As the Crissy Field Center celebrates its 10th anniversary, the center continues to bridge the gap between urban youth and environmental education. In July 2011, the center’s Inspiring Young Emerging Leaders (I-YEL) program won the “Take Pride in America” national award given by the Department of Interior for outstanding youth program. Jie Chen, a former student intern and current manager of the I-YEL program described the award as “amazing to see and be a part of.”
Like many students prior to the their involvement in the I-YEL program, Chen had little interest in the environment. That changed when he participated in the 2003 project “Not In My Backyard,” a production that focused on environmental justice in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. Chen, who grew up in San Francisco, says the experience “opened his eyes to social and environmental issues in different neighborhoods. Before, I wouldn’t have thought environmental justice was an issue.” Chen says the project sparked his interest in “open space and what it could do for people and animals.”
The award-winning program started in 2001 as a way to empower middle and high school students. One of the program’s goals was to “build long-term relationships” and “keep students engaged,” says Ernesto Pepito, youth program manager for the Crissy Field Center. Every summer, over half of the student interns work in national parks, schools, and camps. And some end up pursuing careers in the environmental sector. In Chen’s case, I-YEL became “sort of a second home” and coming back after he graduated college was a “no-brainer.”
Every year, I-YEL interns work toward creating, developing, and planning the yearly Young Emerging Leaders (YEL) project. The project focuses on a timely social or environmental issue relevant to education and public change.
The YEL 10th anniversary project, called “Backyard Bound,” started in October 2010, and 22 high school volunteers representing 13 different San Francisco neighborhoods spent 1,500 hours organizing, promoting, and implementing the event, which took place from March 19 to March 20, 2011 at the Rob Hill Campground in the Presidio. More than 100 high school students from the Bay Area attended the summit, which included a series of workshops designed to get students to actively discuss ways to form a personal connection with the park. Scavenger hunts, nature hikes, and campfires with park rangers were some of the activities held at the summit.
Looking back at his journey from student to mentor at I-YEL, Jie Chen recalls a young lady who had a “big transformation” similar to his. “It’s a positive feeling, to mentor a young person on a long-term scale. We designed the program to be a long-term investment in the community, and it’s inspiring to see how young people develop.”