InterIm CDA’s youth leadership program, Wilderness Inner-city Leadership Development (WILD), turns 20 years old next year in 2017. Over the course of those two decades, the program has been responsible for engaging over 1,000 youth—predominantly Asian and Pacific Islander youth from low-income, immigrant, and refugee families—in developing their skills in community activism, advocacy, and environmental justice.
“WILD was founded in direct response to youth who considered the International District their cultural home feeling disenfranchised and challenged by the obstacles that low-income immigrant and refugee youth face on a daily basis,” said Pradeepta Upadhyay, executive director of InterIm CDA. “It was necessary to show them they could not only activate their neighborhood, but take pride in it and take care of it.”
Youth-related crime and gang activity were on the rise in the neighborhood at that time and were contributing to a less healthy and safe neighborhood. WILD was created to offer youth in the International District an alternative to gangs, violence, and crime, and empower them to create positive change in their community by creating a safe space that offered mentorship, encouragement, and peer support.
Since its inception, WILD has reached out to youth from communities of color around the Seattle area who have demonstrated significant resiliency despite having been historically disenfranchised through financial, language, and cultural barriers. The strong majority of WILD youth participants are first or second generation from immigrant and refugee homes: 71% identify as immigrant and/or refugee, and 54% come from multilingual households and identify as English Language Learners. The majority are from low-income families, and 100% come from immigrant- and refugee-populated communities of people who have helped build and sustain the rich culture of the International District.
“We engage WILD participants in civic leadership through three curriculum focal points, which are intergenerational engagement, community building, and experiential learning,” said Alisa Koyama, WILD Program Manager. “You will see all of our community projects and curriculum throughout the year tying those three components together.”
Community building projects are the core of the program. Every year, youth are introduced to the concepts of environmental justice and civic engagement. They work together on a weekly basis first to identify an environmental issue affecting their community. Then the youth develop a community project that addresses the identified problem.
For instance, this summer, WILD youth worked in a close partnership with Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to monitor air quality in the International District. The Agency provided trainings on how to monitor air quality and equipped WILD youth to gather data and provided stipends for their research. Youth engaged in workshops that taught them about the impacts and consequences of chronic air pollution in their neighborhood and worked with the nonprofit organization 21 Progress to develop storytelling and presentation skills.
The youth will continue to work with the Agency through the summer of 2017 by informing researchers on relevant questions to ask, places to focus on to collect data, and even effective strategies to build trust and long-lasting relationship with the community to ensure the Agency continues to get relevant samples. Such efforts will then help identify and implement local mitigation strategies that will improve the health of the community. This program also breaks down barriers that youth of color and young adults face in being exposed to, pursuing, and succeeding in the professional environmental sector.
Another important aspect of the WILD program is intergenerational relationship building. “We want youth interacting with elders in the neighborhood to develop relationships and take pride in their culture and background,” Koyama said.
Every year, youth take elders from the community on an eagle-watching river float on the Skagit River. They provide interpretation and develop their knowledge of wilderness ecology outside the urban setting to which they are accustomed. WILD youth also host a holiday dinner every year in the International District for over 200 community elders, and they also organize a holiday gift drive for the CID community members.
Experiential learning takes place in all parts of the curriculum with the belief that youth learn best through real-life experiences and when given the opportunity to explore their potential outside of their comfort zone. The most extensive opportunity being a four-night camping trip in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The wilderness immersion pushes youth to test their physical abilities and experience a new environment. They also develop outdoor skills and learn how to care for the natural environment, while making connections to its impact on their urban environments.
“One of the most rewarding parts of WILD for the youth is the annual camping trip in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest,” Koyama said. “Every year, we see the youth develop a supportive community that acts as a foundation for them to be environmental justice advocates.”
As one youth put it: “In both places, the city and the outdoors, if one wants to change, it takes more than one person to make a change.”