Partnership with students helps keep ocean alive

Cora Jackson-Fossett
Director, Public Affairs Office
Department of Public Works
City of Los Angeles, California
Chair, APWA Diversity Committee

Attracting urban youth to beaches along the Pacific Ocean translates into environmental success for the City of Los Angeles. Through its Stormwater Public Education Program, more than 320,000 youngsters from ethnically diverse neighborhoods partner with the City to clean up litter in their communities and on County beaches.

To learn more about this award-winning effort, this writer interviewed Joyce Neal-Amaro, Stormwater Public Education Program Manager.

Cora: How did the City's Stormwater Public Education Program come about?

Joyce: The Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified stormwater runoff as the largest source of pollution in local watersheds, and the foremost cause of beach closures in the Los Angeles area. Our program was developed to educate nearly three million City residents on the dangers of littering in our neighborhoods and streets. Our key long-term solution to affecting behavior is to educate our youth, emphasizing the negative impact that such actions have on the environment.

Cora: What main challenges did you face in implementing the program?

Joyce: The four main challenges related to:

  • Awareness - informing students within the City of Los Angeles about stormwater pollution and its impact on the environment;
  • Reinforcement - consistently delivering the same message multiple times in different ways;
  • Empowerment - motivating youths to care about their environment and believe that they can make positive changes;
  • Action - providing opportunities to obtain hands-on learning and experience.

Cora: What solutions did you come up with?

Joyce: We decided to implement a two-pronged approach that involved:

  • School Assemblies - focusing on building children's self-efficacy through showing them ways to prevent pollution within their communities; and
  • Student Cleanup Events - establishing such activities as Ocean Day, an end of the year beach cleanup effort that demonstrates to students how easily they can make a positive impact on the environment.

Cora: What is the focus of the school assembly program?

Joyce: The City partners with the Malibu Foundation for Environmental Education and together, we implemented the school assembly program that concentrates on litter prevention and the stormwater message. During the assembly, we describe the storm drain system as the link between the urban environment and beach and ocean pollution. Pictures and slide shows clearly illustrate the devastating effects of litter left on the ground and in the ocean. Finally, the assembly concludes by providing examples of how students may easily help prevent pollution by taking personal action in their communities. Whether they are picking up litter, reducing waste, or passing on the stormwater message to family and friends, they are taking constructive action in their communities.

Cora: How does Ocean Day work?

Joyce: The Ocean Day event is an annual event that gives students an opportunity to join thousands of other youths in cleaning up the shores of Dockweiler State Beach in West Los Angeles. Following the cleanup, students send a powerful message to the community by lining up to form pollution images and words that can be seen from the sky. Aerial art messages have included "Clean H2O Now!", "Protect" with a picture of a dolphin, "Ocean=Life" and "Keep Oceans Alive" with a picture of a life preserver. The student engagement promotes an instructive "hands-on" approach while it simultaneously reinforces the stormwater message. Participants are encouraged to take pride in their communities and see first-hand the impact of their actions. This activity, which involves the coordination of thousands of students and volunteers, has been an inspiration to the local community. It has attracted media attention both locally and nationally, further spreading the reach of the message.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talks to a few of the 4,000 students about the importance of keeping the environment clean at Ocean Day 2005.

Cora: Where does diversity fit into your Public Education Program?

Joyce: Of the 122 communities that the Stormwater Program reaches within Los Angeles County, almost 60% of these communities are traditionally underserved. The targeted audience generally comes from lower income and ethnically diverse neighborhoods representing Hispanics, African-Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and others. The program has also chosen to embrace diversity in a less traditional way—by targeting children. We find that our youth are more likely to absorb this new information, change their behavior, and deliver the message to their parents.

Cora: What has been the impact of the two programs?

Joyce: Over the past four years, students in 1,000 schools participated in the assembly program and have become more aware of the pollution problem and how it affects their own lives. Also, the children have learned ideas and solutions to keeping the environment clean and have been provided opportunities to become involved with pollution cleanup.

More than 4,000 Los Angeles-area students sent an environmental message by forming the words "Restore Balance" at Dockweiler Beach on Ocean Day 2005.

With the Ocean Day event, students have collected and disposed of more than 4,000 pounds of litter in the last four years. Last year, more than 500 volunteers showed up to clean Dockweiler State Beach. Younger elementary school students were paired with older students from high school mentoring programs. The program was able to further promote its anti-pollution message through the media coverage it received from seven television stations; two radio stations; 16 newspapers; AP Newswire Service; and Yahoo! News.

The message the rest of America received was of students from the whole Los Angeles County region collectively picking up trash left by others. Media portrayals of children lining up to shape the words "Clean H2O Now," "Protect," "Ocean = Life" and "Keep Oceans Alive" have drawn international attention.

Cora: How would you summarize the program's overall success?

Joyce: The program's success has grown rapidly. In just a few years, the City has reached thousands of Los Angeles City students and taught them about the negative impacts on the environment caused by littering. The City has effectively motivated students to take action against litter in their communities by accomplishing the objectives set forth at the beginning of the program. These include:

  • Informing all elementary school students within the City of Los Angeles about stormwater pollution and its negative impact on the environment;
  • Motivating youths to care about their environment;
    Encouraging youths to become active in community service;
  • Increasing community pride;
  • Developing partnerships with other local agencies to benefit the community; and
  • Challenging students to prevent stormwater pollution.

The program has been reviewed and commended by several government agencies. Assemblies and Ocean Day are now duplicated in Vancouver, Canada, and six regions within California: San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County, Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Humboldt.

The City of Los Angeles Stormwater Public Education Program received APWA's 2005 Diversity Exemplary Practices Award. For more information on the program, visit www.LAStormwater.org or contact Joyce Neal-Amaro at (323) 342-1570 or jneal@san.lacity.org. Cora Jackson-Fossett can be reached at (213) 978-0319 or cjackson@bpw.lacity.org.