Growing up in an African American household, we celebrated two separate Independence Day celebrations, one in June and the other in July. For African Americans, “Freedom Day” also known as Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19. This is the day in 1865, when word got to the last captive slaves in Texas, that slavery had finally ended. Slaves in theory were now free to enjoy all the rights and benefits that American citizens were entitled to. Today as we reflect on Juneteenth, and our freedoms, it should be noted that everyone especially children in black and brown communities, should have freedom and access to open green space in our communities.
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) is committed to ensuring that our youth has access to green space that provides the opportunity for them to engage in physical exercise and learn about nature. The Space to Grow program serves as a model for green schoolyard programs around the country as well as internationally. The schoolyards include playground structures, sports fields, outdoor classrooms for nature-based learning, edible gardens, and other quiet spaces.
This program is a result of a partnership between MWRD, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Department of Water Management (DWM). The partnership was created to make major investments in green stormwater infrastructure to combat Chicago’s persistent flooding issues and build climate resilience. Space to Grow’s nonprofit managing partners, Healthy Schools Campaign and Openhands, came together with these public water agencies and CPS to develop a vision for green schoolyards across Chicago that would manage not only significant amounts of stormwater but to also provide outdoor learning, play, gardening, and community recreation opportunities. The three public agency partners made an initial investment of $51 million to transform 34 schoolyards.
Initiatives like this must be expanded. Space to Grow schoolyards are prioritized in Chicago’s historically underinvested neighborhoods that lack safe, shared green space and whose schools primarily serve Black and Latinx students. The Space to Grow partners use an equity lens to select school sites which takes into consideration factors such as income, race/ethnicity, community hardship index, historical capital investments, and community life expectancy.
After the schoolyard is complete, Space to Grow partners continue to engage and support the school community through workshops, training, partnerships with community-based organizations, events, and technical assistance, all of which are designed to ensure community members feel welcomed at the schoolyards and feel ownership to use the space. The partners train school staff to leverage the schoolyard for physical activity, nutrition education, nature-based education, and outdoor learning. The partners also educate neighbors and school stakeholders about gardening, tree planting, and stormwater management practices.
Juneteenth celebrations create another opportunity to unite communities and organizations, forming partnerships that ensure we all experience the benefits of residing in the United States. Juneteenth is Freedom Day for all.
Kim Neely Du Buclet
Metropolitan Water Reclamation District