At first, Malik Joyner thought “green” work was for the birds. Now he’s taking the lead on creating urban oases, with the help of bird lovers.
“You need to get a job,” Joyner’s godmother announced to him during the fall of his sophomore year at Common Ground High School.
At first, Joyner had little luck finding a job. He finally found one planting trees with the Urban Resources Initiative through a school program. Though he found it tedious, he persisted. He didn’t see it as a long-term proposition.
Three years later, Joyner, now a convert to working outdoors to green the city, is leading a crew of young people to restore habitat city parks and greenspaces in New Haven over the summer.
On Wednesday, the New Haven Bird Club awarded a $1,500 grant to the Common Ground High School, Urban Farm, and Environmental Education Center. The donation recognizes Joyner — a 2015 Common Ground graduate – and will support his leadership work in his summer project creating urban oases around New Haven.
In giving this stipend to Joyner, the New Haven Bird Club aims to inspire recent high school graduates to stay involved with environmentalism and lead younger students.
“When I first started it wasn’t great,” Joyner said. “But once you see the results and its your hard work, it means everything.”
Common Ground, the nation’s oldest environmental charter school located at the verdant base of West Rock, attracts students interested in the sciences and sustainability. Its Green Jobs Corps program, through which Malik found his job, connects its students with paid environmental jobs during the summer and school year.
Around 60 of Common Ground’s students, roughly one-third of the school, participate in the GJC, which is so popular that it requires an application.
The GJC program operates in conjunction with various local New Haven organizations such as the Urban Resources Initiative, City Seed, and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. Activities offered include planting street trees, working the school farm, and leading environmental education summer programs for young children.
Joel Tolman, the director of impact and engagement at Common Ground, noted that the youth employment program helps students develop leadership skills and connect them with older students who share similar interests. It can also create bridges between these students and Yale’s School of Forestry’s graduate students, some of whom work on the same restoration projects.
“Before GJC existed, students might work on the farm or with children’s programs but it wasn’t a whole investment in their growth as leaders,” he said. “Most of jobs then were on our campus and we saw an interest and need to do work outside our campus.”
For Joyner, persistence in environmentalism paid off. Over the last three years, he and a team have restored Beaver Pond Park and numerous other local habitats. They have worked to remove invasive species, plant native plants and improve habitat for wildlife.
He added that his commitment has attracted some of his friends to environmentalism.
Though Joyner’s work is not directly tied to or inspired by an interest in birds, the club sees environmental work at large as nonetheless important. Land restoration and the planting of native species benefit birds, which are often indicator animals for the health of the environment.
“Right now we’re competing with Pokémon Go and activities that keep kids inside,” New Haven Bird Club Presient Craig Repasz said. “If kids get out and explore nature it’s good for their psychology, education and minds. It helps us and it helps them.”
While Joyner considers environmentalism a passion, he currently does not see a future occupation in the field. Instead, he’ll be starting his second year this fall at Gateway Community College with the hope of becoming a firefighter.
When asked how the two fields are connected, Joyner shrugged.
“I guess it’s about trying to make things better and working for a change,” he said.