Alex Dahl joined the CommUniverCity team as a graduate student in Environmental Studies at SJSU to lead the Growing Sustainably programs. Little did she know about the impact it would leave and the direction it would take her.
Lived experiences are a key factor in ensuring adequate social-emotional development of adolescents. The environment is what provides us the inspiration for nourished and healthy lives. Unfortunately, the reality is that nature’s benefits are distributed unequally by race, income, and age. Disparities in nature access are even more drastic for low-income families of color with children. Based on school enrollment, over 85% of children in the Central San José neighborhoods served by CommUniverCity are Latino, and 89% are low-income.
Growing Sustainably consists of multiple programs that expose school age children to healthy eating habits and nature experiences such as teaching gardening tips. “What surprised me was that for many of the students we worked with, this was the first time they stuck their hands in dirt,” Alex said. “A lot of kids were disinterested, some were scared of bugs.” A personal goal of Alex was to increase children’s time spent outdoors and appreciation for the outdoors.
“I saw an attitude change when a lot of their fears decreased with the experience they got.”
In addition to gardening experiences, Alex prepared lesson plans for Garden Education to teach environmental topics such as our ecosystem, sustainability, food and water cycles, healthy living, parts of a plant, seasonality, and climate change. These lessons are a key part that tie the fun of gardening and nature together with children’s educational development. Some students were able to culturally connect with the book, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, when they recognized familiar fruits and vegetables they worked with in Garden Club.
Not only was this a rewarding experience for children, the programs benefited Alex in her master’s thesis where she tracked data for children in Growing Sustainably and similar aged children with no gardening opportunities. She found that students who participated in the programs had a significant increase in environmental literacy, specifically environmental awareness and pro-environmental attitudes over children with no garden-based education.
Although this was a bigger job than she imagined, what stood out to her was the community-driven nature of CommUniverCity. “It’s amazing what so many part time employees are capable of doing!” Her dedication for two years prepared her for the work she does now as a math and science teacher for 6th graders. She continues to serve and inspire kids to become environmental leaders of their own.
“I knew that I wanted to do something related to environmental education, but I wasn’t sure exactly what yet! CommUniverCity helped me foster my passion for outdoor experiences for underserved youth.”