STORY #15: Environmental Leadership Pillar

“Our young people are not just the leaders of the future, they are the leaders of today. We hope that through this pillar they build personal relationships with the planet and an understanding of the interdependence between the health of the planet and the health of our communities.”

Photo Credit: FBL Youth Helena Bello

OCU’s fifth pillar is Environmental Leadership. Our approach to youth empowerment and breaking cycles of violence wouldn’t be holistic without honoring the intersection of social justice and the Earth. Without the protection of our planet, the social changes that are coming, that need to be made, will not last long. We must work to inspire our youth to become stewards of nature in order to protect the Earth so that its inhabitants can be positively impacted by their critical thinking, decision-making, and learning to take action.

Long-term, this pillar offers the youth context to the world around them. As a result of colonization, disconnection, and abuse, the Earth is entering a climate crisis that the young people on the planet are inherently inheriting. Undoubtedly, this crisis will disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color. However, by building a personal connection with our planet, an understanding of how the planet works, and their relationship to the earth, students will be better prepared.

The OCU/FBL program curriculum has an entire section centered around Earth awareness, environmental justice, and environmental stewardship. By design, all food provided throughout the school year is vegetarian. This shock to what they’re used to (generally speaking, meat consuming habits) is explained by a conscious choice made by the organization to not only reduce our environmental footprint but raise awareness around food production, animal welfare rights, and the power behind healthy eating. Moreover, FBL builds upon these lessons throughout the school year and sharpens them through nature-focused field trips, often to the Anacostia River during the summer. Here, students spend the week immersed in green-space learning; about nature as a natural healer and the transformative power of the Earth. Many of our students spend most of their upbringing in an urban setting, once they experience how nature provides an opportunity for playful exploration, often a kind of healing happens that is necessary for growth. 

Every summer, OCU takes the FLY BY LIGHT students on nature immersion retreats and the first three days are always tough. Students are usually uncomfortable and pretty freaked out by the new space and bugs. However, by the time day three rolls around, the energy completely shifts, as if the entire group has just exhaled. It’s amazing to be able to witness this transformation and see our youth have this experience first-hand. Students begin to curiously explore, their energy levels even out, they begin to play in nature, and overall become quite joyful. It wasn’t until I attended the SHIFT conference in Wyoming that I discovered this is a scientifically proven phenomenon. When you are in green space for three or more days, your brain literally resets. This is what the OCU/FBL team of facilitators and I have observed for years.

Post retreat, students then begin to express a deep kinship with the Earth. They start to spend intentional time in green spaces and make Earth-conscious decisions, such as becoming vegetarian, campaigning for reusable water bottles, or even requesting additional time outdoors. Our returning students eagerly await the retreat each year. I have never seen so many youth return paperwork so quickly!

Many people in modern society have been disconnected from Mama Earth, but these young people are our leaders. They are our greatest hope for our future on this planet which is why they need to be equipped with all the skills. This generation is what gives me hope, that we can do right by the Earth and all its inhabitants.

– Madison McCoy

OCU’s Program Associate, Madison McCoy, is an activist, healer, organizer, lifelong learner, peacemaker, and connector. She is deeply passionate about creating and supporting spaces that celebrate and empower our youth. She believes that we each have a light inside of us, and once harnessed, it can move mountains & transform communities.


In celebrating OCU’s #20Stories20Years we’re highlighting two Fly By Light youth that exemplify each pillar: Artistic Expression, Social-Emotional Learning, Health and Wellness, Environmental Stewardship, and Social Justice. Our featured youth for ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP are AYOTUNDE and HELEN.

“Fly By Light’s ENVIRONMENTAL LEADERSHIP pillar allows for students to deepen their connection to nature and develop a profound awareness of the interconnectedness between the environment and social justice. Ultimately, our participants emerge as passionate stewards of the environment.”

Ayotunde –

Ayotunde is 15 years old and originally from Nigeria, West Africa – but now he lives in Washington D.C. He attends Phelps High School and hopes to attend college or better. Specifically, he would like to go to Preston and from there, gain work experience alongside SpaceX!

Ayotunde was introduced to Fly By Light as the kind of place where he could speak his mind and take part in important community conversations. He expressed liking what he learned and feeling like he could fit in. Here he gets to talk about problems that are affecting the state and the country, as well as ways in which he can work to improve conditions. The program has taught Ayotunde to speak out when he experiences different problems and ways in which he can work to fix them. He usually never takes the easy route, he likes to attack the problem at its source. 

Ayotunde says, “ I feel that global warming is affecting a bunch of people right now and they don’t even realize it. I think people don’t really care about it right now and seem to act like it’s not a huge problem. However, within the next couple of decades, I fear kids will not have any safe spaces to live in, if this problem doesn’t get addressed properly. I  know we shouldn’t take this problem lightly because we won’t have any clean drinking water. Look how this occurred in South Africa two years ago. I also believe that COVID definitely affected the environment because a lot less waste was going into the ocean and the rivers, but that was short-lived since everything has started to open back up again. For a while though, I noticed how the pandemic stopped people from going out, which seemed to help our environment a little.”

Ayotunde contributes to helping the environment by recycling at school and at home. He is a firm believer that everyone needs to do their part and get involved in order to make a difference, even if it’s something as simple as picking up trash in your area. That’s why he is grateful to have a program like FBL at his school because without it, he doesn’t think he would have cared about this movement or even known about different environmental consequences. He states how back in middle school he didn’t really know what climate change meant or how it affected us. However, after Fly By Light came to his school, he began to do more research and observe the ways in which people could help protect the planet. Ultimately, Ayontunde hopes other students can start doing little things that make a big difference, such as picking up plastic from the ocean or encouraging schools to start installing solar panels.

“Ayotunde was so inspired and encouraged by the environmental stewardship section of the program that he created and submitted a digital climate change video for the 2020 Summer Showcase soundtrack. Before the close of the program we asked the youth what they looked forward to as a rising freshman, Ayotunde shared: ‘I look forward to making friends, hopefully, the teachers are nice, and hopefully, I understand what the teachers are teaching. I want to do my best. Also, I want to be in a good and healthy environment.’”

– Johnee, FBL Facilitator


Helena is deeply committed to celebrating and protecting the earth. She has consistently grown in her awareness and involvement in Environmental Leadership throughout the years and has big plans to dedicate her life to protecting wildlife and the earth.”

– Madison

Helena Bello is a 17-year-old from Washington DC. She is a junior at School Without Walls High School and got involved with One Common Unity through [Fly By Light program facilitator] Tyler Grigsby who was her photography teacher in 6th grade. They stayed connected and she even attended a photography camp with Tyler over the summer. When Helena started high school, she saw the fliers for Fly By Light and instantly remembered the assembly she witnessed in middle school, which she always found very interesting. She then joined the program and still thoroughly enjoys the group a lot, she feels she has gotten to know everyone really well, even via zoom. Helena also states how everyone still feels comfortable saying what they want and how they feel. 

Through Fly By Light, Helena has learned a lot about people, their beliefs/interests, as well as what they stand up for – which she loves hearing about. She states how this helps with representation since every student matters, not just her and her own perspectives. Helena appreciated being nominated to talk about Environmental Leadership because it reminds her to take action and appreciate the environment right now since things might change down the road. She has always loved nature but understands there’s an urgency in fighting to protect it right now. She believes that we can get more young people to care about the environment by actually getting them out IN nature, this is how you learn to love it. In schools, she states how climate change is not really something that is taught but definitely should be. For example, in Helena’s middle school she joined a gardening club which is where she started growing vegetables and learning where plants grow as well as how to cultivate them.

In the long run, Helena hopes to spend her life in nature working with animals. She could see herself giving advice to large corporations to lessen their impact on the environment, or maybe becoming a park ranger to help out with the wildlife in her area. For now, she is focused on applying to college and studying wildlife biology as her major, since she’s always loved animals. All in all, she feels that nature is an essential part of her life, something we should all be enjoying & working to preserve since future generations might not be able to experience it to the fullest.

Photo Credit: FBL Youth Helena Bello

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