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Teenage Waste Fans Part Two: Los Angeles's Environmental Charter School

This is part seven of Stiv Wilson's tour to better understand how plastic ends up in the ocean. Read the previous installments here.

The campus of South Los Angeles’s Environmental Charter school in Lawndale was all abuzz when I visited. A Whitehouse film crew was present to document ECHS’s bid to win President Obama’s "Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge." The winner got Barack himself to give this year’s commencement speech. Though ECS didn’t win, I was blown away by what this school had created in this low income part of Los Angeles. The campus itself is much more like a college campus, but with one main difference: It’s a living, breathing, beautiful environment created by its students. Dirty concrete was ripped up and rearranged to create an aesthetically pleasing amphitheatre. Plants are lush, food is grown for student meals, rainwater is captured and filtered through an urban wetland, and amidst the neighborhood’s jungle, the ECHS is an oasis of purity. The curriculum here too is different: ECHS extends learning beyond the classroom. Students do community service, participate in service learning projects, attend outdoor education field trips, and are encouraged to take internships. In short, the kids here are encouraged to think about and engage with the world around them. With a 97 percent attendance rate and a 92 percent college placement rate, it’s fair to say the ECHS is working.

About two years ago, then high school junior Jordan Howard contacted The Surfrider Foundation about how to fight plastic pollution. She’d learned about The North Pacific Gyre and after working closely with Algalita Marine Research Foundation, Jordan wanted to see what her school could do. With the help of the activist Lindsey Jurca, Howard trained the students on the ills of plastic pollution. They met every week to conduct confidence workshops in order to get other students comfortable with public speaking on the issue. After they perfected the message, the students hit the streets and have since trained other students at other schools and have become an important force in the fight against plastic pollution.

During my visit, I had the chance to watch two students give a plastic presentation to their classmates. What struck me was their passion for the issue and how erudite they were on the particular chemistry and harmful effects of plastic in the marine environment and its implications for the human food chain. What left me in awe was the students selfless dedication to a global understanding. Given the tremendous challenges that low income families are often faced with, the lives of sea turtles and entangled whales often don’t take precedent. But not so at the ECHS; it's a true triumph and frankly, ECHS remains one of the most inspiring places I witnessed on the entire outreach trip. Jordan has ultimately passed the plastic torch on to Rudy Sanchez, as she prepares to graduate and go off to college. Check Sanchez’s short video below on his team’s outreach efforts.


Stiv Wilson is a freelance writer/photographer and the communications director for the Project. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Next up in the series is pro surfer/ocean explorer Chris Malloy on being in some of the remotest places on earth and finding that plastic always beats him there.

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