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Who Will Be The Next Environmentalists?

Today is Earth Day. Wisconsin’s own Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with the idea 40 years ago, to call attention to dangers threatening the environment. The U.S. Senator hoped to inspire awareness and action. On this 40th anniversary, we stop by several schools, in search of future environmentalists.

It’s a Saturday, but a dozen or so Whitefish Bay High students are digging their hearts out on the west side of school. They’re installing a series of raised vegetable beds – some for the school, others for the community.

I’ll step aside and let senior Micah Leinbach explain.

“ I’ve always been a talker; I’ve had lots of ideas and plans and things that I wanted to see happen. And eventually, I just decided actually I needed actually, but no one was kind of taking the lead. So I wrote up the proposal and turned it in, but this project is not my project by any stretch of the imagination. It’s an Environmental Club, which is our name, project. Any of our work days you can come and I’ll be here, but there will be five, ten, fifteen, maybe even more kids that are involved in it in some way,” Micah says.

I ask if there have been any surprising reactions throughout the process.

“We planned ahead for this project, because the Village of Whitefish Bay is a wonderful place to grow up; you can bike anywhere; it’s just a very safe place to be. But it can be a very hard village to work with; there are a lot of aesthetic restrictions, things like that. So we expected some issues and prepared for them. At one point we had to haul ten cubic yards of compost and soil from Bay View, which is a lot of soil. As the Earth Club and a whole lot of high school kids, we don’t have many trucks or drivers. And one very nice lady sent me an email and said I’ll pay for one day’s rental of a pickup truck. So we’ve had a lot of really positive community support; people coming in saying, I have plants for you, I have dirt for you, I have tools for you. And I think people are also glad that it’s a student thing and it’s not a whole bunch of adults making it happen, but students are coming in basically saying, we want to build you a garden, will you let us. And people have been happy to say yes. Is it somewhat a fad, an eco-fad, to be making these gardens right now? Definitely, but I’m not complaining because it let us get one,” Micah says.

Micah is off to Lewis and Clark College next fall with his eye on an environmental studies degree.

I head into the city to visit some grade schools. College is the last thing on nine-year-old Nakeia’s mind. She’s happy as a clam to be a MacDowell Montessori student. Her teacher does use the word “environment” a lot – especially when it comes to their classroom.

“Miss Shelly always says, you have to stop doing that because this is your environment; you need to take care of things, and stuff. And she always uses that word and we always use that word a lot around here,” Nakeia says.

I ask what their class is doing on Earth Day.

“Uh-huh. We get a note home to tell us to do a lot of things for Earth Day, like to pick up garbage and stuff and everything,” Nakeia says.

I ask, just on that day or every day.

“Every day,” Nakeia answers.

Miss Schilz’s 3rd graders are busy writing letters to Mother Earth, when I walk into Brown Street Academy.

This is Jayla.

“Dear Mother Earth, thank you Mother Earth. You help us live. Thank you for all the things you give us. Earth, you give us air, you give us food. Earth, I love you very much,” Jayla reads.

Clint Hays supplies me with a pair of weighters and guides me out into the Milwaukee River to demonstrate what his Shorewood charter school, called New Horizons, is doing environmentally.

“Watch where you’re walking take it slow. Some rocks are really slippery,” Clint says.

Clint’s classmates are working in team collecting invertebrates from the bottom of the river. One person kicks up the dirt and rocks – doing a river dance, Clint says, and the other scoops up results in a net.

“As you can see these guys found a few,” Clint says.

The New Horizons team is gearing up to mentor fourth and 5th graders.

“Every group will have a Petrie dish.”

These students are nurturing one another too.

“Put some water into the petrie dish.”

Each team scrutinizing and charts the creatures they’ve brought up from the river.

“We have a larva, we have a blood worm for sure.”

The group is mostly sophomores and juniors, very much focused on working as a tight unit. They’ve been asked to help install raised garden beds at a nearby grade school.

Junior Evan Clinkenbeard steps forward.

“I wish you guys the best of luck tomorrow, helping with that project. I’ll be working on a different project,” Evan says.

Another environmental leader in the making? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.