Students Beautify Benches With Social Justice Messages

Students of PS31Q The Bayside School celebrate the installation of their social action bench mural at Cunningham Park. Photo Credit: CEI

By Iryna 

Students from 11 public schools in Queens painted benches in Cunningham Park with underlying social justice themed messages through a nonprofit seeking to innovate the city’s public school system.

The Benchmarks program, part of the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), engages students in social activism through the creation of public art. Some of the social issues that the students chose to focus on are racism, bullying, mental health awareness and respect for nature. 

On May 31, over a hundred students unveiled and celebrated their creations, which will be on display in the park through August. They also gave speeches surrounding the social impact that they hope their work will bring. 

A bench painted by students of I.S. 025 Adrien Block is installed at Cunningham Park as part of the CEI Benchmarks program. Photo Credit: CEI

“We hope that the bench encourages people to sit down and start talking to others while showing love and respect,” said Amaya Quayyum, an 11-year-old 5th grader from P.S. 191Q Mayflower School. “We are all the same across the nation and the potential for greatness is inside every one of us. Everyone can learn to respect, and respect is one of the greatest expressions of love and kindness.”

Tracy Dizon, a teaching artist at CEI, worked with students at four different schools to help them conceptualize and implement their ideas into mural style creations. With an art background in fashion design, she says that for both her and the students, mural making was a first time endeavor.  

Teaching artist Tracy Dizon poses with the bench she helped students of PS31Q The Bayside School to advocate for care for nature. Photo Credit: CEI

“Every class had a different charm to them,” said Dizon who witnessed the students in different schools gravitate to a social issue that they felt connected to. 

Dizon says that the students at P.S. 31Q in Bayside were largely inspired by nature due to their proximity to various parks and the spring season. The fourth graders that she worked with twice a week since February chose “Love Nature” as the theme of their bench with polka dot elements. 

Dizon worked with her students to create a preliminary design for the benches. Photo Credit: Tracy Dizon

The students were inspired by Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese contemporary artist who is best known for her heavy use of polka dots in sculptures and art installations. Dizon says that Kusama was one of the many artists that she introduced the students to in the planning stages of the project. 

“As the next generation we have to be stewards of nature,” said 10-year-old 4th grader Chloe Moy during the celebration. “The dots represent that we’re not alone in this world. We have to take care of each other and especially nature.”

For children, and even adults, thoughts on complex social issues can be difficult to express in words. The creation of art allows the space to process, learn and express inner feelings. 

“In this current climate, young people need a public platform to express themselves on current social issues in a constructive, creative, and powerful way, so they can join the conversation and make a difference in our world,” said Alexdra Leff, the executive director of arts education at CEI and creator of the Benchmarks program. 

“Their messages for social change on a wide array of critical issues will inspire hundreds of thousands of people this summer.”

A Free Tree on Earth Day

A family in attendance picked out a tree to plant at home. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan.

By Iryna 

For Earth Day on April 22, Queens locals lined up at the Queens Botanical Garden parking lot in Flushing to secure a small tree to take home. 

The Tree Giveaway event was sponsored by the New York Restoration Program, a nonprofit  organization working to promote urban agriculture, restore parks and renovate gardens. It was one of dozens of tree giveaways spread across all five boroughs from April to May annually. 

All eight tree species up for grabs are native to the New York region and include Sycamore, Willow Oak, and Honey Locust trees. The Eastern Redbud variety was first to go, with attendees expressing a strong desire for its delicate pink blossoms in the spring season. Plum trees and Black Cherry trees, which produce harvestable fruits, were also in high demand. 

A volunteer at the event warned takers that planting one of the trees outside of the region could be disruptive to the ecosystem and become invasive. With each tree volunteers handed off, they made sure to ask when and where it would be planted to ensure the tree would thrive in its new home.

“It’s nice because it brings people together,” said Kimberly Guaman while holding a Flowering Dogwood tree in a two-gallon container. “Especially on Earth Day.”

Kimberly Guaman plans to plant the tree she reserved at the Sunnyside church she volunteers at. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan.

Guaman says that she will plant the tree she picked up outside of the Queen of Angels Church on Skillman Ave. in Sunnyside where she volunteers in her spare time.

Many of the attendees reserved one of 200 available trees online weeks before the event. Others who were unable to secure the reservation expressed disappointment at how fast the reservations filled up. But they still showed up in hopes of securing an unclaimed tree.

According to volunteers, the remaining trees were first-come first-serve until all were distributed. The second hour of the event was reserved for those who missed the chance to register in advance. 

Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, who represents eastern Queens, co-sponsored the event with the Queens Botanical Garden. She could not attend the giveaway due to observance of Shabbat, according a representative from her office. 

Two professors from Queensborough Community College, Joan Petersen and Mercedes Franco, signed up to volunteer at the event in an effort to get more involved in environmental initiatives in the community. Peterson also recruited students in her biology research program to volunteer at the event. 

Eight tree species were up for grabs. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan.

Maha Almaflehi, a first year Queensborough student said this is her first time ever volunteering. She plans to plant the Dogwood tree she reserved in the backyard of her Flushing home. 

“If we don’t do something to help the environment, nothing else is going to matter,” said Petersen, who teaches Environmental Science and Ecology. “If we don’t have a good healthy environment to live in, nobody’s gonna survive.”

Idlewood Park Nature Center opens in Southeast Queens

The ribbon was cut on a brand new $8.1 million environmental center in Southeast Queens’ Idlewood Park last week, where community members praised the ecological education that it will bring for years to come.

City Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue was joined by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, Assemblymember Khaleel Anderson, Councilmember Selvena Brooks-Power, President of the Eastern Queens Alliance Barbara Brown, and Community Board 13 District Manager Mark McMillian to praise the completion of the project, which started construction in September 2018.

“Set along Jamaica Bay — one of New York City’s greatest ecological treasures — this brand new Environmental Center in Idlewild Park is sure to inspire kids to learn more about the natural world around them,” said Commissioner Donoghue. “We are grateful to the Eastern Queens Alliance for their partnership creating innovative programming here, and look forward to hosting our future scientists for generations to come!”

The construction of the new 5,400 square-foot single-story facility comes with new walkways from the existing parking lot, new entry fence gates, a new rain garden, a storage shed, new trees and shrubs, and native wetlands grass seeding.

The Environmental Center will be operated and programmed as a children’s science learning center by the Eastern Queens Alliance. New programming facilities include: an exhibition and display space, two classrooms for up to thirty students each (combinable into one space), an outdoor covered teaching area, and an entry foyer with reception desk and book sales kiosk. The center will also have restroom facilities for visitors; administrative space for staff, director’s office, storage, and conference room; and a new free-standing storage shed.

The new building and surrounding work was funded by the Mayor’s office, who chipped in $3.173 million, and the Queens Borough President, who accounted for $5 million, for a total of $8.173 million. The facility opened for programming last month.

The new environmental center also features several green elements and is expected to receive a “silver” rating or better from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system. The roof and walls make use of energy and resource efficient technology, including structural insulated panels, creating an efficient enclosure that reduces air infiltration and heat loss. Additionally, all rainwater from the roof is collected into a cantilevered “spout”, which dramatically releases the rainwater into a rain garden close to the main entrance to the building.

The building uses recycled materials throughout — specifically, the cladding and decking are both largely made up of recycled materials. Natural light is brought into the building by a bank of translucent glass, while vision glass is included at key locations to view the surrounding landscape. The Nature Center is heated and cooled with an efficient all-electric system so no fossil fuels are burned on site, and the project restored native plantings to a site that previously had been overrun with non-native species.

“After many years in the making, we finally have a community-centered facility in Idlewild Park with state-of-the art indoor and outdoor classroom space that will better enable residents to learn about their natural surroundings,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr. said. “The center will enlighten visitors about Idlewild Park and Jamaica Bay and underscore their vital role in our environment, which is under an increasing threat from climate change. Hopefully, the lessons learned in the center will prompt greater support for measures to protect our vulnerable communities from this threat.”

Gennaro makes last-minute push for clean energy projects

Councilmember Jim Gennaro was joined by local union representatives and climate activists to make a last-minute push for the approval of two statewide clean energy investments.

The New York State Public Service Commission is slated to decide the fate of both the Champlain Hudson Power Express and Clean Path New York later this week.

With the state of New York on its way to achieving the mandated goal of zero-emission electricity by 2040, including a 70 percent renewable energy generation by 2030, the combined projects of Clean Path NY and CHPE would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 77 million metric tons over the next 15 years.

“I urge the New York State Public Service Commission to approve both of these projects,” Gennaro said at the members of Local 3 IBEW. “By investing in clean energy, creating new green jobs in our communities, and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, these projects represent a crucial step towards meeting New York’s energy goals.”

Combined, the two projects in the pipeline also have the potential to bring 2,500 megawatts of clean power into the community, which could lead to the closure of peaker plants in Astoria.

The hydropower CHPE project would see a buried transmission line run 339 miles from the U.S.-Canadian border, south through Lake Champlain, along and underneath the Hudson River, before ending at a converter station in Astoria.

Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of The Citizens Campaign for the Environment, spoke in favor of the project and the renewable energy it would bring to New York. She responded to questions concerning environmental concerns with the project, saying that the benefits outweigh the negatives.

“It will have minimal impact for the maximum benefit,” Esposito said. “All large-scale energy infrastructure has some impact on the environment. But we have a moral and ethical obligation to choose energy infrastructure with the least impact to our environment.”

Both projects are part of the newly-created Tier 4 program, which aims to reduce reliance on fossil fuel energy.

Local 3 IBEW Business Manager Chris Erikson Jr. said that marginalized communities across New York have been bearing the brunt of pollution. He added that he is committed to giving union workers opportunities for “green jobs,” which could see workers go through the union’s apprenticeship program and become full-time electricians.

“I think the worst thing that can happen to me is that my granddaughter is going to look back and say, if things are still messed up, why didn’t grandpa fix it up and he had a chance? So, I am a climate warrior, along with many that stand here with us today,” Erikson Jr. said.

“Certainly, a transition out of fossil fuels has to happen,” he continued. “The tier four projects are key to making that happen. It wasn’t easy to agree to plug your extension cord into Canada. I’ve come to grips with it, and we really need to get it done.”

Queens Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Grech said that there is no better time than now to approve the two tier four projects for the state. The Chamber’s “Queens is Green” initiative, he says, aims to make Queens County the greenest of the 62 in the state.

“At the end of the day, this product seems to be a no-brainer,” Grech said. “We hope to have a very good outcome from this project.”

If approved, the projects are expected to start delivering power to New York City in 2025 for the CHPE project, and 2027 for the CPNY project.

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