Jessica Hernandez and Munisa Akhmedova, both 8th grade chorus majors at New Voices Middle School, are so enthusiastic about helping the environment that at one point during our conversation, they burst into song.
“We sing ‘We Are the World’ and the lyrics say, ‘We are the world, we are the children, we are the ones who make a brighter day so let’s start giving,'” Munisa explains, singing, with Jessica harmonizing. “So we’re going to start giving right now.”
The best friends, who met about a year ago when Jessica helped show Munisa around New Voices after she’d just moved to Brooklyn, are giving back to the school they love, located at 330 18th Street, by spearheading environmental projects using a $500 Earth Savers Club grant they recently applied for and won. They decided to apply as soon as they heard they could, hoping they could help with a litter problem they’d noticed around the school. As their teacher Dr. Amy Musick explains, it’s a small step toward a larger good.
“One thing these ladies say time and time again is that New Voices is their home away from home,” Dr. Musick says, “and that maybe we can’t change the world, but we can look right in front of us, and this is where we can start, and hopefully that will ripple. If we get everyone here in our community and they go to their homes — it’s the idea of starting small and leading by example.”
And lead they have. The two recently held an event where about 20 volunteers helped clean up tree pits, planted daffodil bulbs, and more around the perimeter of the school. They say they learned how tough it is to rally help, especially early on a weekend morning, but that they were so pleased with the turnout.
“It was a great experience for both of us, and for the people who came,” says Munisa, who also lives in the neighborhood. “In a little way, we helped the environment already.”
“We’d like to plant more in the spring when things won’t be destroyed by the cold,” Jessica adds.
They are already planning a spring event, where they hope to get students from all disciplines involved. They’re looking at their arts-based school creatively, and hoping to get graphics designers to work on posters, dancers and singers to perform, and more. Plus, they’ll use the grant for recycling training and to purchase recycling bins for the front of the school, and they’d like to get students to help make those bins look amazing, too.
“We want to have more people so that it won’t just be us making a difference in our school — it will be the whole school,” Jessica says. “Because we’re one community, we’re all friends, it would be nice for all of us to participate. And it’s our last year here at New Voices, so it would be nice for us, for all eighth graders, and all of the school.”
“And to have some fun!” Munisa adds, having obviously already learned that an event where you’re asking people to do a little work is always easier when those people are having a good time.
Jessica and Munisa are clearly having a great time. Though the grant writing and project planning has been done in their free time, they’ve found it incredibly engaging, and both say they hope to continue working on environmental issues in high school and beyond. But it’s the everyday encounters, encouraging their friends and families, that have had the greatest impact.
“We want to have more people so that it won’t just be us making a difference in our school — it will be the whole school.”
— Jessica Hernandez
“Some of my friends litter a lot,” Jessica says. “I try to show them, but it feels like they never learn. It gets me very annoyed, but you have to keep trying.”
“This project is not only to save the world but to show examples for other people who think that they can’t make any changes,” Munisa says. “Because the truth is, even if you’re the only one who does the recycling, you are doing a big thing — you’re being an example for your friends and your neighbors.”
If anyone’s going to lead the way for their peers, it’s these two. They say they hope to inspire younger students, both in New Voices and at PS 295, which shares the building, so that the work they begin continues once they’re gone.
“It’s one thing for parents or teachers to tell you to do something — it’s another when it’s coming from a fellow student,” Dr. Musick says. “They are making a difference just by being present, saying this isn’t something adults are making us do, it’s important because we authentically feel it in our hearts, this is what we need to do for ourselves. They’re setting an example that we as their teachers can’t, and it’s so nice to see.”
And while they’ve clearly caught the civic engagement bug, and want to keep working on projects that involve students as well as neighbors from the surrounding community, the work they’ve done so far has brought out strengths that resonate throughout their lives.
“I have seen them take on more leadership roles in classes as well,” says Dr. Musick, noting that their confidence and involvement in all areas of school have grown. And nobody could be more surprised about that than these two friends, who talk like they’ve known each other for a lifetime.
“This is so amazing, I can’t believe we’re participating in this,” Munisa says.
“I never thought we’d have done this this year,” Jessica adds, while Munisa exclaims: “I had no idea I could be so passionate about this!”