At Hewitt, we are guided by our mission to inspire girls and young women to become game changers and ethical leaders who forge an equitable, sustainable, and joyous future. We know that one of the first steps toward reaching this goal is to create opportunities for our students to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to understand, envision, and implement solutions to the pressing, systemic environmental and social challenges of our time. We also know that formative learning experiences take place when students are given spaces to develop their voices and their agency by addressing issues that are personally meaningful to them. Through student-led civic engagement, Hewitt middle schoolers are honing their abilities to think critically, speak confidently, and tackle real-world, transdisciplinary1 problems.
For the past several years, two middle school clubs — the Social Justice and Activism Committee and the Service and Sustainability Committee — have served as important spaces for students in grades five through eight to focus on issues they care about. Participants in these clubs educate themselves about diversity, equity, inclusion and environmental stewardship and design initiatives to ensure that these important issues remain fundamental to our middle school’s values. Last spring, members of these two committees were inspired to address the intersections of environmental degradation and social injustice and began aligning their efforts to address both the destruction of the health of our planet and the major racial, gender, and economic inequities they were seeing in our city and world. After a productive semester of collaboration, the two student groups joined forces this year to form a student-led Middle School Sustainability and Social Justice Committee.
The Committee uses their weekly meetings to discuss and develop initiatives that will engage our entire student community in their work. English teacher Meredith English, who acts as the club’s faculty advisor, notes, “Despite the challenges of this year’s hybrid learning model, our student activists have been undaunted. These student leaders have joyfully taken on initiatives that reflect The Hewitt School’s mission by guiding our middle school community toward a sustainable and equitable present and future. Their key areas of focus are to support one another as activists for social change, to build strong mentorship bonds with their lower and upper school peers, and to grow the middle school’s involvement with some of Hewitt’s existing community partnerships. It is a privilege to work with such dedicated, focused, and enthusiastic student activists!” To achieve their goals, committee members have been designing activities to educate third and fourth graders about sustainability and social justice issues; connecting with ACTION, an upper school club dedicated to social justice, advocacy, and current events, to learn from Hewitt’s oldest students; and working with Hewitt’s coordinator of experiential initiatives to develop new community partnership opportunities for middle school students.
Recently, the club’s work began to move beyond the doors of Hewitt as some of our middle school student leaders joined peers from other schools to consider how their respective institutions might become champions of environmental justice. On November 14, 2020, five eighth graders represented Hewitt alongside middle and upper school students from across New York City at the inaugural Students for Environmental Justice Conference. Organized, planned, and facilitated by dedicated environmental and social justice leaders from schools throughout the city — including a member of Hewitt’s Class of 2022 — the online conference was designed to “empower New York City students to create change in their local communities by building environmental justice literacy and giving them tools to dismantle systemic oppression and environmental degradation.” As part of this mission, the conference aimed to educate and inspire student leaders to address environmental injustice and racism within their individual school communities.
During the conference, Hewitt middle schoolers participated in two student-led workshops, engaged in open dialogue with their peers in breakout conversations, and attended a keynote presentation by Tensie Whelan, director of the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business and founder of the Rainforest Alliance. The first workshop our students chose to participate in, Women and Climate Change, focused on the gender inequities of environmental degradation and highlighted how the effects of climate change, such as worsening droughts and floods, are having a disproportionate impact on women globally. For Hewitt students, this workshop hit close to home and inspired new thought around the deep connections between environmental challenges, such as climate change, and the persistent gender and racial inequalities within our social and economic systems.
At their second workshop, Environmental Justice Activism 101, Hewitt students learned from experienced student activists about advocacy and organizing techniques they could bring back to our school. These included tools and strategies for raising awareness about environmental justice issues and advocating for changes that could be made within our school community to address our own contributions to environmental injustices, such as reducing our school’s carbon footprint, our impact on local air and water quality, and the amount of waste we send to landfills. To conclude the conference, participants were encouraged to connect with one another in thematic Zoom breakout discussions where they could engage in critical conversations around the intersections of race, inequality, and environmental degradation. Our middle schoolers joined in a conversation titled Climate Refugees, participating meaningfully and confidently from informed perspectives amongst a group of primarily upper school students. At the close of the conference, our eighth graders were inspired to bring their new knowledge, skills, and stoked passions back to Hewitt to begin envisioning and initiating ways to champion environmental justice within our school.
As one Hewitt eighth grader reflected at the close of the conference, “This conference taught me about many environmental issues that I was unaware of, and realizing that I did not know about certain topics made me think about others who might need more information. I would like to use my voice to spread the word and teach others about issues that are rarely recognized in our society. With more research and facts, I would love to begin taking action and discussing possible solutions and next steps to change our world through the Middle School Social Justice and Sustainability Committee! I look forward to making a difference in our world now and in the future.” The members of the Committee remind us all that learners who are inspired to make positive changes in their world and who have the knowledge and skills to envision equitable and sustainable solutions to systemic real-world challenges will become the game-changing leaders of tomorrow.
1. Transdisciplinary learning is a new discipline transcending the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines (subjects). While interdisciplinary collaborations create new knowledge by connecting two disciplines as separate entities, a transdisciplinary approach integrates multiple disciplines into a coherent whole. Transdisciplinary learning involves students as equal participants in the process to reach a common goal — usually a solution to a real-world problem (adapted from What is ‘transdisciplinary’? by Jaya Ramchandani).