(Foto: Cortesía/Leilany Rodriguez)

For the world, the summer of 2021 will be known as our first summer with some level of defense against Covid-19.  The vaccinations are spreading through the population, the Olympic games were finally held after a year’s delay, and families are getting ready to send their children back to in-person school after over a year of lockdown.  For many, this is a summer of transition – although the Delta variant and renewed surges in case numbers are keeping us from the “post-Covid” reality we may have hoped for, we are slowly coming out of collective personal and economic quarantine.

For Latino North Philadelphia, the summer of 2021 will be known as the year when young people took to the streets to set the standard for community revitalization.  In Hunting Park, Juniata, Feltonville, and surrounding communities in North Philadelphia, young people are helping to support neighbors with basic quality-of-life measures.

This year, for the first time,10 youth aged 14-18 from the neighborhood joined together under the auspices of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN) Summer YouthWorks program to provide support to residents on a block-by-block level. Along with Esperanza, block captains, and other community-based and nonprofit partners, the youth spent 6 weeks traveling around the neighborhood focused on specific areas of support:

Block-level clean-ups – The youth are helping to cultivate a culture of clean and well-maintained outdoor spaces by donning gloves, grabbing brooms and rakes, and cleaning the trash from residential streets and sidewalks.  Every Wednesday for six weeks, the group partnered with a block captain or leader to target a specific block and make it impeccably clean.  This not only provided a service to residents of those blocks, but also helped instill a sense of pride and comfort amongst the neighbors, and the encouragement to keep the space clean ongoing. 

Jasmin Velez, Community Outreach Coordinator for Esperanza’s Housing and Economic Development Department, states: “We hold regular meetings for the community Environmental Steering Committee, and trash accumulating on the streets and sidewalks is one of the biggest concerns of the group.  This problem has gotten much worse during the Covid-19 pandemic, and we’re all going to have to work together to solve it.  Our summer clean-ups on residential blocks show that the problem can be tackled, one block at a time – with the participation of neighbors and other volunteers.  We want a clean community, and we can have one if we’re willing to make the effort!”

Emergency food distribution – As part of their work, the youth workers also partnered with emergency food distribution nonprofits like Small Things (a coalition of 70 churches) and The Orchard (a farm at Philadelphia Industrial Corrections prison) to collect and distribute boxes of staple foods and fresh produce.  The youth went door to door on targeted blocks, providing essentials like milk, butter, rice, and pasta, in addition to fruits and vegetables.

Tree-tending and maintaining green infrastructure – One day each week, the group surveyed sections of the neighborhood to monitor trees and other vegetation, to help ensure the health of green infrastructure.  They identified trees that might be in danger of damage from the extreme summer heat, and made sure they were being watered and pruned.  They also tended to flower planters and the community garden space, and talked to neighborhood residents about the importance of plants to healthy environments.

“Many of our students and neighborhood residents have never been exposed to gardening and tree-tending. They don’t realize what they can do, and how much they might enjoy getting their hands dirty, growing things.  They don’t know how important trees and plants are for their mental and physical health, and even for social health.  Several of our students this summer have gotten into gardening and environmental justice, because this experience sparked that interest, and showed them what they can do,” said Ivana Gonzalez, Community Outreach Associate at Esperanza. “We hope this will become a lifelong passion for some of them, and they will lead the way in the neighborhood.”

Beyond their service to the community, the youth also spent several days per week in reflective activities that developed their leadership capacity.  They met with mentors and guest speakers, and spent time intentionally reflecting on their summer learning experience.  We hope this inaugural class of youth leaders in North Philadelphia will become the mentors to the next generations in future summers.

(Foto: Cortesía/Leilany Rodriguez)

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