By Jeannie Russell
In March of 2020, the children of New York joined the rest of the world in a global lockdown, suddenly losing the space to be with the people in their wider community—their friends, teachers, neighbors, and many family members—and finding themselves sheltered away from the physical places that define their communities. As Spring began to slowly arrive, they were largely missing from the parks and playgrounds, the local shops and neighborhood streets, the river walks, and the ocean shores. Parents and teachers worked tirelessly to both protect and nurture them through this isolation, trying to knit up the broken connections in a haphazardly virtual world, learning new ways to socialize, play, and teach.
Meanwhile, our youth have shown, once again and in so many ways, that they are more than alright: they are ready and willing to stand up for and reach out to others in need, and are able to find creative ways to stay connected to their living, natural world.
One example of this resilience comes from students in Brooklyn’s school districts 15 and 16, who were engaged with HEART’s year-long Compassionate Communities Awards program when their schools closed. This annual competition is an innovative way of sharing humane education practices and resources that inspire respect, empathy, and social engagement among elementary-aged students. Participating schools focus on building connections to and supports for the companion, farm, and wild animals with whom we share our world, and work toward protecting the natural environment that both human and animal neighbors need to be healthy and thrive.
Our Brooklyn initiative was launched in the Fall of 2019 in partnership with the Brooklyn Borough President’s office. Borough President Eric Adams has been a long-time advocate for animal welfare programs, and the Borough President’s office is very active in supporting school/community projects that address local environmental issues, access to fresh plant-based and whole foods, and other areas vital to ensuring that our schools have the resources to address structural needs of the larger community in educating the whole child. In past years, Compassionate Communities schools would submit final presentations to a panel of independent judges detailing the work they did to promote school-wide learning about the issue they were focusing on and the direct action they took in the community to tackle the problem. All that changed with the school closures, as so many participating schools were still in the process of implementing learning and service components of the projects, and then had to struggle with completely reconfiguring the way that they reach their students and deliver lessons.
HEART responded to the shift to remote learning by redesigning a host of our lessons and activities to be accessible as home learning resources. For our Compassionate Communities schools, we created an instructional slideshow called Mission: Compassion with three topic areas that students could choose from that cover basic information and resources relevant to the many different projects that had been developed by schools prior to the shutdown: Companion Animals, School and Community Gardens, and Urban Wildlife. Each slide show includes fun motivational activities and links to videos with information about the topic, and is structured to help students create a PSA-style presentation of their own about the issue and their ideas for ways to help.
Brooklyn students had been working on a range of projects before the shutdown that aimed to expand their social-emotional curriculum to encompass the ways that they understand, relate to, and treat animals and the natural environment. Examples included building and supporting school and community gardens; researching the impact of plastic pollution on our shores and marine life; advocating for a needed community dog park to give both animal and human companions a safe place to play and socialize; and learning about farm animals, the problems associated with animal agriculture, and the ways that corporate food systems contribute to food insecurity in low-income neighborhoods.
While many of our participating schools were not able to submit final presentations on their projects, the wonderful student-created work that we have received gives voice to the joyful, natural empathy that our youth can bring to their engagement with the animals and natural places of their neighborhood when they are asked to step up and be leaders in imagining a better world, and to take meaningful action towards that future. This spirit of reverence and resolve that we hope to foster with all of our HEART programs is beautifully captured in an inspiring video message from Borough President Eric Adams to all participants, as well as in the poem below that we’d like to share from one Brooklyn student’s presentation.
Thank you to all the students and teachers who have joined and inspired our Compassionate Community this year!
The Crying Ocean
I can hear you everywhere,
in a shell, or at the beach.
I hear your crashing waves
singing to me, a clam song
that calms you down.
I see the tears that you cry.
We are destroying you,
the home that you give to others.
I can hear your cries
when the wind blows.
Do you believe in us that we can save you,
even if we’re small?
Please believe we will make a difference.
By Leyri Cruz