a bright classroom in the hills of East Oakland, youth huddle in small groups
building miniature rain-catchment models. Birdhouses serve as the base for a
catchment system composed of a foil gutter, a straw pipe, and a Dixie cup rain
barrel. Spritzes of water from a spray bottle generate rain-like condensation,
which trickles through the system into the barrel.
eight middle schoolers gathered on this chilly Saturday morning are
participating in a youth social-media ambassador training organized by a
climate-readiness program called Mycelium Youth Network. In a few weeks’ time,
they will build a life-size rain catchment system here at Pear Tree Elementary
Milagro Henriquez founded Mycelium Youth Network in late 2017, while fires
engulfed California. Mycelium was born “out of deep anxiety” from confronting
the gravity of climate change, she says. Henriquez, who had just given birth,
recalls wondering, “How are we going to survive this? What kind of world am I
leaving for my children?”
the training day, black and brown faces fill the room, and the educators are
predominantly Native. Henriquez believes that “from these communities will
emerge the practices that will save us and allow us to thrive,” she says. “I
want the practices in the classroom to be focused on this reality.”
the center of the six-week Mycelium curriculum is a segment called Water is
Life, in which students learn practical skills. Ben Schleffar, a garden
educator trained in traditional Native American techniques, teaches students
how to follow plants to sources of fresh water and to identify native plants
with medicinal properties. Dani Ahuicapahtzin Cornejo leads lessons on
purifying water in a disaster and building a rainwater catchment system. He
teaches that humans are inside of nature rather than apart from it. “We are
water beings, we are part of a water cycle,” he says.
created Mycelium after a search for disaster-preparedness courses yielded few
climate-readiness programs and scant resources for people in her community. She
found even fewer initiatives specifically concerned with youth like the
students she worked with at her school. Henriquez is the Director of Community
Organizing at Roses in Concrete Community School in East Oakland. For 17 years,
she has been an organizer for various causes including rights for domestic
workers and janitors. She brought that organizer mentality to creating
Mycelium: “Let me change what’s happening and figure out how to make it
no doubt the prospect of climate change inspires both hope and fear. This
January, Mycelium Youth Network was included in a report titled “Preparing
People on the West Coast for Climate Change,” authored by the International
Transformational Resilience Coalition (ITRC). According to the ITRC, human
psychosocial resilience is vital to climate adaptation, but it receives less
support and funding than initatives geared toward infrastructural or economic
resilience. Human resilience programs like Mycelium are an investment — they
prepare people to deal with the trauma and stress of disasters. They also
address everyday trauma that easily gets normalized.
the rest of the school was empty during the rain catchment exercise, our
classroom felt like a small community center. Relatives and guest educators sat
amongst the youth to listen to presentations, or stopped by to contribute to
the potluck lunch. Ayako Nagano, an attorney and community organizer, kicked
off the day with a social-media ambassador workshop that covered everything
from blogging to photography. The middle schoolers moved about the
classroom, snapping shots of each other.
Mosiah modeled for his partner by busting out gravity-defying dance moves.
Regardless of the medium, “It’s your perspective we want to know,” Nagano told
perspective is aware that people of color and low-income communities live at
the frontlines of climate change. Henriquez describes how in their Oakland
94601 zip code, there is already lead in the water, particulate matter in the
air, and little access to healthy organic food. Disasters and added stresses
from climate change will exacerbate existing challenges. Her students are
already “disproportionately targeted, and they know it,” she says. At the same time, she pushes back against
media portrayals she thinks only highlight what is missing or problematic in
her community. “We don’t focus on the resilience that’s already there,” she
usually calls upon diverse skills. Mycelium brings together youth participatory
action research, disaster preparedness, urban and wilderness survival,
ecological sustainability, and visionary imaginings. Activities include a “walk
your block” exercise to identify medicinal and sacred plants as well as lessons
on how to mobilize an emergency bag and family plan for when disaster strikes.
As Henriquez remarks affectionately, it’s a dynamic “hodgepodge.” She wants to
ensure the curriculum is responsive to the community’s needs. “We just had a
wildfire, so how do we make an air purification system? I want it to shift as
the world shifts,” she says.
trauma and crisis people become individualistic, which works against them. “Our
fight or flight reaction gets activated and we lose our executive functions,
our decision-making skills,” says Nagano. Mycelium combats this panic by
teaching students key skills in advance — like how to procure potable water —
and through lessons on working collectively.
skills have come to Henriquez organically. When she began building Mycelium
from scratch, she looked outward into her community. “When I don’t know, I go
to people who do know,” she explains simply. She connected with Mycelium’s
educators and board members at climate adaptation forums, at Native American
resource centers, through relatives, and in her school garden. The resulting
Mycelium program “integrates eco-social justice, indigenous pedagogy, and water
engineering,” says Pablo K. Cornejo, a civil engineering professor at
California State University at Chico who consulted on the curriculum.
Mycelium takes disaster-readiness seriously, exploring what lays beyond
survival is also important. “How do we go from a place of survival to thriving
in a climate challenged world?” says Henriquez. Mycelium encourages the youth
to imagine radically. “We always want to keep the imagination piece in there:
How are we thinking about the world together in a new way?”
prompts its students to write speculative fiction and envision a world they
want to see. Sana, a Mycelium student, is writing a story that explores “overcoming
dystopian conditions, sustainability, and understanding how people created the
dystopia.” Sana wills her characters to overcome stacked odds; she “likes
dystopias but hates when everybody dies at the end.” As the author, she wields
the power to write her characters — and her community — out of harm’s way.
beautiful about youth is that they think outside of the box — they are
visionary,” says Henriquez.
January ITRC report described how resilient people are better able to make
sustainable lifestyle changes that will lessen their carbon footprint. The ITRC
characterizes this brand of resilience as “transformational” because it turns a
challenge into an opportunity, and makes people feel empowered rather than helpless.
we don’t change our minds, the physicality of our world won’t change,” says
Nagano. Henriquez believes surviving climate change will take the whole village
— “from the ingenuity and creativity of youth, to the knowledge and experience
of adults and elders, to the wisdom and traditions of our ancestors.”
the Mycelium workshop day, Henriquez sat amongst the youth. She listened to the
educators and piped in occasionally, but mostly watched the workshop unfold.
She had no need to assume center stage because she had already done her part:
organizing the network to support the next generation of collective leadership.
youth should be the leaders!” Henriquez exclaims. “They open us all up to the
possibility of the impossible. Within Indigenous circles, we often say, we are
our ancestors’ wildest dreams. No one embodies that more than youth.”
Audrey Brown is an independent writer based in the Bay Area who works at the intersection of environment, culture, social equity, food, art and climate. She covers environmental climate justice issues for Estuary, among other topics.