By Joel Tolman, Director of Impact and Engagement at Common Ground


Janet Sakouvogui graduated from Common Ground High School – an environmentally themed charter high school in New Haven, Connecticut – poised for the next step. She was excited: about a small college that reminded her of Common Ground, an on-campus farm that promised an opportunity to re-connect with her childhood memories of an agricultural community in Africa, a chance to deepen her study of environmental issues, the big leap of living away from home.


But reality was different. Janet struggled to find her place as one of the only students of color on a small, rural college campus. She faced overt racism from students and members of the surrounding community, a faculty that did not include a single person of color, and a college administration that was slow to respond when she and peers challenged them to do better.


At the end of her freshman year, Janet decided to transfer to another college – but she left her mark before doing so:


“I realized my college was not built for students of color. I started thinking about other students of color, and how they felt. I could transfer, but they were stuck and couldn’t just leave because they couldn’t waste their parents’ money. That’s when I suggested starting a club called ROOTs, which is for anybody who calls themselves a student of color. After creating this group with three other students, I realized that I was a strong person. I realized that I am a natural leader, and I also realized that there isn’t anybody in this world that can break me down and make me hate my skin color.”


(Janet Sakouvogui, Common Ground High School ’15, transferred colleges after her first year — but not before she organized with other students to combat racism on her campus. source: Common Ground)


Janet’s story is an important reality check for educators at green schools. At Common Ground, our mission is to grow a new, more diverse generation of successful college students and powerful environmental leaders. Our students – about 70% young people of color, more than half of whom qualify for free and reduced price lunch – absolutely have what it takes to earn college diplomas, move along pathways to meaningful green (and non-green) careers, and become agents of change in their communities.


But talking with Janet reminds me that green schools – especially those that work with racially diverse, low-income, and first generation college students – need to see our work through different eyes:


“Common Ground tries to teach their students to be environmental leaders, and forgets that they are doing way more than that. They are helping their students to have a voice and to stand up in any situation and be a true leader. If it wasn’t for the leadership personality I learned from Common Ground, I wouldn’t be able to think about creating a group like ROOTs.”


Janet’s story is part of bigger patterns. This fall, I shot Facebook messages out to members of Janet’s graduating class of 2015. This was a pretty special class (admittedly, I would tend to say that of every one of our graduating classes). One thing that stood out: The class achieved a 100% high school graduation rate. In other words, every student who started as a freshman either graduated on time or successfully transferred to another school. Clearly, the young people who made up this class knew something about persistence, about finding their power.


I asked members of the class of 2015 for two things: a quick update on life after high school, and a reflection on part of their Common Ground experience that impacted their ability to succeed after high school. I was a little overwhelmed by what I got back:

  • Malik has been “balancing college and work planting trees with the New Haven Urban Resources Initiative, finding time to complete my studies while doing work that makes our community stronger.”
  • Elmer is already sharing lessons learned as a first generation college student with peers at his community college. “My team and I welcome current and new students into the college, helping to selecting their classes, etc.”
  • Brandon “took a supervisor role at Junzi Kitchen” – a local restaurant with a strong focus on healthy, sustainable food – “and I continue to grow in the company.” Omar “recently hosted a chef’s table for Junzi; I basically created a three course meal and served it to 30 customers.”
  • Dante spent the summer after freshman year “in China, conducting interviews about the migrant labor issue.” He got back in time “to protest the North Dakota access pipeline.”
  • As part of a college class, Grace “worked on habitat restoration, monitoring areas that we hoped Atlantic Salmon would return to, clipping fins to identify young captive breed salmon that would be released, and then getting to release the young into the wild.”
  • Right after graduation, Marcel “went to Wyoming for 30 days on a scholarship received from The Nature Conservancy, where I backpacked through the Wind River Range. Then, this summer, I worked with the Appalachian Mountain Club’s crew at Lonesome Lake Hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.” Now, he is back in New Haven, working at Common Ground while taking college courses.


(Marcel Aguirre ’15 explored the Wind River Range in Wyoming, thanks to a scholarship from The Nature Conservancy. source: Common Ground)


These stories are exactly what Common Ground hopes for our graduates: Alumni growing into more powerful environmental leaders and community change-makers. Young people finding their passions, and blazing paths to pursue them. Students – many of them the first in their family to go to college – figuring out how to succeed in higher education and careers.


At the same time, Janet certainly was not the only one of these students who hit roadblocks on their path through college. Many green school grads take routes that involve detours, resetting the GPS after a wrong turn, deciding their original destination was not the right one after all. And much of the time, especially for young people who face systemic barriers to college success, there is no clear road to travel, or one that involves so many potholes it is almost impassible. These students have to create a new way, and need our help to do so.


When our green school graduates struggle, we have to ask ourselves: what can we do to help? Sometimes, it feels like the future of our alumni is out of our hands, and more than a little tenuous. Some of that is natural — we need to let students define their own direction, make their own way. But they also should not have to go it alone.


So, what can green schools do to support college success? The members of Common Ground’s class of 2015 have some wisdom to share:


Green schools can help students explore and find their passions for environmental fields – so that when they face obstacles, they can keep their eyes on the prize. Jesus is studying conservation and marine biology “in a rural back country town in Maine, where minorities are far and few between. I’ve been managing my own finances, I’ve been volunteering more and more trying to further progress down my career path, already spent countless hours up at night trying to balance hard work and leisure.” What helps him stick with it in the midst of these challenges? While at Common Ground, Jesus interned with The Nature Conservancy and job shadowed with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. He built and defended a portfolio that showed his growth as an environmental leader, and lived in the woods of North Dakota for a summer. Through experiences like these, Jesus says that “Common Ground had taught me to step out my comfort zone, and really apply my whole being to what I’m doing in that moment while still staying focused and grounded with everything else going on around me. I’d begun to really develop and realize my passions in high school, and college has given me the chance to fully pursuit them.”


(Jesus Reyes ’15 is studying conservation and biology at University of Maine at Machias. source: Common Ground)


Green schools can build students’ capacity to recognize systems and interconnections – and broaden their definitions of “green careers” to include anything that requires big picture thinking and a commitment to sustainable change. Elmer is contemplating studying criminal justice – not a traditional environmental field – but is still grateful to have gone to an environmental high school, where the connections between things were always front and center. “I do believe that a lot of the learning that took place at Common Ground really accelerated my holistic view of the world. I always like to refer back to critical thinking classes like Sustainable Design or AP Language and Composition, but also in my time at Green Jobs Corps as a fantastic learning experience.”


Green schools can challenge students to do college-level work in high school. Meghan, a full-time college student, is grateful to have been pushed beyond what she thought was possible in high school – in classes like Environmental History, where she tackled environmental texts by authors from Thoreau to Alice Walker to Cesar Chavez, as well as in Advanced Placement courses. “One thing that helped support me after high school would have to be the AP Language and Composition class. Having that class kicked my butt in high school, but it sure did teach me how to write at a college level. And not only that, but to make an impression with my writing. It gave me a good, strong foundation. Now, college writing classes are easy.”


Green schools can cultivate the mindsets that will help students succeed after graduation: critical thinking, flexibility, and the capacity to connect with people with different worldviews. Marcel explains that “one of the biggest things that I learned and practice from CG is to explore ideas and take lead or follow in any situation. Some of this evolved into connecting to people (some of which happen to lead to jobs and new experiences), teach others to turn mistakes into lessons or an experiment (situation dependent), even debate with people on complex or controversial topics (sometimes with religion being involved) while not losing self control and seeing the other viewpoints.”


Green schools’ work is not over when students graduate. Our schools need to seek out and build relationships with colleges that will support our student’s growth as environmental leaders, share environmental internship opportunities that will let students make money and explore environmental careers, and be there for students when they need us. Brandon – who just cooked up an amazing pop-up menu at the restaurant where he works – knows he can keep looking to Common Ground for support. “As we speak, Mr. Kelahan (Common Ground’s college counselor) and I are planning on meeting so I can get more information about culinary classes. I’ve been interested for a while, and he told me to come in and he will help me out. This helped me because with certifications, I can get higher positions and/or pay raises.”


All this is important. But Janet’s story reveals one of the most important lessons: If we want the next generation of environmental leaders and successful college students to reflect our nation’s racial and economic diversity, we need to be honest about the systemic barriers that young people from marginalized communities will face after graduation – and help students dismantle these barriers. Janet and other students have to make nearly impossible choices about whether to try to change institutions that do not welcome them or find safer, more supportive spaces. This is particularly challenging for students who want to pursue environmental careers – fields that are traditionally overwhelmingly white, and where the “green ceiling” is well documented. As a white male, I cannot imagine what that is like. But I can connect my students with mentors who have navigated similar situations, and use the privilege I do have to help them navigate these spaces. And we can help students build the system analysis capacity, organizing skills, and self-awareness that will help them create the world they deserve.


Most important, I can keep on listening to my students – and finding green schools allies (like you?) who are ready to step up to help them persist and find their power.


About the Author

Joel Tolman is Director of Impact and Engagement at Common Ground — a high school, urban farm, and environmental education center in New Haven, Connecticut. Joel came to Common Ground as a classroom teacher in 2003 after five years of work on national school change and youth leadership development initiatives. In Joel’s classes, students explored and documented New Haven’s neighborhoods, monitored urban air quality, created bilingual oral histories of community elders, secured start-up funding for small social ventures, and presented policy proposals to state legislators. Since moving out of the classroom, Joel has helped to lead Common Ground’s school-wide environmental leadership strategy, led Common Ground’s fundraising and community outreach work, and directed work related to evaluation, strategy, and community engagement. He is also project director of Teaching Our Cities, a growing network of urban public high schools that take the urban environment as their organizing focus. You can reach Joel at