Soil Busters has also taken organizing tools learned from the lead issue to engage in an effort to keep neighborhood pools open.

Also, It’s a Job

The Toxic Soil Busters co-op has become part of a movement to create a new, green economy based on sustainability and solidarity. TSB equips youth with skills that are in demand, and yet allows them to focus on ethical livelihoods.

We exist as evidence that youth can run democratic worker cooperatives. Implementing deliberative democracy, we use a horizontal decision-making process to arrive at consensus. Youth interested in joining the cooperative are interviewed by teams of youth members, and we come to a consensus on who to hire during staff meetings. Each member of the collective has a voice in who is hired, and therefore feels invested in, and excited to train, the new recruits.

The wisdom of the group is a powerful resource and the business profits from this open trafficking of ideas. We believe that hierarchical systems of employment are inherently oppressive, and the best way empower a group is to give them control over their workplace. Youth are also more motivated to work hard and come up with creative solutions when they have a stake in the future of the collective, when they feel they own a piece of it.

At Toxic Soil Busters, we see our work in the context of larger social justice issues. One of the most prominent of those is continued systemic racism. Youth of color are disproportionately denied opportunities from a young age. At Toxic Soil Busters, we are proactive in giving a voice to the disenfranchised, by doing work in, and hiring from, lower-class neighborhoods of color. We have incorporated media literacy and video production trainings to empower youth to find their own voices, and to tell their own stories. We recently produced a video covering racial health disparities in Worcester. From anti-foreclosure efforts to unemployment organizing, we see ourselves as part of a network of movements working to right the injustices in our communities.

The Challenges

Our greatest ongoing challenges revolve around the short-term tenure of member-owners. Most members are in high school, bound for college or full-time work in other cities, and pulled in many directions by sports, activities, and family. Institutional memory has been mostly dependent on adult members, which does not strengthen our effort to balance power and authority.

Getting youth to become actual owners of a business is a steep legal hill to climb. Legal ownership of the cooperative remains in the hands of the Worcester Roots Project, which has so far allowed for sufficient autonomy for Toxic Soil Busters to function as a worker co-op, but legally this could be flawed. We have made some important steps recently, such as more solid agreements between the cooperative and the nonprofit and increased youth participation in the co-op’s finances.

The Worcester Green and Healthy Homes Coalition, despite its successes in de-leading in Worcester, has fallen into a common trap of being service-oriented, top-down, and grant-dependent. Residents cannot fully participate in project design and implementation due to scheduling (meetings happening during the week, for example). Partners within WGHHC are making efforts to change this, but at the moment, the residents are more recipients of services than leaders. Should the funding dry up, WGHHC would not be able to sustain participation of partners. There is a need for bottom-up, community-based organizing, so residents are engaged and lead from experience and passion, making strategic and leadership-level decisions, supported by coalition-level organizing.

Long-Term Solutions

Despite challenges and remaining questions, the Toxic Soil Busters continue to explore new models and new relations. Recently, two new co-ops grew out of TSB’s work. The first is Youth in Charge, located in the Plumley Village neighborhood of Worcester, which does work parallel to TSB’s: lead-testing, healthy homes outreach, and recently working on a new community garden. The other is Future Focus Media Collective and Youth Training Institute, a new collaborative between local media makers that produces high-quality video, photography, and audio while training youth in TV and film production.

These three youth co-ops provide life-changing experiences to their members who would otherwise likely be left behind by the educational system and at risk of being caught up in destructive cycles. Youth are not merely victims in need of assistance, but are powerful forces for change. We believe that only youth can know how they can best reach out to their peers. Youth are not the leaders of some utopian future. They are the change agents of today.

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