By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors
Most teenagers don’t sit around talking about invasive plants and medicinal herbs or brownfields. But at least a half dozen area teenagers are the exception. Isaac, 15, Adarin, 16, Nashawn, 16, Randie, 16, Aliza, 15, and De’Shawn, 19, spend Saturday mornings researching and learning more about these topics, while also getting their hands dirty.
These six teens are members of Groundwork Indy’s Green Team, and spend not only their Saturdays during the school year, but summers too, learning how to best help the Northwest Area neighborhood. Not all live in the neighborhood now, but several were born there. The area is bounded roughly by 16th Street on the south, 38th Street on the north, Martin Luther King Street on the east and Kessler Boulevard North Drive on the west.
Their work stems from an extensive community assessment. First, there was a feasibility study by a steering committee to determine if Indianapolis was a right place for a Groundwork program, and at the same time a Northwest Area Quality of Life plan was being developed. With 40 percent of the homes vacant, 584 of the 3,840 acres dedicated to green space lacking attention, and multiple identified brownfields, there is plenty of work to go around.
“The Quality of Life plan was underway in the area, and the city was working on funding for an areawide plan for brownfields and redevelopment, so these two things came together. It seemed like Groundwork was kind of the answer that could plug some holes that needed to be filled,” said Phyllis Boyd, executive director of Groundwork Indy. The original 2012 steering committee is still involved.
Why Indianapolis for this nonprofit youth program? Periodically, Groundwork USA solicits applications from around the country for potential branches. Late in 2012, the city of Indianapolis on behalf of a corridor steering committee submitted a letter of interest to Groundwork USA, and after site visits from the national organization that spring, the city received funding and technical assistance to conduct a feasibility study.
By early 2015, Groundwork USA’s committee, working in close collaboration with the Northwest Area neighborhood, voted unanimously to move forward with the creation of an Indianapolis branch.
Groundwork Indy has two youth development programs – the Green Team for high school students and GroundCorp for out-of-school youth up to age 24. Both programs work from a leased building on Burdsal Parkway near Flanner House and close to the south end of the corridor.
The Green Team meets Saturdays during the school year, and daily in the summer. The program’s goal is to help build environmental awareness and life skills for these teens. Students can stay during their high school years, and earn minimum wage.
“If it’s a good fit for us, and it continues to be, they’re welcome to stay and keep working, and eventually become like crew leaders. One of the things we teach them is the important of their contribution to the community. We’re here because the community has said: ‘This is what we would like to see, this is what we need,’” said Boyd, who moved from working in the for-profit sector as a landscape architect to this position in the summer of 2015.
These young people are helping to change the neighborhood. They’ve embarked on tasks like things removing the ground cover from sidewalks so kids at the two area elementary schools don’t have to walk in the streets. They removed brush from a railroad trestle, making way for the city’s urban pathway. They are researching medicinal herbs that can help improve the health of urban residents. So far they’ve focused on common aliments of African-Americans, and will include some in this summer’s garden.
For the most part, each project is part of the neighborhood’s plan for greenways and parks, brownfields, vacant properties and healthy communities and urban agriculture and community gardening. Right now, for example, the group is in talks with IU Health about a September safe-routes-to-school volunteer effort to do some intersection painting around the two neighborhood schools – Elder Diggs and Global Prep Academy at Riverside 44.
The group also is coordinating with the city’s Department of Public Works to get infrastructure improvements on DPW’s schedule and determine what additional funding is needed to complete improvements.
Adarin, 16, who was born in the neighborhood, notes that since Groundwork Indy got involved, the neighborhood’s not dirty. “We’re coming together to change this community. And some people are respecting it. I like that,” he said.
With Boyd’s background, the teens are learning about botany, too. They don’t just plant trees, they learn about the plants rooting systems and conserving water, and why native plants are important to the ecology.
“I think it’s important that they hear all this stuff, and at the time that they’re hearing it, they’re actually working and got their hands in the soil, hands on the trees, doing something where they can really absorb the information, and they get like, ‘Oh, this is why this information is important.’ So it’s not taught classroom style where it’s a lecture, it’s very much like in the moment, where we’re doing what we’re doing. And they seem to really like learning that way,” she said.
For Aliza, 15, who attends Northwest High School, planting a garden last summer infused pride.
“We worked on planting a garden out back, and it actually turned out good. We had fresh tomatoes, peppers and basil. We brought some home, and we ate some here. We made chili, and all types of stuff, like guacamole, salsa and pickles.
That is just what Boyd hopes will happen.
“They’re really thinking about their work in this larger context of their community and their city. We try also to help them understand, not just the historical context of why neighborhoods are like they are right now. They can grow up in a place like this and think like, ‘It must be like this because we deserve for it to be like this.’
“There are historical, structural reasons why there’s been disinvestment, why the sidewalks aren’t taken care of, why you see all these vacant lots, why the highway went through where it went through. But if you only live in Indy, if you only travel in a very small circuit of Indy, you don’t necessarily get the information that it is systemic. It’s not just by chance, it’s not their parents’ fault, it’s not their grandparents’ fault that this is the way it is. There are systemic things at work that made it so,” she said.
GroundCorp employs out-of-school youth in Marion County, ages 16 to 24, and focuses on job training and job preparedness. The six-to-nine-month program provides part-time employment Monday through Friday, but improving the quality of life in the neighborhood is only part of it.
If these young people don’t have high school diplomas, they must be engage in an adult education program working toward a high school equivalency, an alternative to a diploma.
“We also get them assistance with other partners to get their educational levels up. There are some certifications that require an individual to test at a ninth grade level, before you can qualify to do them,” said Boyd.
“We see the GroundCorp program as a stabilization pad, and a jumping-off point to do other things, like YouthBuild, the Culinary Institute at Edna Martin or something else. It only pays $10 an hour, which is not what anybody can live on, so we need to actually get them in and moving on to something that’s better,” said Boyd.
Currently the nonprofit doesn’t offer the educational component onsite, but it may change to make it easier for team members to complete their education.
“Transportation is one of the hugest hurdles that we have,” said Boyd, who will write bus passes into future grant applications. “Some of our 16 to 24 that are in the GroundCorp program have more barriers, and just need a lot more support from others.”
For every 8-to-10-member GroundCorp crew, Boyd needs a staff person to manage them out on the sites. The crews with participants over 18 can use power tools.
In the summer, the two groups have been able to mix, even taking field trips together.
“It is actually quite easy to mix the groups and work on projects together. Because of the age group of the GroundCorp crew, over 18, there are things that they can do that the younger, employed youth cannot do, like power tools and things like that. So there are certain jobs that they do.”
Boyd is encouraged that EmployIndy is convening a community of practice by coordinating the efforts of grantees that have federal workforce dollars. Seeing that the population of grantees has the same barriers, talking to each other is making programs more effective.
“We’re really good at finding community projects, putting people to work, integrating STEM knowledge into that, teaching skills that are very work-related, teaching about getting to work on time, doing your timesheet, some basics. But then we need to have partners that help with the other wraparound services,” said Boyd. “Then I don’t have to run around and figure out social services when it’s already someone’s job to do that.”
There have been many surprises in the year and a half for Boyd, not the least of which was how easy it was to underestimate kids and what they can accomplish.
“They’re teenagers and we’re just like, ‘Oh, they’re just thinking about things that aren’t that important or just very self-centered. They care about their environment. I thought it would be harder to elicit talking about their values. But if I’m really clear about my values, and I’m expressing my values, it gives them space to be very open about their values.”
“Before we started working, if you looked around this neighborhood, it wasn’t as nice and as clean as it is,” said Aliza. “I see more people cleaning up and gardening, and it makes me feel like I’m inspiring people to do better. I see Groundwork as a role model,” said the 15-year-old Northwest High School student.
Nashawn, 16, Northwest High School said, “I learned that I really care when people are throwing down trash and stuff. We’re just trying to bring life back to the neighborhood.”