Every Friday, Madeline Kiser passes out hand-written letters to a circle of teens.
Discussion ensues; thoughts are provoked and opinions given, all in hopes of cultivating the next leaders of environmental action and food justice in Tucson’s low-income neighborhoods. These youths are engaged in raising awareness for sustainable employment opportunities, especially for those living in vulnerable areas.
And what’s more, these future leaders are coming directly from the Pima County Juvenile and Adult Detention Centers.
Kiser created the Inside/Out program in 2003 as a way to immerse adults and teens in a variety of community conversations. Kiser’s meetings function as informal discussion groups, in which participants from the Pima County Jail exchange letters with teens from the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center on a number of issues including empathy and leadership. The letters function as conversation starters, where kids can express their beliefs and broaden their horizons in preparation for re-entry and life in general. Recently, Kiser has brought environmental concerns like climate change to the table.
And when the national environmental advocacy organization Green for All chose Tucson as one of its campaign cities for environmental and social justice issues, Kiser’s Inside/Out youths became part of a much bigger dialogue.
As part of the Southern Arizona Green for All Coalition, Kiser’s kids are tackling the issue of food justice and sustainability, a topic of utmost importance in Baja Arizona. After attending a food and finance forum in January, Kiser began facilitating dialogues about eating healthy and buying food locally.
“Young people in low income neighborhoods are really driving that conversation,” says Kiser regarding Green for All’s missions against poverty through green employment. The former environmental journalist stresses that kids from these backgrounds are just the kind of unique leadership needed to push for and initiate change within Tucson’s barrios.
As part of the discussion, she targeted a popular but highly processed snack–Takis–as a possible source of mobilization.
“It came out that a lot of kids were spending between 30 to 50 dollars a month on Takis alone,” said Kiser. And with just a thousand of those teens taking that 50 dollars and spending it on a local alternative, what would that fifty thousand dollars look like in support of a local chef? Or perhaps a local refugee agency? Of even greater relevance to these kids, how could the creation of a local alternative to Takis, from production to advertising, create new jobs for hundreds of people with barriers to employment?
True to Inside/Out tradition, the kids used letters to call for help. One young lobbyist wrote: “I’m writing you this because I know Takis are bad…and with your help and our ideas, I think we can make a snack as good as Takis and make a healthier community.” Other teens had personal stories of adverse health effects brought by Takis, while some even included art work (a rendering of the “Monster Takis” being one illustration demonstrating particular skill and persuasion).
“The Takis really, for us, became a way to talk about local food and what that would mean,” said Kiser of her focus groups. “And [the kids] got, really, really excited about it.”
In addition to lobbying for a local, healthy alternative to processed snacks, these youths also correspond with other food justice and environmental action groups in the area, such as Tierra y Libertad and Sustainable Tucson.
At the end of the day, said Kiser, these young adults are assuming leadership roles not just to pave the way for accessible jobs, but for jobs that will contribute to their communities on a deeper level.
“These kids are much savvier than people may think. And they really care deeply about their neighborhoods and their families, and they want to…be part of something that’s healthy and true.”
To learn more about Green for All and it’s mission to create a green economy against poverty, visit their website. While you’re there, take a look at their recent campaign video featuring Tucson amongst their cities for change.
To offer your support of the Takis project, contact email@example.com.