Students Combat Air Pollution in ‘Asthma Alley’
A school in New York City is teaching teenagers about the local history of environmental racism. It’s inspiring a new generation of student activists who want to fight pollution in their community.
When three teachers in New York City began teaching their ninth and 10th graders about the impacts of climate change and environmental racism on their neighborhood, they started the lesson with one simple question: How many of you have asthma or have a family member with asthma?
Nearly every student in the classroom raised their hand.
Asthma is a daily part of students’ lives at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, which is in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City. Many teenagers who attend the school use inhalers. Teachers say it’s common to see students out of breath and wheezing after returning from gym class or school-organized community walks.
It’s no coincidence that so many of them have asthma. The South Bronx has some of the nation’s worst levels of air pollution. The community is surrounded by heavy industry and a network of congested highways where millions of vehicles and trucks spew their exhaust each year. The neighborhood earned the nickname “Asthma Alley” because its residents—predominantly low-income families and families of color—suffer some of the highest rates of death and hospitalization from asthma in the country.
But the South Bronx wasn’t always this way—and these teachers are at the forefront of showing students that they have the power to take a stand against pollution in their community. Together, Danielle Bassie, Yancy Sanes, and Sarah Moore created classes across multiple disciplines to help students understand the connection between pollution, climate change, and environmental racism—namely, how decades of racist policies have exposed communities of color to high levels of pollution and are putting them at disproportionate risk of suffering the worst impacts of climate change.
The topics, which are rarely explored in such detail in schools, have resonated with many students, including Jasmine Peña, now an 11th-grade student who enrolled in the multiclass unit last year. “In the Bronx, everyone knows people who have asthma and it should not be that way at all,” Peña said. “Look, in front of our school is literally a highway that is causing us asthma and respiratory effects.”
Inspired to envision a healthier Bronx, Peña and her classmates Juan Grullon and Reana Porras spent weeks working on a class project last year. The 16-year-olds investigated a proposal from several local politicians and community activists: a green space “cap” over one of South Bronx’s most notorious highways that could improve their community’s quality of life.
Then, something happened that neither Peña, Grullon, and Porras nor their educators anticipated when they began prototyping the project. Just a few weeks later, the students would witness the proposal begin to move forward—an experience that would leave them feeling empowered as a new generation of Bronx activists.
Teaching Environmental Racism By Tapping into Students’ Lived Experiences
Educators Bassie, Sanes, and Moore are determined to teach students that the South Bronx they see today was shaped by decisions made over 75 years ago—choices that were made against the wishes of the neighborhood’s residents. “(Residents) were essentially pushed out of the decision-making of our own community and borough,” said Moore, a humanities teacher.
To do that, Moore and her colleagues combined academic subjects with lessons that explore community activism. In their humanities unit, for example, students focused on the history of the Bronx. Their STEM classes leveraged lessons in science concepts to explore issues related to local environmental racism. Some students also recently used their math and research skills to test a proposed solution for their community. Part of a two-year program of interconnected classes, exploring these subjects helps complement a section of study on global climate change.
Students like Porras, who have spent their entire lives in the Bronx, were surprised by what they heard in class. “I learned things that I never knew about before,” Porras said. “I never really questioned why so many people around me had asthma.”
Porras and her classmates learned that the South Bronx wasn’t always an “Asthma Alley.” It was a thriving community until urban planner Robert Moses designed the Cross Bronx Expressway, which was built from 1948 to 1963 and bisected the neighborhood.
The construction destroyed hundreds of homes, devastated property values, and displaced thousands of residents—predominantly people from low-income and immigrant communities—in the process. It also ushered in decades of mass abandonment and disinvestment. Poverty and hopelessness soared. Arson was so common that the Bronx became defined by fire throughout the 1970s.
Today, the South Bronx is a major traffic artery. Over 175,000 vehicles travel on the Cross Bronx Expressway daily, according to the New York State Department of Transportation. As a designated portion of I-95, the Cross Bronx Expressway facilitates interstate travel for long-haul truckers transporting goods across the nation every day.
There are also many factories and facilities in the South Bronx that are frequent stops for exhaust-emitting trucks. These include the Hunts Point Distribution Center—a food distribution center and major destination for long-haul trucks—and numerous waste transfer stations, where garbage trucks spew diesel emissions.
“The health effects of poor air quality are particularly pronounced in low-income communities and communities of color due to historic discrimination in access to housing and racist land-use planning that places polluting infrastructures and facilities in these neighborhoods,” according to a 2021 report by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance that studied air pollution around the Hunts Point Distribution Center.
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The legacy of environmental racism continues to impact the health and well-being of South Bronx residents today. About 17% of children ages 13 and younger residing in the Bronx have been diagnosed with asthma at some point in their lives, compared with 11% of NYC children ages 13 and younger, according to a 2021 brief from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Even the South Bronx’s disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations—the highest in New York City—are attributed to the neighborhood’s high rate of pre-existing conditions like asthma.
Why Climate Education Matters Now More Than Ever
In addition to teaching about environmental racism in the Bronx, Sanes, and Bassie teach the students about the science of global climate change—defined as the long-term shift in temperatures and weather patterns mainly caused by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels. By focusing on both the impacts of local pollution and global climate change students draw connections between what is happening around the world and in their community.
The students learn that the smog that is causing air-quality problems in the Bronx is also contributing to a global climate change crisis that is disproportionately impacting under-resourced communities around the world, according to Bassie. And, in turn, the students learn how climate change is impacting their own community: For example, global warming is causing New York City’s sea levels to rise rapidly. One estimate predicts a rise of up to 20 inches by the 2050s, which would increase the frequency and intensity of coastal flooding. And residents are already experiencing coastal flooding and storm surges more often in the Bronx—most recently with Tropical Storm Ida in September 2021.
The students have shown particular interest in the classes about environmental racism and climate change because they connect to their lived experiences, said Sanes, a math teacher. “It exists around them all day, every day,” Sanes added. “Kids are going to be more engaged in what you're teaching if they can relate to it.”
But despite captivating the attention of students curious about the impacts of climate change on their local communities, classes like these are rarely seen in U.S. high schools, according to K.C. Busch, an assistant professor of STEM education at North Carolina State University.
Climate education in the U.S. is “highly variable” due to an assortment of state standards that govern how climate change is taught in schools, Busch said. But typically, most schools only teach the basic scientific facts of climate change, such as the difference between climate and weather, she explained.
“Much less common would be to talk about climate change from a historical perspective,” Busch added. “And even more rare would be to talk about climate change as a function of human action.”
Most middle school and high school teachers devote only one to two hours to teaching about climate change each school year, according to a 2016 survey of 1,500 middle and high school science teachers from all 50 states by the National Center of Science Education. This can be attributed to a few factors including a dearth of climate science education resources for teachers and fear of backlash from families or school boards, according to Busch.
But this underinvestment in teaching about climate change is happening as the necessity for robust climate education only continues to grow in importance. It is “now or never” to reduce gas emissions and limit global warming, according to a 2022 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Limiting the rise of the average global temperature 1.5°C would help the planet to avoid the most dire effects of climate change, such as more extreme and more frequent incidents of storms, droughts, flooding, and water scarcity, according to the IPCC.
The impacts of climate change are already being felt most by low-income communities and communities of color. For example, Black neighborhoods in the United States are disproportionately impacted by hurricane-related flood damage. Some vulnerable Latinx communities are being pushed to leave their home countries due to extreme weather events, which are harming food production, work opportunities, and the health and safety of residents.
“Some will be able to adapt (to climate change) more easily than others, and that will be directly tied to socio-economic status,” Busch said.
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Busch called this disparity a “huge environmental justice issue,” adding that it is the people who often contribute the least to gas emissions and other contributors of global warming who are the most disproportionately affected by the harmful effects of climate change. This includes young people who will inherit a rapidly warming planet.
“The fact that this generation is the one that's going to face the greatest ramifications from climate change necessitates that they have good education about it,” Busch added. “Even if kids aren't going to become the scientists that solve it, they're all going to become the citizens that can vote for people who will implement policy.”
Bringing the Community into the Classroom
The science and history of climate change and environmental racism in the Bronx is just one aspect of the unit. For Bassie, Sanes, and Moore, it’s equally important to teach students about the work being done by activists and leaders in their community to address those injustices today.
“If we're teaching oppression, we should also be teaching resistance,” said Sanes. This meant getting students out of the classroom and into the community.
The class took walking tours of the neighborhood, where they visited empty lots and imagined what could replace those deserted spaces that would better serve the community. They also partnered with local organizations like the Bronx River Alliance, where students helped to test the water quality in the Bronx River and to build rain gardens, which are gardens of native shrubs, plants, and flowers designed to filter pollutants out of rain runoff.
“Our kids should be there and helping the community out because when our kids get older, hopefully, they can take on positions that they see these organizations doing right now,” Sanes added.
The educators also brought the community into the classroom. Towards the end of the unit, the teachers invited local activists as panelists to talk to students about their work. One of those activists was Nilka Martell, founder of Loving the Bronx, an organization dedicated to solving environmental and social injustice issues through the use of parks, open spaces, and waterways.
Since 2016, Martell has led an effort to “Cap the Cross Bronx” by permanently capping the roughly 2.5 miles of below-ground portions—the areas of the highway that run below street level—of the 6.5-mile Cross Bronx Expressway with green space decking. This proposed cap, which has gathered increasing support from Bronx residents, would at once reconnect the splintered community, provide space for sports and recreation activities, and improve the community’s air quality.
Researchers at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health have studied the expressway proposal and found that capping the Cross Bronx Expressway would improve residents’ long-term health outcomes and benefit the borough economically.
This effort is part of a growing national trend of cities reckoning with the legacy of environmental racism in infrastructure by building highway park caps over highways that were constructed decades ago and sliced through historic communities of color. In recent years, Dallas and Pittsburgh have completed similar projects and other cities, such as Rochester, are currently in the process of capping their urban freeways.
For Martell, the work is deeply personal. The activist’s youngest son grew up with asthma. He was hospitalized multiple times when he was just one year old due to the condition. “When you're a parent and you're working you're not really trying to figure out why,” Martell said. “Why does only one of my kids have asthma as opposed to all of them, right?”
But years later, as Martell began her work as a community activist and learned more about the importance of clean air, she looked back on her son’s difficult first year with a new realization: she had moved into an apartment right near the Cross Bronx Expressway when she was pregnant with him. The windows facing the expressway would often be covered in a film of soot: the result of millions of vehicles’ worth of exhaust, polluting the air that her newborn—and every other child living and playing nearby—was breathing.
Asthma is so much more than just a physical condition, Martell explained. It impacts a child’s entire future, including their educational attainment. Asthma is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is why Martell is dedicated to creating “a better Bronx” for the next generation and empowering young people by showing that anyone in the community who cares enough can be an activist.
“I'm no expert. I'm not a doctor, I'm not an architect, I'm not an engineer. I just know how to organize,” Martell said. “I know how to build relationships and I know how to make people understand that if they want to achieve something, they can achieve it.”
“That type of relationship building is really important, especially when it comes to our youth,” she added.
Peña was one of the students present when Martell came to the high school to talk about her work. Speaking with Martell about her activism left Peña “inspired.”
The final project for “Redesigning the Bronx” required students to use their algebra and geometry skills to create a prototype of a reimagined space in the community. “All of the spaces the students designed, all of the imagination and intention behind it, was about reclaiming agency and making their communities the way they want them to be,” said Bassie, Peña’s math and science teacher.
“A Dream for Future Generations”
Together, Peña, Grullon, and Porras built a prototype of what the South Bronx could look like if “Cap the Cross Bronx” were to become a reality. It took several weeks and required the students to convert the scale of the project into centimeters and painstakingly build a 3D miniature of a capped Cross Bronx Expressway. In the end, they created a mock-up of a green space with trees, fountains, and places for people to congregate and play.
A few months after Peña, Grullon, and Porras completed their prototype, Martell received some groundbreaking news: the House of Representatives passed the $1.2-trillion federal infrastructure bill. The bill would fund a study into the feasibility of modifying highways that pose “barriers to mobility, access, or economic development,” as well as the costs of the actual capping construction project.
The first steps to create a capped Cross Bronx Expressway would finally be underway. And when a press conference was held by U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, Representative Ritchie Torres, and Martell last November, to officially announce the project, the students were invited to attend, too.
“Hearing those speeches gave me goosebumps everywhere,” Peña said.
“I'm so glad that this is actually turning into reality because this is a dream for future generations,” she added. “We need clean air. If any other place can have clean air, we can have it ourselves. It is possible.”
The Bronx’s Next Generation of Environmental Activists
The press conference was also a profound moment for the teachers who designed the classes. After weeks of teaching students about environmental racism, they took part in a historic moment of environmental justice for the borough.
“It's just changed the way we think about teaching and evolving the curriculum, just seeing how important and powerful it was,” Bassie said. “We just have to find ways to keep it going.”
For Moore, one of the most powerful aspects of the Redesigning the Bronx class was seeing how many kids self-identified as community activists by the end of the unit. “‘I'm a community activist. Yeah, I am,’” Moore recalled students telling her. “You know, kids owned it.”
Peña and her classmates have no intention of stopping now. In the future, Grullon and Peña want to do something about the community’s lack of healthy food options. Porras dreams of a recreational center where kids can safely play and gather after school.
“I want to continue being an activist,” Peña said. “I want to be that leader who shares an open narrative about the Bronx.”
“The Bronx is a really strong community,” Porras added. "Just to learn about the history and learn about how we're changing it now and how we're taking back our power and we're fighting back, it’s super inspiring to me.”
Featured image at top of page by Desiree Rios: Since moving to the U.S. and settling in the Bronx five years ago, Juan Grullon has been inspired to be a leader in his neighborhood. “I want to gather people,” Grullon said. “I want to recognize the issues that we face and, I don't know, just find a way to fight back.”
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